20.11.13

WHY IT MATTERS.

Erika Sanchez discovers that a resource-starved high school in a downwardly mobile community can do the right thing, without apology.
My high school, which is located in a working class Latino suburb bordering Chicago, was overpopulated, underfunded, and in my opinion, incredibly stifling. Needless to say, I resented going there. I felt we were disenfranchised and were not given the same opportunities that affluent schools provided their students.

I should have realized how lucky I really was when I was in college, however. Unlike many of my classmates, I cranked out papers with little difficulty because I knew how to synthesize information and formulate an argument. Writing a thesis statement was a freaking breeze. But at the time I had no idea that these skills were a luxury.

It wasn't until I reunited with my teacher that I realized I actually received a decent education compared to many students today. I had several talented and passionate teachers who had not been entirely bogged down by a bunch of inane educational requirements. No Child Left Behind hadn't completely ruined our already failing education system. My teachers taught me how to analyze and question texts and write thesis statements. I was taught the symbolism of the Mississippi River in Huckleberry Finn. I was taken on after school field trips to movies, poetry readings, and plays. Some of them even encouraged me to question authority. If it weren't for some of these teachers, I never would have become a writer.

But that has all changed now. According to my teacher, budget cuts have made field trips nearly impossible. Not only that, teachers are now so bogged down by administrative nonsense and standardized testing requirements, that it's very difficult to teach children anything but the rote memorization of information. I hear complaints like these all the time from my friends and family members who are teachers. While they are passionate about what they do, they are not given the agency or resources to flourish and engage their students in higher levels of discourse.

One of my family members is a teacher at our former high school and he is frequently exasperated by the efforts devoted to standardized testing.
All of those efforts, simply demonstrating that No Child Gets Ahead is the dual proposition to No Child Left Behind. When those children turn up in college as young adults, it's clear that All Children Have Been Left Behind.
Whether it be No Child Left Behind or Common Core, the problem lies in manufactured learning. In teaching English at the university level, I have noticed that students are often ill prepared for the demands of higher education. Students who are used to multiple choice tests lack the skills and the confidence to formulate their own complex opinions and interpretations. It is irresponsible to have these students graduate without the proper skills to succeed.

Rigid curriculums that focus on right and wrong answers teach children to see the world in binaries. These methods don't encourage creativity or innovation. I fear that our deeply flawed education system will produce generations of people who lack critical thinking skills. How can students be expected to become highly skilled or passionate about anything when they're asked to simply regurgitate information? What kind of choices will they make in their adult lives when they have never been taught how to look at the nuances and complexities of situations? Who will have the tools to question authority? Who will question the status quo? How will we compete with other countries when our younger generations have not been encouraged to develop their inquisitiveness and engage with the world?

I fear that our system is failing children by encouraging them to be mindless consumers. High tests scores do not make someone well-educated or well-rounded and memorizing facts does not equal intelligence. Public education should not be a commodity, but a foundation for children to at least have the possibility of succeeding in the world.
The economist in me notes that any decision to allocate resources, and any social interaction that involves incentives, leads us into commodity space.  Thus, the same argument might be phrased as "Public education fails to deliver the foundation from which children can build success in the world."  I note, also, that children can acquire the behavior of "mindless consumers" by observing.  To the extent that the common schools enable mindless behavior (Wikipedia!  Search engines! Databases!  Sports!) they undermine those foundations.  But saying No and enforcing standards is hard work.

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