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The goals of school reform are simple to state but excruciatingly difficult to enact: to provide every child with an experience that will nourish and challenge development, extend capacity, encourage growth, and offer the tools and dispositions necessary for full participation in the human community. Hannah Arendt once argued, "Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable … and where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world." That’s a lot–much of it dynamic and ever-changing, much of it intricately interdependent. Yet it is what we seek, the ideal of education in a democracy.
Today, there is no more insistent or more attractive distraction from that ideal than the "standards movement" that Deborah Meier takes on in her essay. Sadly, the "standards movement" is at its heart a fraud. It is in many instances demagoguery at its most depraved: bogus claims and pretend concern about a schools crisis draws energy and attention away from the substantive demands of school improvement toward a manufactured ill. Campaigning vigorously against an invented problem, standards advocates drown out more promising and progressive voices. A shrill and insistent message–simple and believable in its own right–subtly shifts responsibility away from the powerful, making scapegoats of the victims of power. The flotilla is a gaudy display, the drumbeat deafening, but it is all illusion: the "standards movement" is not a popular upheaval for positive or fundamental change–it is a deceptive crusade in the service of the status quo.
High academic standards (as well as social and community standards) are essential to good schools, of course, and such standards, in part, demonstrate a commitment to high expectations for all students. A watered-down curriculum, vague or meaningless goals, expectations of failure–these are a few of the ingredients of academic ruin. Standards exist, whether we are explicit about them or not, and standards of some sort are everywhere. I’m all for clarity of standards, for a more explicit sense of what we expect from students. The question, however, is, What do we value? What knowledge and experience are of most worth? How can we organize access to that worthwhile knowledge and experience? Looking at this school or classroom, what standards are being upheld? These kinds of deep and dynamic questions are never entirely summed-up, never finished; they are forever open to the demands of the new. Standards-setting, then, should not be the property of an expert class, the bureaucrats, or special interests. Rather, standard-setting should be part of the everyday vocation of schools and communities, the heart and soul of education. Standard-setting means systematically examining and then re-examining what we care about, what we hope for, what the known demands of us next. Standard- setting, often by other names, is already the work of successful schools and many, many effective classrooms.
The "standards movement" is flailing at shadows. All schools in Illinois, for example, follow the same guidelines–these standards apply to successful schools as well as collapsing ones. These written, stated standards have been in place for decades. And yet Illinois in effect has created two parallel systems–one privileged, adequate, successful, and largely white, the other disadvantaged in countless ways, disabled, starving, failing, and African-American. Some schools succeed brilliantly while others stumble and fall. Clearly something more is at work here.
The American school crisis is neither natural nor uniform, but particular and selective–it is a crisis of the poor, of the cities, of Latino and African-American communities. All the structures of privilege and oppression apparent in the larger society are mirrored in our schools. Chicago public school students, for example, are overwhelmingly children of color and children of the poor. More than half of the poorest children in Illinois (and over two-thirds of the bilingual children) attend Chicago schools. And yet Chicago schools must struggle to educate children with considerably fewer human and material resources than neighboring districts. For example, Chicago has 52 licensed physics teachers in the whole city, and a physics lab in only one high school. What standard does that represent?
In the last two years, 50,000 kids attended summer school in Chicago in the name of standards. Tens of thousands were held back a grade. It is impossible to argue that they should have been passed along routinely–that has been the cynical response for years. But failing that huge group without seriously addressing the ways school has failed them–that is, without changing the structures and cultures of those schools–is to punish those kids for the mistakes and errors of all of us. Further, the vaunted standard turns out to be nothing more than a single standardized test–a relatively simple minded gate designed so that half of those who take it must not succeed.
The purpose of education in a democracy is to break down barriers, to overcome obstacles, to open doors, minds, and possibilities. Education is empowering and enabling; it points to strength, to critical capacity, to thoughtfulness and expanding capabilities. It aims at something deeper and richer than simply imbibing and accepting existing codes and conventions, acceding to whatever is before us. The larger goal of education is to assist people in seeing the world through their own eyes, interpreting and analyzing through their own experiences and thinking, feeling themselves capable of representing, manifesting, or even, if they choose, transforming all that is before them. Education, then, is linked to freedom, to the ability to see and also to alter, to understand and also to reinvent, to know and also to change to world as we find it. Can we imagine this at the core of all schools, even poor city schools?
If city school systems are to be retooled, streamlined, and made workable, and city schools are to become palaces of learning for all children (and why shouldn’t they be?), then we must fight for a comprehensive program of change. Educational resources must be distributed fairly. Justice–the notion that all children deserve a decent life, and that those in the greatest need deserve the greatest support–must be our guide. There is no single solution to the obstacles we face. But a good start is to ask what each of us wants for our own children. What are our standards? I want a teacher in the classroom who is thoughtful and caring–not a mindless clerk or de-skilled bureaucrat–a person of substance, depth, and compassion. I want my child to be seen, understood, challenged, and nourished. I want to be able to participate in the community, to have some voice and choice in the questions the school faces.
And so the set of principles outlined by Meier are useful. A small school–as metaphor and practice–is a good starting point. Better yet, one where school people find common cause with students and parents, remaking schools by drawing on strengths and capacities of communities, rather than the deficiencies and difficulties. Such a school must focus on shared problems, and find solutions that are collective and manageable. It must talk of solidarity rather than "services," people as self-activated problem-solvers and citizens rather than passive "clients" or "consumers." And it must focus on the several deep causes of school failure: the inequitable distribution of educational resources, the capacity of a range of self-interested bureaucracies to work against the common good, and the profound disconnect between schools and the communities they are supposed to serve.
The solution to the problems we face in a democracy is, as Meier appropriately puts it, more democracy. If the standards guiding schools today are weak or watery–and in some instances they are–the answer is not silence, credulousness, and passivity, but a broader and deeper and more lively engagement with the widest possible public. This is messy and complicated, but true to the ideal of letting the people decide. School is a public space where the American hope for democracy, participation, and transformation collides with the historic reality of privilege and oppression, the hierarchies of race and class. The "standards movement"–geared to simple, punitive, onesize-fits-all solutions–is not worthy of our support. We can do so much better.
Bill Ayers is retired distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the author of several books, including Teaching Toward Freedom, Fugitive Days, Teaching the Taboo, and To Teach. He was a national officer of Students for a Democratic Society and a founding member of the Weather Underground.
The intellectual demands of the 21st century, as well as the demands of democratic life, are best met by preserving plural definitions of a good education.
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