Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Alfie Kohn and Noam Chomsky summarize #edchat

I was pleased to moderate #edchat for April 6. Our topic was:

From an educator's point of view, what should be cut from education budgets when times get tough?

I have a problem with the whole idea of cutting education. I also have a problem with even discussing it. The problem is we are making a rather gross assumption that we must accept the inevitability of budget cuts at all. Alfie Kohn would put it this way:

[We have a] cultural aversion to digging out hidden premises, pressing for justification, and opposing practices for which justification is lacking...

Too many of us, including some who work in the field of education, seem to have lost our capacity to be outraged by the outragous; when handed foolish destructive mandates, we respond by asking for guidance on how best to carry them out.

Even when we do regard something as objectionable, that doesn't mean we will object to it. Indeed, we're apt to see the situation as being like the weather - something you just learn to live with. We may not "accept" (that is, believe) everything we're told by public officials and professionals, but in the other sense of that word, we tend to accept (that is, put up with) what they do.

Indeed, there's no shortage of cynicism about authority figures and powerful institutions. But cynicism, unlike vibrant, reasoned skepticism, actually contributes to passivitiy. People who write off all politicians as "a bunch of liars" are unlikely to become politically active, just as those who say you can " prove anything with statistics" are unwilling to distinguish between better and worse research. For that matter, the statement "everything's bad for you these days" can be used to rationalize easting junk food. These are shrugs not positions. Whereas the skeptic thinks and doubts and in so doing affirms a vision of the way things ought to be, the cynic affirms nothing, takes no action, and ends up perpetuating arrangements that make our lives worse. (Those arrangements, in a neat self-fulfilling prophecy, then comfirms the cynical conclusion that no one can make a difference.)...

When we find ourselves unhappy with some practice or policy, we're encouraged to focus on incidental aspects of what's going on, to ask questions about the details of implementation - how something will get done, or by whom, or on what schedule - but not whether it should be done at all. The more we attend to secondary concerns, the more the primary issues - the overarching structures and underlying premises - are strengthened. We're led to avoid the radical questions. I use that adjective in its original sense: Radical comes from the Latin word for root. It's partly because we spend our time worrying about the tendrils that the weed continues to grow. Noam Chomsky put it this way:

"The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate."

Education is a long term investment for the future that should never be cut, regardless of today's economic status. In fact, today's economic crisis should only reinforce how important education truly is. Cutting any investment in education sacrifices long term for short term gains - this is not acceptable.

However, to remain true to Kohn's definition of radical, I want to get radical. No cuts should ever be made to the root of our education system  - the teaching and the learning. However, if we needed to find a place to save money, let's look at the tendrils of our system - standardized testing.

It's time to lance the leeches that take pride in their data-mongering. It's time we expunged the parasites that suck the valuable resources out of teachers, students and parents.

And yet, while teachers talk about photo-copying less, or mailing letters home to only the oldest or only children to save on postage, Deleware is hiring 35 data coaches at a rate of $104,000 ($54/hour) per coach so that they can win Race to the Top money. In other words, we hack away at the tendrils, but the weed continues to grow.

So where do we go from here?

We are lost because we are driven by distractions. The Culture of Public Education has been poisoned. Ironically, teachers are partially to blame because we wait to be told what to do and blindly follow agendas that we don't believe in. Standardized testing and the tougher standards movement has crippled teachers. And until education reform can get these five principles right, we are doomed to waste both financial and human capital.

Finland and Alberta are beacons of hope. Alberta recently eliminated the entire Accountability and Reporting Division while also eliminating the grade 3 Provincial Achievement Test. Ontario has removed the fall report card from elementaries, and we could all learn a lot from the seemingly counter-intuitive paradoxes that make Finland's education system so damn good.

And then there's you. What are you doing to be the change that you wish to see in the world?

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