A Moment of Heresy

If the point of a positive book review is to get the audience to want to read the book under discussion, then Robert Dean Lurie’s brief piece in The American Conservative about the new Selected Letters of William Styron  does its job admirably. As much as I find myself disagreeing with many of the political points that get made in TAC (Pat Buchanan is the king saying something totally sensible about why we should avoid war, only to follow it up with an appalling xenophobic or anti-gay screed), I appreciate that it still bothers to publish aesthetic criticism. Given that the magazine’s brand of conservatism is more Eliot and Burke than Romney and Ryan, this makes sense. Still, it says something about the state of our political discourse that one is shocked to find a website or magazine that discusses public policy also talking about Darkness Visible (one of the best books of any kind ever written) and the puffed-up preening of Styron and Mailer.

But The American Conservative has recently gotten something much more important right as well. Tom Pauken, the former chair of the Texas Republican Party, wrote a piece in January denouncing “No Child Left Behind” and the culture of standardized testing it has spawned. We are all familiar with these mind-numbing, bogus tests that create perverse incentives all up and down the academic food chain. Right now 35 teachers in Atlanta are under indictment for fudging their students’ results because the higher the students score, the more teachers (both good and bad) keep their jobs or make more money. As bad as the War in Iraq and the financial meltdown have been, No Child Left Behind might be the most damaging legacy of the Bush years.

But the Obama administration doesn’t seem to understand what is really wrong here either. It’s not testing per se that’s the problem, but that we have educational tunnel-vision. Whenever I hear Barack Obama talk about how we need to send more kids to college because people with college degrees earn more money, I cringe. If it is this simple, why don’t we just mandate that all colleges simply let in anyone who applies? A college degree is supposed to signal to employers that you have done something hard and are therefore a good candidate to complete difficult tasks in the future. But what if everyone has college degrees? What then?

What is needed is real reform at the K-12 level, something everyone seems to acknowledge, but never actually happens. Too many people have said too many things they can’t take back without losing face or money or power, and so kids keep going through this ringer of irrelevance, racking up accomplishments or failures that ultimately tell us very little about who they are and what they could be. Tom Pauken’s solution might strike some as retrograde, but it’s actually similar to the approaches in many other western democracies whose education systems outperform ours by most objective and subjective measures. He writes:

We need to allow for multiple pathways to a high school degree. One academic pathway would emphasize math and science. Another, the humanities and fine arts. A third would focus on career and technical education. All students would get the basics, but there would be greater flexibility than under the “one size fits all” existing system which pushes everyone towards a university degree.

This is a common sense approach to preparing young Texans to be college-ready or career-ready. It is time to end this “teaching to the test” system that isn’t working for either the kids interested in going on to a university or for those more oriented towards learning a skilled trade. Let’s replace it with one that focuses on real learning and opportunities for all.

In the past, when public frustration hit the boiling point, the testing establishment would simply roll out a new test with a new acronym and promise that the new test will fix everything. That is why, from 1991 to the present, the acronym of the Texas standardized test has gone from TAAS to TAKS and, now STAAR.

It’s that last sentence that really gets me. Education today is a sick combination of the worst kinds of conservative and progressive ideologies. It’s the same shit in a new box, sold to us by people who stand to lose a lot if anything actually happens.  And so nothing changes.

I imagine that Tom Pauken and I would agree on very little.  Again, he was the head of TEXAS Republican Party, for Christ’s sake.  Still, humanists of all stripes need to come together and wrench education in this country away from the technocrats, especially when they are doing everything in their power to make education a business devoid of human subtlety and emotion. Standardized multiple-choice testing has been around for years. Computerized writing analysis is knocking on the door. If we do nothing, those of us who actually care about educating complicated and whole human beings will find ourselves begging for change outside of the house we used to own.


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