A few weeks ago I did a “blog talk” with The National Writing Project, (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/nwp_radio) and one of the participants posed this teaser: If I were to have a few beers with the President, what would I say to him about education?
Once the Budweiser relaxed me, I think I’d ask him about his own education. What does he remember about elementary school or middle school, particularly those teachers who made a difference? And what books mattered? Was there someone in high school who helped him see things in a new light? When did he begin to sense that school could enable him to use his mind in the world? What issues in law school most caught his fancy? Can he think of ways to bring those issues into the elementary school classroom?
I imagine that the answers from this exceptionally thoughtful man would be vibrant with ideas and feelings. One more Bud, and then I’d ask him how the spirit of these answers could better inform his education policy.
For several decades now, education policy has found its justification in preparing the young for the new economy. The civic purpose occasionally gets a nod, but the overwhelming rationale for reform is an economic one. Of course mass education in the United States has always had an economic motive, but in a democracy it has other powerful goals as well, and I suspect that this fuller range of goals would emerge in the President’s own history.
I realize that policy works at the level of broad structures and incentives, the level of administrative mechanisms rather than the particulars of lived experience. But if a policy doesn’t emerge from and embody a rich and grounded understanding of the issue in question, it won’t work – as one failed agriculture and urban development policy after another have demonstrated.
My second reason for asking the President about his education is this: The Department of Education rightly affirms the importance of good teaching. But the depiction of the teacher in key Department documents (Race to the Top guidelines or the Elementary and Secondary Act blueprint) is pretty much that of a cog in the vast Standards-and-Testing Industrial Complex. It’s hardly a vision that inspires new recruits or fosters engagement for the long haul. (What does professional development look like in such a system?) My hope is that the President’s reflection would get him to see the real limitations in his administration’s approach to teaching…and to learning.
(This blog is also being published online by Educational Leadership to accompany my April 2010 article “Reform: To What End?”.)