Our son is in his in his senior year, and after his perfect SAT score, he's been getting mail from colleges just about everywhere. It's an interesting exercise in marketing and current culture to see how colleges and universities are trying to appeal to today's prospective students. Some of the schools pander so much to today's multitasking, Tweeting, gaming culture that they haven't appealed much to our son, or to us. College should be engaging, but it shouldn't be like playing on a Wii.
What has interested me the most is the brochures we actually find appealing, and what they focus on. The schools our son is drawn to, and the materials that impress us, talk about the following things:
finding your passion
tapping into your personal interests
having talented and knowledgeable professors to teach you
being treated as a human being who is full of potential
dealing with real-world problems in a hands-on way
engaging in nuanced thinking, ambiguity, and discussion
being part of a community
being prepared not only to make a living, but to make a difference in the world
And so on. The thing that struck me one night, though, flipping through a brochure with key words like CREATIVITY, PASSION, PERSONAL INTERESTS, COMMUNITY, SIGNIFICANCE, and RELEVANCE emblazoned across the top of each page, was the fact that if you did a brochure about public schools, the way they have been redefined and deformed in an age of NCLB and Race to the Top, it would read like the exact opposite of what colleges are advertising these days:
Attend PUBLIC SCHOOL! Experience the magic! CONFORMITY: In public schools, our goal is to ensure that everyone thinks exactly the same way! Our obsession with multiple choice questions, visible every day as students use their "clickers" in class, means that students think there is only one right answer to every problem, are uncomfortable with nuance or ambiguity, and never try to generate their own, novel solutions to problems. NON-INQUIRY: Asking too many questions can get you in trouble. That's why we let students answer questions, but we avoid letting them ask them. EQUITABLE INSTRUCTION: Our scripted curricula and detailed instructional calendars insure that, like a fast-food restaurant, our classrooms provide students with the same exact educational experience in every class. Teachers become standardized dispensers of knowledge, easily replaceable, thus guaranteeing every student will get the exact same experience! DETACHMENT: We want students to develop a detached and depersonalized view of the world, in which they feel no messy, personal connections to the concepts they are studying! We want our students to know that no one cares about their personal stories, and they shouldn't care about anyone else's. DATA-OBSESSION: We are obsessed with Data, and we will treat your student like a number. Your student will be referred to by test score level: "He's a 5," or "She's a 2." If your student can't make gains, he or she has failed, and prospects for the future look bleak. CORE-CLASS FOCUS: We focus completely on core classes and minimum proficiencies. We feel that the arts are a waste of time and tax-payer money, so you won't find students frittering away their time on painting, drawing, playing musical instruments, singing, dancing, or writing creatively. Or, if we do have the arts, we will make sure that rubrics, measurement, and quantification make these courses as rigorous and joyless as our hardest core classes. Fun and enjoyment have no place in a school of rigor and data-driven instruction. GOAL ORIENTATION: We want students who will go out in the world and make money, which is, of course, the goal of education. We don't waste time focusing on intangibles such as making a contribution to the world, following your passion, or helping people. Higher test scores mean a higher paying job, a higher paying job means more money, and more money means more success! We want our students to be successful!
I think teachers around the country, including myself, are resisting these goals for public education, but policy does have an influence, and I have to wonder if many parents are home-schooling, or seeking out charters or private schools, to escape exactly the culture I've outlined in my "brochure." This leads me to wonder: what if all the reforms and supposed "improvements" being forced on public schools are really meant to undermine them and drive people away rather than improve them and draw people in? I don't think I'm being paranoid.
Great teachers and great schools have the goals that our son's college brochures list. They are the goals I aspire to every day-- which makes me counter-cultural. Ironically, I think the schools and teachers who aim for these higher goals are probably the ones that eventually get higher test scores-- because they aren't focusing on test scores.
Schools have altered themselves, reformed themselves, supposedly to make students more fit to attend college. It is yet another irony that in aiming for un-creative, dehumanizing, supposedly more rigorous instruction, they are undermining the very goals of the colleges themselves: to create nuanced, creative, passionate thinkers who want to make a difference in the world.