The American Taliban – Part 4

Target – Public Education

The old Jesuit motto: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” is a bold statement, a boast in fact. Regardless of other considerations the statement expresses an absolute faith in education. And, is it not true that a child well schooled to the age of seven has probably developed habits of mind that make further education possible? All children with the help of responsible caring adults are capable of reaching or even exceeding their innate capacities. This process is the generally understood function of public education, its raison d’être. A population of capable citizens educated to the maximum of their abilities is the aim public education.

In practice, however, we find another story, one less optimistic, less idealistic, and becoming more Darwinian, venal, and draconian. The reasons for this have much to do with denial of the reality of unequal intellectual endowment and powerful forces seeking to privatize exploiting that inequality. It is very bad form to open a public discussion about unequal learning abilities and intellectual capacity. No parent wants to be or will tolerate being told – “ Your kid isn’t smart.” The reality of this denial results in diminished educational experiences for all students across the spectrum of natural abilities. Universal testing mania, deliberately ignoring this reality, pits all children across the intellectual spectrum against all others without regard for innate ability penalizing teachers and students alike.

Defensive teaching to a standardized test becomes inevitable and becomes teaching to the lowest common denominator. By definition no standardized test recognizes much less respects individual innate ability. It is about politics and money, nothing else. The cruelty of such facile schemes as “No Child Left Behind” leave all children behind because the premise of the program is false and empty of honest pedagogical reasoning. Standardized means just what it says, standard – a predetermined level of attainment across the spectrum of abilities. Just how is such a standard achieved by children who are not equal mentally and/or are from homes and neighborhoods where school learning is not a value? What is being compared to what is the question left unanswered.

None of the foregoing is intended to discredit the value of testing student achievement for pedagogical purposes but rather to point out its inappropriate application when used to assess and compare school populations locally, statewide, and nationally. The use of such testing is unquestionably unfair to the children as much as it is to teachers. In short there are no such creatures as “standard” children, “standard” classrooms, or “standard” teachers. To contend otherwise is an obvious sign of intellectual dishonesty at best or ulterior motives at worst. What if the NCLB, ABCDF and Race To The Top nonsense have strategic non-educational motives? But, let’s leave that question on the table for the moment and tackle a few related questions; we’ll come back to it shortly.

For the moment put yourself in the place of a classroom teacher with 20 perhaps 30 kids; a classroom of children with diverse intellectual capacity, attention spans, diet, and home life to mention only  a few of the variables. By the end of the semester you are expected to lead each child to a “standard” level of achievement regardless of those variables. You will be evaluated on the test scores these kids achieve. Your job and your pay are contingent upon good results. Does this sound like a good deal for you? For the kids? For the school? I don’t think so. In fact it is destructive as it stigmatizes and deprives children of their personal dignity and demonizes and punishes teachers for matters that are entirely out of their control. It puts teachers in the situation of a one-legged man in a butt kicking contest. Education is not a manufacturing production process and children are not products like refrigerators to be popped off the end of an assembly line. No one is standard.

Taking up the question posited earlier, why over the past several years have we witnessed this unrelenting assault on public education and public school teachers?

What’s up? –  Surprise!   –  It’s all about money, folks.

In the words of Rupert Murdoch: “When it comes to K–through–12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting to be transformed.” The American Taliban is on the march to privatize America’s public education (and everything else so far as that goes) by whatever means because they see it as a $500 billion market. It’s about money not children, it’s about profit not learning. It’s about private entities such as Wal-Mart, American Legislative Exchange Council, Laying The Foundation, Americans for Prosperity (read “Profit”). Murdoch, at another gathering of privatization crusaders, said, “ … we must approach education … willing to blow up what doesn’t work or gets in the way.” When the Bush administration foisted NCLB on the country, public schools became equivalent to Sadam Hussein’s WMD – manufactured facts and little if any truth. The assault continues today as children are being used as right-wing chew toys.  It is a war against the most cherished and valuable of public services and dedicated public servants – teachers and teaching the young. It is a clear and present thrteat to the American social contract of which public education is an essential part.

Sowing doubt and mistrust creates a sense that there are possibilities left untried or ignored. As Nicolas Sarkozy put it in another context: “This is how we create a gulf of incomprehension between the expert certain in his knowledge and the citizen whose experience of life is completely out of synch with the story told by the data. This gulf is dangerous because the citizens end up believing that they are being deceived. Nothing is more destructive of democracy.” Distrust and fear are the weapons the American Taliban are using against public education and truth.

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