Political Column

What are we actually learning from public education?

by Jared Johnson, Meghan Stanley, and Caleb Vatral

What started as a desire for knowledge among the common man has turned into a rigid system that forces information down the throats of students whose creativity is strangled by teachers who have no say in the curriculum they teach, or the methods in which they introduce the curriculum. A growing emphasis on standardized testing has handcuffed the education system to specific information designed to judge proficiency.

This emphasis has come largely from bureaucracies that make decisions for the public based on individual cases, without considering the public opinion. Thanks to the bureaucratic control, these individuals are able to take the public education system and use it as a tool to push particular morals, political viewpoints, health standards, and racial and social tolerances. But, arguably the biggest issue that public education carries is in the idea of standardized testing.

The original purpose of standardized testing was to bridge the gap between races. One example of this was the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, which took off during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Although achievement gaps do still exist between races, these gaps have been bridged considerably, so much so that the usefulness of these types of tests has come into question in today’s society, especially when considering the emphasis on teaching students how to take the tests.

According to a study done by the National Center for Educational Statistics in 2012, African-American students have made gains of 36 points, 24 points, and 30 points in reading scores since 1973, while white students have gained only 15 points, 9 points, and 4 points among 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students, respectively.  Furthermore, the gap between white and black college attendance moved from 13% in the 1980s to just 5% in 2012.

Standardized test preparatory classes, which are based solely on teaching toward the test, take up a large part of class time, placing severe limits on student creativity. Such emphasis has also forced teachers to spend the majority of their time with the less prepared students so they can get caught up with the other students, who have been neglected due to their near-certainty of passing the standardized tests.

Because decisions that affect schools are often handed down by the federal government with little to no representation from the teachers and students they affect, the pressure to perform on standardized tests is not something in which teachers have had much say. These bureaucrats may observe a small sampling of students, and then make sweeping generalizations that affect entire districts. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, recently annulled, was passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support, but the inability of the federal government to provide the necessary funding to properly execute the policy left teachers with unnecessary pressure to make their students succeed, or else they risked losing the funding that was available. The teachers had no input in the passing of the bill to begin with.

Also, the recent move toward centralized control of all school systems has produced curriculum that is not appropriate for all students, since there are very diverse cultures. When the standardized curriculum fails and leads to bad performance, the teachers are often blamed unfairly. Centralized bureaucracy in education has not only developed poor curriculum, but has also caused an evident shift in the understood role of education in America today.

There are clearly a wide variety of issues currently hampering the public education system. In that regard, society must consider if saving the old system is even worth it. Between standardized testing and bureaucratic control, reform is no easy task, but it must be considered for the sake of future generations of students.

This editorial, written by Jared Johnson, Meghan Stanley, and Caleb Vatral, is the basis for a documentary project conducted within the Contemporary Questions course, an honors class for first-year students. On Monday, November 23, the Contemporary Questions class will be presenting all of their documentary films at 6:00p.m., in Canterbury Hall.

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