Our Phony Education

In 2008 Jonathan Rowe testfied about the insanity created by the Gross Domestic Product coming to stand in for the economy.  I quote him at length: 

“That term “the economy”: what it means, in practice, is the Gross Domestic Product–a big statistical pot that includes all the money spent in a given period of time. If the pot is bigger than it was the previous quarter, or year, then you cheer. If it isn’t bigger, or bigger enough, then you call Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke up here and ask him to do some explaining. The what of the economy makes no difference in these councils. It never seems to come up. The money in the big pot could be going to cancer treatments or casinos, violent video games or usurious credit-card rates.”

Replace GDP with test scores and you pretty much have a picture of the state of affairs in public schooling today.  The what of test scores make no difference, so long as the scores go up.  Crippling test prepping, erasergate cheating, teaching to the test, they are all a response to the need to get the the GDP of schooling to move in the right direction.  As anyone who has spent any time in a public school in the last two months (or ten years) surely knows, the purpose of public schooling is to do well on the tests- by any means necessary. 

Let me return to Rowe, who had this to say about the real purpose of the economy: 

“The purpose of an economy is to meet human needs in such a way that life becomes in some respect richer and better in the process. It is not simply to produce a lot of stuff. Stuff is a means, not an end. Yet current modes of economic measurement focus almost entirely on means. For example, an automobile is productive if it produces transportation. But today we look only at the cars produced per hour worked. More cars can mean more traffic and therefore a transportation system that is less productive. The medical system is the same. The aim should be healthy people, not the sale of more medical services and drugs. Now, however, we assess the economic contribution of the medical system on the basis of treatments rather than results. Economists see nothing wrong with this. They see no problem that the medical system is expected to produce 30 to 40 percent of new jobs over the next thirty years. “We have to spend our money on something,” shrugged a Stanford economist to the New York Times. This is more insanity. Next we will be hearing about “disease-led recovery.” To stimulate the economy we will have to encourage people to be sick so that the economy can be well.”

Schooling today is no different. We blindly accept test scores as an indicator of the health of a school, when in reality there could be little real or authentic learning going on inside.  The students could be miserable, and for that matter the teachers too.  The school could be nothing more than a sweatshop for the production of test scores- cheap knockoffs for real learning- which then get sold by those higher up as an indicator of success, their success. 

We know the current testing regime is crushing learning in our schools.  We know this because teachers and students tell us.  I know becuase my daughter comes home with worksheets called “The mad minute” that count how many math problems she can do in sixty seconds. Math grouping in her school is based on how fast kids can do math, which matters when students take timed tests.  Time has become the disease in our schools, a madness produced by everyone trying to beat the clock.   We live in a disease-led reform, a hurry up and learn approach that crowds out and kills reflection, questions and the truth that learning is not a race but rather an inalienable right.

I most lament that fact that there is little light at the end of the testopoly tunnel.  This plague has pushed its way into every corner of our schools and national imagination to the point where it is hard to see an alternative.  And as we have learned the hard way here at the Workshop, any alternative must still promise to raise test scores. 

What if we came up with a better tool for understanding life and learning in schools? What if it focused on student and teacher well-being, thier ability to think and act in the world, to understand themselves as part of a community, to reflect and expand their capabilities to do and be in the world.  To be citizens.  What would this tool look like?  This is the task we are taking up at the Workshop, the creation of a method for understanding learning wtih the goal of enhancing and deepening it.  Tests will be taken, but not taken as the whole.  They will be means instead of ends, pieces of the messy puzzle of democratic learning that will never be complete because it is unfolding, alive, and if nurtured, healthy.