Young: It’s education, dummy, not ventriloquism
August 14, 2013
It's all in the eyes.
Think back to the great teachers you had. What do you recall? Eyes that bathed a classroom in attentiveness, in wisdom and, when appropriate, in mirth.
Now, think of a puppet. The first thing you notice is the not-human eyes.
I hate to say this, with all the "best intentions" and "best practices" afloat, but what policy makers too often have in mind when they "do" education is puppetry.
And so back to school we go, back to age-old challenges and "new," "improved" long-distance, top-down mandates.
How to generate higher test scores? Will "merit pay" move the needle? What about school uniforms? More charter schools?
The infatuation with charter schools is particularly curious. Basically, here's what's special about charters: They have fewer state controls. Well, Mr. Puppeteer, if that makes a difference, why not loosen the strings that jerk traditional public schools and their teachers hither and yon?
How about fewer tests? Less paperwork and busy work? How about less homogenization?
Innovation is a virtue in most workplaces. Why not in the classroom?
On this vast front, two remarkable things recently came out of Texas, that proving ground for the overreaching, over-promising, test-infatuated monster that became No Child Left Behind.
The Texas Legislature this spring voted to require fewer state tests. This, in the parlance of addiction, is one step on the path toward ending dependency.
Lawmakers also loosened core requirements, relieving high schoolers of having to take four years of social studies, and giving them some — gasp — choice.
When members of the state school board said it was their duty to direct school districts on how students should exert this taste of scheduling freedom, state Rep. Jimmy Don Aycock, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said those are decisions for — gasp – local school districts to make.
In Florida, lawmakers decided that — gasp — one size doesn't really fit all regarding high school graduation. Florida now has an alternative pathway to a high school diploma not tied to such a college-level requirement as advanced algebra.
These are developments that rightfully should take one's breath away in an era of regimentation and standardization.
But let us not celebrate too profusely, for the quest to make education a puppet show goes on unabated.
Washington, for instance, remains an agent of group think and forced marches. Dollars attached to the "Race to the Top" initiative have coerced 45 states to embrace the Common Core standards promoted by the National Governors Association and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
On paper, Common Core sounds harmless and even elevating, but it's all in the execution. Policy makers have shown that they just can't "reform" in moderation. They have to make every new initiative a gleaming, chariot-strewn production of Ben Hur.
One aspect of the Common Core is an emphasis on reading and writing as they relate to the work force. That sounds unobjectionable.
Then again, one of the problems in the "age of accountability" is how the literary arts (reading, writing) have been reduced to monotony by test-prep exercises. The more students see reading and writing as chores, as work, as little more than tickets to a paycheck, the less they will read for pleasure and inspiration. And we will lose.
The metrics of all "school reform" should be the extent to which teachers can teach, in the ideal sense, and students can be inspired.
Scientists have identified a phenomenon called the "ventriloquist effect," in which one perceives that a sound one hears is coming from some place other than the perceived source.
That's what's happening in America's classrooms. The teachers' lips are moving, but the sound supplied is from beyond the door. That's a novelty act, folks. It's not education.
Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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