As our government works to build democracy abroad and restore the economy at
home, we must not ignore the recently approved changes to American education.
The passage of the “No Child Left Behind” education reform bill signifies both
the largest-ever overhaul of the federal role in education, and the largest
increase in federal school funding. Most significantly, this bill’s acceptance
represents our society’s changing view of the purpose of education.
Policy-makers have come to an agreement in this bill: we go to school so that
we can get a job. Public education is now largely evaluated by its utility to
the private sector. This new legislation seems to codify corporate-education;
what we really need to do is challenge it.
The core belief behind this bill is that all American children, even those in
poor, under-funded schools, can succeed academically if government money on
schools is spent efficiently. The belief that all children can succeed
academically is a recent addition to American social thought. At the country’s
founding, education was perceived as a privilege reserved for the upper
classes. The idea of providing education to the poor was an unpopular one. But
education’s power was never underestimated or undervalued by have-nots.
Ex-slaves and immigrants struggled to create educational opportunities for
their children, seeing schooling as central to climbing society’s ladder.
After the Civil War and in the early twentieth century Americans’ views of the
purpose of schooling changed. Schools became a means of social control and
assimilation, where immigrant children were turned into true patriots.
Scholars of the time, such as Horace Mann, sought to modify this idea. They
saw education not only as an assimilator, but as an equalizer of economic and
social opportunity. It was hoped that publicly funded “common schools” would
be places where all Americans, even the poor, could succeed and create a happy
Since the time of Mann, however, our vision of the purpose of education has
changed to a view with strictly economic ends. With an economy increasingly
reliant on technological advancement, “basic skills” are required of every
would-be worker in the country. This view is in dire need of re-examination.
Schools already are responsible for the teaching of everything from cooking to
automobile operation, not to mention academics. Nevertheless, more than any
reform law before it, the newest changes to schools will require that they
ensure and maintain a labor supply with at least minimum competency in reading
and mathematics, as evidenced by tests. This change came not at the request of
parents or teachers, who already feel over-tested in many cases, but largely
from corporate lobbyists promoting the use of standardized tests as a way to
ensure future labor. Testing and text book companies have agreed, adding their
support to the testing lobby. New tests require new curricula, and new
curricula require new books. Never mind promises of local control, President
Bush’s mandate of “scientifically based teaching methods” might end up
translating to “use this book from this company.” Let the profits roll in.
Many educators and activists have fought for improved access to education,
desegregation, better teachers and resources, and funding increases for years.
Few individuals would have thought that the most significant federal changes
to public schooling would come in this form. It is sad that calls for renewed
attention to public education by teachers, parents and academics could not
awaken a response in our public officials the way the financial muscle of the
corporate voice did. Beware: the education of America’s children is not safe
from the American corporate-political machine.
Most troubling of all is the façade of equity accompanying the new education
laws. The philosophy is this: if you introduce evaluation and accountability
into the system, everyone who has been too lazy thus far to care will be
forced to. This free-market principle is a bad rule to use when making
education policy. But our newest education laws are informed more by
businessmen than by sociologists, economists, or even cognitive psychologists.
As a result, these laws are flawed in their understanding of schools, the
needs of teachers, and the way children learn. Worst of all, nothing in the
new legislation, or in other recent federal policies, addresses larger social
problems. Child poverty has long been held the greatest determinant of school
success and failure, yet policy-makers continually ignore its violence on
youth. Changing the operations of schools is important, but what about Head
Start, free day care for all, and universal child health care and nutrition?
Our understanding of education’s purpose is missing the point, leading us
into bad policymaking. Schools can fight social inequality, but as long as
larger social problems are unaddressed, the status quo of school success and
failure will remain. A new approach to education is needed. We should value
the beauty of youth and creativity of children, and learn to see children as
talented and creative individuals, not pawns of the corporate world. In a
democratic society, education should serve the needs of the individual,
helping her to maximize her potential and develop her creative, artistic, and
aesthetic capabilities. Education ought not simply prepare the student to
become a worker. It must help the student train himself to think, to be
resourceful, and to love learning. We ought to teach students how to live in a
changing world, how to adapt to it, and most importantly, how to change it.
The focus of all education ought to be critical thought and civic
Ending the economically-driven vision of education reform ought to be a
priority among progressives. We must realize that we cannot have excellence in
our schools until we have equity. As long as some schools are completely
under-funded and under-resourced while others schools are wealthy, the
condition of all public education is unacceptable. If we hope to create school
success, we must empower the marginalized by improving their lives, not by
giving them a test.
Adam Johnson is a graduate student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.