My friend Paul Schindler (whose blog is cited below) has left the technology publishing business to do what he’s long threatened: get his California teaching ticket and become a high-school math teacher. He’ll be terrific at it.
The current issue of his weblog contains, down at the bottom, a long-ish e-mail from a friend regarding public education and what it’s good for. The correspondent, Peggy Coquet (a wonderful name, that), echos the views of the author Neil Postman, in his book The End of Education. Coquet talks about the twin roles of schools: the training of children to be citizens, and the training of children to be economic units. Postman argues that the pendulum has swung far to the second view, as business has become ever ascendent in our society.
Not surprising, really. It’s fairly easy to measure an economic unit. You spend X dollars per student and test the output. If the output score is sub-par per dollar spent, there’s something wrong with the process. Fixing a process is made easier by reducing the process to standard set of steps, each of which can be examined and tested. Of course it works: there are more McDonalds than four-star restaurants, and more people can go to them, besides. Isn’t that good?
A friend of mine used to work for AT&T. They used to say, “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” The corollary is “if you don’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” The base assumption is that everything can be measured, which is fine if you’re worried about the reliability of a telephone network. It’s less fine if you want children who are capable of running their own town, nation, and world.
Of course everything can’t be measured. It’s hard to measure the key things that demonstrate success in a citizenship oriented school. It’s hard to measure critical thinking, creativity, social involvment. It’s hard to teach them. Simpler and more reliable to produce economic units trained to perform to a test. Five onions on the burger, and 2 ounces of ketchup. Salsa is outside the box.
Lord knows that kids need to know how to add, and spell, and show up on time, and sit still in their seats. But even if schools were doing a good job of that, it would only be the start. It’s what comes after that that’s important. A citizen unit is more than an economic unit — harder to teach, harder to live with, and vastly more powerful and subversive.
I have two five-month-old boys, and I live in an affluent neighborhood with one crappy public school and five excellent and expensive private schools. This subject is not only not closed, it’s barely open.