Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

Every Student Succeeds—By Whose Definition?

mechanic

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ome time ago, while channel surfing, a family member settled on a show about restoring old cars. At one point in the show, the mechanic was painstakingly boring out an engine part to increase the air intake to the newly installed turbocharger. He'd remove an infinitesimal bit of metal, then measure with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker. He repeated the process again and again until he was satisfied. As I watched both his meticulous work and the obvious enjoyment he got from achieving the perfect measurement, several things crossed my mind.

I found myself wondering how this gentleman, who was being paid an impressive amount of money for his skill and expertise, would have fared on one of the "high-stakes" exit exams required for high school graduation in many U.S. schools. Could he have correctly identified examples of personification in a story? Could he have correctly identified the graph representing the equation -3x + 4y = -12? Could he have correctly identified the factors leading to Japanese feudal society? For that matter, would he have been able to identify the scientific principle explaining why the diameter of that part was so important?

If we believe what federal educational policy makers tell us, one's score on such exams predicts how "successful" one will be. That success is currently defined by one's test scores, the college one attended, and whether one is employed in a prestigious profession and work in a corner office with a view! Is it possible that our mechanic friend only chose his profession because he didn't have the mental wherewithal to be 'successful' in a more demanding field? If so, he sure lucked out because, for that one job, he was earning as much as many teachers make in a year!

What might standards look like if they were written by people who choose to be mechanics, farmers, store clerks, truck drivers, carpenters, cooks, or any of the hundreds of vital roles in society? Or by people who enrich our lives with their books, music, dance, poetry, or art? In other words, people who have chosen roles that are largely ignored in the obsession with "academic achievement" in public schools. Would they even believe that standards were necessary? That everyone needs to "know and be able to do" the same things?

While our leaders mouth platitudes about providing equal educational opportunity for all regardless of race, culture, or socioeconomic status, I'd suggest that many of them rest easy in their belief that some (namely people like them) are, and will always be, "more equal than others." And that those "other people" will still be available to do the tasks they can't, or don't want to, do.

They demand that schools and teachers provide all students with "equal access"—meaning the same access to the same standardized educational opportunities, regardless of cultural values, genetic makeup, emotional and psychological needs, or interests. At the same time, they continue to promote policies that have historically been used to maintain the status quo, and assessments that are biased against people who aren't verbal-linguistic learners.

The Definition of Success

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recent article in a major educational publication supported the present standards as necessary to ensure that are "ready" for college/university—in other words, they are "ready" to pass the ACT or SAT and achieve the grade point average that institutions of higher education require for admission. The author flatly stated that depriving every student of this opportunity was patently unfair because a university degree insured a higher income level and standard of living. (Oh, really?) That all sounds very noble, but it assumes 1.) that there is only one path to "success"; and 2.) that all students (and their parents) share the same goals—define success in the same way.

According to the dictionary, success is defined as "the accomplishment of an aim or purpose." Yet, over time, many people in society have been led to believe that "real" success is only achieved through wealth, status, and a white-collar profession. What if every student bought into this extremely limited and culturally biased definition of "success" that we are told everyone should want? What if every student aced every test in every academic subject, graduated from a top-ten university, and went on to pursue the "American Dream"—as defined by the small segment of society that sets itself up as arbiter of the success or failure of others?

What if every student accepted the elitist myth that blue-collar jobs, farming, becoming an artist or musician, or working in service industries are not what anyone would really "want" to do, but rather signs that they "couldn't cut it" in truly "successful" fields of endeavor? On one hand, we tell students that they can do or be anything they want if they are willing to work for it. But on the other, there is a clear message about what the educational elite consider really important—what jobs are really more valuable to confer the aura of success. "What do you mean, you want to be a plumber? Wouldn't you rather be a civil engineer?" But think about it…do they really expect everyone to reach that goal? Or do they rest easy knowing that their extremely limited, and limiting, definition of success ensures that there will always be a "working class" to serve their needs?

Every Student Succeeds

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hatever you think about their ability in other areas, the U.S. Department of Education is a master of glittering generalities. For those who may have missed or forgotten their lessons on propaganda, a glittering generality is "an emotionally appealing phrase that is closely associated with highly valued concepts and beliefs, thus attracting general approval without supporting information or reason."

In 2001, it was "No Child Left Behind"—deliberately evoking images of sad, abandoned children. Surely no one could argue against a program that would leave no child behind! And yet, since NCLB, the so-called "achievement" gap has grown—leaving more and more children (of poverty) behind.

Race to the Top

In 2010, without changing the failed and destructive mandates of NCLB in any meaningful way, the name was changed to "Race to the Top!" Now, instead of leaving no child behind, it was a flat out race (competition) to see who could get to the top first. Who doesn't love winning a race? But do we really want winners and losers in the education of our children? And yet again, the elephant in the room (poverty) was ignored.

Happy Girl with Books

And now, with great fanfare, Congress has passed a "new and improved" version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This time it is named Every Student Succeeds. Another glittering generality that elicits agreement without supporting information or reason. Success is still defined in the same elitist way, producing little or no change in the educational process.

The current system provides only one path to "success"—the one-size-fits-all path of standardization whose primary achievement is its ability to maintain and strengthen social classes. What will it take for Americans to reclaim their right to define success for themselves…and to demand that public education provide the tools necessary for every child to reach those self-defined goals? Why should the tax-paying public support a system that strips away their choices? Is that reasonable?

Or have we become so accustomed to someone telling us what, when, and how to think that we no longer recognize the extent to which we have been led down the slippery slope of conformity? Just asking…


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