Archive for November, 2012

I recently ran across a quote from American educator and youth rights advocate John Holt: “The main effect of the drive for so-called higher standards in schools is that the children are too busy to think.” The quote gave me pause in its stark contrast to another quote that I keep on a card in my lesson plan folder. “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” Socrates said this 2500 years ago.

For the third year in a row Eugene Public Schools did not meet required goals as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Forty-eight percent of the nation’s public schools also did not achieve adequate yearly progress in 2011, the highest percentage since NCLB took effect in 2002. Because of increased concern regarding school’s failure to meet adequate yearly progress, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the decision to offer flexibility on certain No Child Left Behind requirements to states which would otherwise have failed to make student proficiency goals.

I’ve been teaching middle school for seven years in a public charter school in Oregon. One thing that I’ve come to believe during this time is that few things stand more solidly in the way of imparting a meaningful education to the children in my class than the present system of curriculum standards. Unfortunately education reformists in the United States government are determined to create more and more uniform “high standards” across the nation.

With the shift toward George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind in 2002, curriculums across the nation became more focused on math and language arts proficiency as was defined by “standards-based education reform.” The trend didn’t end with George Bush. In 2009 the Obama administration launched the Race to the Top, an education reform plan that Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch called “an aggressive version of Bush’s No Child Left Behind.” The Race to the Top offered cash incentives in the tens and hundreds of millions to states that adopted Common Core Standards designed to “ensure that all students are college and career ready in literacy and mathematics no later than the end of high school.” The Race to the Top was a program meant to spur reform by inducing the states to compete with one another over which could make their education program most attractive to the federal government by making a plan for reform, improving teacher performance, adopting the Common Core Standards, promising to turn around low performing schools.

What the Race to the Top amounted to in reality was a competition in which the states were pitted against one another to win government funds, as if they were performers in some sort of perverse reality show in which the outcome was deciding whether or not our children have the money for a quality and meaningful education. The amount that the 50 states were competing for? Phase one winners received $20-$75 million dollars and phase two winners could receive $350-$700 million, the total final sum of which added up to $4.35 billion dollars. The final end product? For the first time in the history of standards-based education, forty-eight states adopted common standards.

In 1965, when the first plans for education reform were born, the writer’s specifically made rules against the government having any control over directing elementary or secondary school curriculum, specifying in particular national standards. Why would they do this? Because they knew that different people have different needs, ability, and starting places. Therefore, they need different measure for success. We sold our individuality to our own government for a shot at a few million dollars. How much did Oregon come away with? Nothing. We didn’t win the competition. And now we–children, teachers, and administrators–face even more stringent (read impossible) standards than ever before.

What would Socrates think of an education system that forces teachers to treat every child as if they were exactly the same? What would he think about the death of creativity in teaching?


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