Funding, standards, tests. These are three volatile ingredients that separately and together have shaped and are continuing to shape the daily lives of school children, their families and their teachers. They combine in complex ways in public debate and public policy. Those resulting combinations materialize as mandates administrators implement and under which children learn.
Institution-changing legislation such as the unfunded No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has pushed the issues of standards and tests to the forefront of discussions around public education. Debates are underway at all levels of society about the merits of standards and the harm or benefits of tests, especially high-stakes tests that have severe consequences (such as school closure) associated with them.
Some argue that the concern around tests and standards, and the energies spent organizing to change or eliminate them distract and detract from the more important work of garnering sufficient funding for the schools. Standards, they say, are immaterial if there is no money to implement the programs that would allow students to meet those standards. Others say that the increasingly structured, scripted curriculums designed to map to standardized tests so interfere with learning that something needs to be done immediately to stop them.
It sounds like a chicken and egg question-what comes first, the money or the tests and standards? In fact, there is a much more basic issue lurking underneath that metaphor. The money, the standards, the tests (high-stakes and otherwise) are all bundled up into one entity. That entity must be critically examined by asking a fundamental question that rarely surfaces these days: What is the purpose of our public education system?
That question itself is somewhat disingenuous, as it implies the presence of a national system of public education, which like other much-needed national programs (health care for instance), is non-existent. While there are federal programs, such as the very destructive and poorly named NCLB, the public education system is ultimately a collection of state programs, varying widely in kind, quality and resources allocated across the country.
In other words, we have no national expectations of what children in this country should be learning. This is an example of a states’-rights issue played out par excellence and brings us back full-circle to that underlying question-what is the purpose of our public education system, such as it is?
Public schools have played many roles over time. They have been seen as the means of producing reliable workers for an expanding industrial economy. They have been institutions of oppression and assimilation for many. They have opened possibilities for others.
Today, we are at a critical point when different power-holding groups are again defining overtly and covertly the role of public schools. One of the voices in this debate seems to be pushing for schools to be places where students become equipped with skills required for the current economy. In other words, schools are where we produce the types of workers that businesses say they need.
Other voices are joining together to say something different. Parents, teachers, students and principals are speaking up and challenging this restricted notion. They (we!) are positing that our schools should be places that support the full intellectual, psychological and physical development of children as they mature into independent adults. In this way, our schools can support the full spectrum of needs and possibilities in our society.
We need a public education system that has as its goal to help children develop into well-rounded, healthy, happy, critical thinkers. We need people who can understand the world around them in a variety of ways, to understand that the problems encountered in life can be understood from many vantage points. We want people who have explored many disciplines, from algebra to history to literature, and who thus can dream of new things or think of the world in unique ways.
We want students to develop into informed participants in civic life to whatever degree they are able. It is not enough to help students acquire the skills for jobs that exist now. Industries change, requisite skills change, but more importantly the world is always changing. We want our children to become citizens who can learn and grow as they need to, in order to take care of themselves, but also in order to help move our society forward.
Public schools helping students become well-rounded critical thinkers and active participants in civic society. In many schools, the school my children attend for instance, this is in fact what students experience. But this should be our national goal, not just the goal of a given school, or a given school district.
And so, when we return to the Bermuda Triangle of funding, standards and testing, we should think about each of these against the backdrop of a goal. What is the ultimate goal of this funding, this standard, this test? Does it support the development of critical thinking? Does it empower students to become caring, creative, active participants in the world around them? That should be our ultimate standard.
Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and the president of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (PPS-SF).