Back To School And A Renewed Call For Progressive Education

Jeff Bryant

Even if you don’t have school-aged children, you can tell schools are about to open in many places because the airwaves, mailboxes, and newspaper inserts are stuffed with “Back to School” advertising. It’s also the time of year when we hear most about research studies and serious-sounding reports about public education.

This one here . . . says that according to the American Psychological Association, a study of Texas middle school students found that healthy lungs and hearts could “predict” better scores on reading and math tests.

Here’s another – from the UK but in the same vein — touting the conclusion that “daily exercise significantly improves pupils’ test scores.”

And another finding that integrating arts education into students’ “regular curriculum showed remarkable improvement on standardized test scores.”

The recent study that raised the most eyebrows, however, was a “working paper” reported byEducation Week which revealed that students get better test scores when they are given an incentive up front — “a trophy, $10, or $20 in cash” — with the threat of having the reward taken away should scores turn out to be sub-par.The researchers call their approach “loss aversion.”

Notice the running theme throughout all these — that just about the only indicator of children’s wellbeing that matters anymore is how well they score on standardized tests? Hard to remember now that once upon a time, when Americans talked about children, healthy “hearts and lungs” were thought to be a pretty important condition for their own sake.

Yet now that test scores have become the holy grail of education, other really important indicators of children’s wellbeing — their health, their opportunities to learn about the arts, their intrinsic love of learning — seem passé.

It’s important to be reminded that Americans haven’t always thought this way.

What Happened To “The Century Of The Child?”

The historical record of our country’s regard for children is set before us in a remarkable new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Entitled “Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000,” the presentation takes us back to a time when the lives of children were vary different from what they are today.

At the dawn of the 20th century, there were no child labor laws, and most children in working and farming communities were thought of primarily as economic entities, who were made to contribute to the family, financially and operationally, as soon as possible.

Schools were very limited in terms of the percentage of children who were actually enrolled in them, the duration they remained enrolled, and the quality of the curriculum and instruction children experienced while in the system. Most schools had all the appearances of the factories that the children were destined to populate as adults.

At that time, the whole concept of “childhood” was of little concern to most of the country, and children were meant to take on adult responsibilities as soon as possible. The idea that children should have a safe and healthy time carved out for them to develop their personalities, exercise their creativity, learn, and play was not viable in society in general. In fact, there was only one public playground in the entire country.

However, the dawning of a new century inspired some in our society to think differently about children — and the world. These people called their movement “progressive.”

Actually the movement was a combination of two undertakings. One was an aesthetic call for new forms of art that valued nature and genuine materials. The other was a social, democratizing movement in education.

Together, the two new ways of thinking began to create a “new pedagogy” that emphasized “authentic expression, the inspiration of the natural world, and the creative potential of every individual [and] every child.”

The initial impact of this new movement was most evident in the explosive growth of kindergartens — an idea imported from Germany. But well into the 1920s and 30s, these reform efforts were having broad effects on popular culture in general and the whole idea of what it meant to have a “modern” outlook on life.

The interiors of places children were meant to inhabit, particularly schools, became places filled with light, hygiene, and air. And these environments were characterized by flexible design of their interiors and furniture, so children could be more autonomous and more capable enablers of their own learning.

This new progressive ethic, focused on the validity of childhood and the special needs of children, became the launching pad for post-World War II baby-boomers to take the interests of children into virtually every aspect of our consumer and intellectual culture.

And by the time the 20th century came to a close, the whole notion that the interests of children had now become a national “collective responsibility” became a widespread commitment to creating a better world for everyone.

What drove the 20th century’s “intensified focus” on childhood, the exhibition contends, was “progressive thinking regarding the rights, development, and well-being of children as interests of utmost importance to all society.”

Investments in children’s wellbeing were justified on the basis of being good for children, not on the basis of heightening their “education output” so they could make more money later in life.

Also important to note is that the movement to value childhood and the wellbeing of children had unbelievably positive effects on their education outcomes. From the lowly levels of the 19th century’s factory schools, a progressive education philosophy propelled America’s public school system to levels that made it the envy of the world and made public schools “the foundation” of America’s success, as Chinese-born global education expert Yong Zhao contends.

Of course, throughout the 20th century, there were populations of children who remained disenfranchised. But it can be argued that the 20th century American public education system was one of the most socially uplifting and economically empowering institutions the world has ever seen.

So in contrast to the progressive ideology that advanced us through the 20th century, what do we have today?

The Trouble With Our Test Obsession

American education policy’s current obsession with test scores is a particularly radical departure from out country’s progressive heritage.

Our leaders’ determination to turn away from child-centered policy and toward data-centered policy is especially concerning because so many disagree on the value of the data.

Writing at the blog site Blue Jersey, music teacher and edu-blogger Jersey Jazzman explains that “there is a place for standardized testing,” but the “emphasis” on them is problematic. Then, with links to the research, he checks off all the problems:

    • The tests are incomplete and often inaccurate measures of learning.
    • The tests are often biased and unfair.
    • The tests lead to “drill-and-kill” teaching.
    • The tests are often graded by poorly trained and low-paid workers.
    • The tests are expensive.

In their book The Myths of Standardized Tests: Why They Don’t Tell You What You Think They Do, Phillip Harris, Bruce M. Smith, and Joan Harris explain why high-stakes standardized tests are less objective than you think, why they don’t adequately measure student achievement, why the results are a distorted measurement of learning, and how these tests lead young people to become “superficial thinkers.”

They conclude:

Those who continue to advocate for the misguided uses of standardized tests tend to be policy makers, corporate leaders, and politicians, rather than educators. But the important point is not who they are but that their arguments are not based on sound evidence. They are, in fact, based on equal measures of rhetorical sleight of hand, wishful thinking, and a widespread public faith in the almost magical inerrancy of numbers.

Even Education Secretary Arne Duncan admits that this reliance on testing is still pretty much a seat-of-the-pants endeavor. In a recent interview with a New Jersey journalist, here’s how Duncan responds to the uncertainly about the value of standardized tests:

Q. But doesn’t this whole movement to raise standards and impose accountability hinge on having good tests? I’m not sure we have that.
A. It’s never going to be perfect. We’re investing $350 million in the next generation of assessment, so it’s going to be a choppy couple of years until we get there. We always let the perfect be the enemy of the good in education, and we have to stop that.

Does that sound like a ringing endorsement to you? Does a “choppy couple of years” sound like something we want to put our entire nation of children through? On the basis of something never intended to “be perfect” anyway?

And what if the reason people are objecting to the emphasis on testing is not because they’re “the enemy of the good” but because they’re enemies of something that is really bad?

In fact, the The New York Times recently reported that a new study indicated that the tests may be “virtually useless.”

Century Of The Coldhearted

If the 20th century can be called the Century of the Child, the 21st is starting out as the Century of the Coldhearted.

Those in charge of making policies affecting children seem to have the least proximity to the children who their policies affect. And their preference for finding technocratic solutions for raising test score levels often come at the expense of what most parents and educators think is in the best interest of the child.

The loss aversion study mentioned above, in particular, reveals how even our children’s sense of personal dignity has now become disposable in the wake of the mighty test scores. In fact, one of the researchers involved in the study, during an interview on Fox Business, lamented that “it’s hard when you rip a trophy out of the hands of an eight year old,” without portraying even a trace of empathy for how the eight year old might feel.

In slamming the loss aversion study, University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham explains where we’ve gone wrong. The problem, he states, is that current education policy makers approach education issues without understanding the purpose of education.

Education is about creating a change, Willingham maintains, which means that “education must entail values, because it entails selecting goals. We want to change the world — we want kids to learn things — facts, skills, values. Well, which ones?”

“I want my kids to see learning as a process that brings its own reward.” Willingham concludes. “I want my kids to see effort as a reflection of their character, to believe that they should give their all to any task that is their responsibility, even if the task doesn’t interest them.”

In today’s more coldhearted, technocratic world, such values might seem quaint. This squishy concern about “the kids” might seem to fly in the face of the “evidence.” Yet many educators believe that “touchy-feely” approaches have a place in the lives of children and their education, and that what’s called for is a return to a more “values-based” approach to education policy.

But then, educators aren’t in charge of education policy, are they?

Time To Get The Politics Right

Anyone paying attention to the current political season has to have noticed that the issue of “values” is not lost in the current presidential race.

As veteran political operative Mike Lux observes at Huffington Post, the presidential race is turning out to be the “ultimate debate in values and morality and what will benefit the future of the vast majority of Americans more.”

Whereas the contrast in values between the opposing candidates seems clear on economics, healthcare, and the future of the Safety Net, the debate on which values should drive education policy remains lost in a fog.

This isn’t the fault of the Republican candidates. With Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan to join him on the ticket, he has cemented himself to an education agenda that includes cutting spending on children, transferring taxpayer money intended for public schools into private pockets, and making education more a competitive scramble to get your kid to the front of the line. Talk about coldhearted.

This complete rejection of the hundred years of progress for American children will invariably lead to an education system in which only the very wealthy can guarantee their children access to the quality education they want.

On the other hand, what Democrats are opposing Republicans with isn’t always clear. The technocrats under Secretary Duncan tick off a checklist of “progress” that has yet to have any direct benefits to children, while they continue to be clueless about why teachers and parents oppose their efforts.

Instead, what’s required is for Democrats to return to preaching the historic values that made our country great — a commitment to the dignity and well-being of all children, a vow to infuse their daily lives with good health, nutrition, and creative play, and a nation-wide investment in education that provides all children with opportunities to learn as much as they can.

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