This is the first in a series of 2014 EduResolutions blog entries.
Look beneath the surface of any debate about education, in the halls of a school or in the halls of Congress, and often you will find, lurking beneath the surface, different ideas about the purposes of education.
Last year, I took a stab at describing three purposes of education. I wrote that we educate children so they can:
- Survive and thrive in a competitive world
- Understand and contribute to community
- Discover passion and purpose
I still like this list, but I’ve learned a lot listening to others over the past year. As I read and talk with parents, teachers and policymakers about education, I always have my antenna up, seeking to understand others’ beliefs about the purposes of education.
One thing I’ve seen is that some of the most thoughtful conservative critiques of Common Core State Standards are rooted in concern about the purpose behind them. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, wrote recently that the Common Core is deficient because it’s not really a “core” in the sense that it lacks a unifying principle “such as the idea that there is a right way to live that one can come to know.” He laments that the Common Core’s “only stated object is career preparation.” I understand this point and partially agree.
I’ve also noticed a big difference in focus between policymakers and parents. Watching Arne Duncan’s response to last December’s release of PISA scores, it’s easy to see that he’s heavily focused on competitiveness. Naturally, as the US Secretary of Education, he’s focused on national competitiveness. Parents, in contrast, are obviously much more interested in whether their own children will be able to compete in the world economy.
Over the past year, I’ve also seen how much it matters whether one thinks about education through the lens of national interest or “my child’s” interest. Policymakers and commentators with a national perspective on competitiveness are naturally drawn to standards. For America to be competitive, they say, American students must reach a higher bar and we must describe that bar so everyone knows what they should be shooting for.
Indeed, this is a worthy perspective for parents, too. If young people don’t reach certain levels of knowledge and skills, they are less likely to have access to opportunity. They’ll probably have more trouble making a decent living in our very competitive world. And they often won’t be able to understand or contribute to their community as much as a person who has reached a higher bar.
But standards are of limited interest for a parent or teacher thinking about how an individual child will cross to safety. Parents and teachers know that each child is different; children are motivated in different ways and they have widely varying interests and aptitudes. Standards are useful as a marker, but the real work for parents and teachers, as Madeline Levine says, is to “see the child in front of you” and help them develop to their full potential.
In practice, of course, this means that some students will exceed standards while others will never meet them. Moreover, it means complimenting academic knowledge and skills with “softer” skills like emotional intelligence that are essential for success in work and life.
So should our nation’s education system be designed to help the maximum number of young people reach high standards, or should it be designed to help each child reach their full individual potential? Any serious discussion about Common Core, testing or other controversial education issues must deal with this underlying issue.
My first EduResolution for 2014 is that we collectively clarify our answer, so we can pull together to improve our education system and build stronger working relationships between parents, students, teachers and policymakers.