This year will be a big one for education policy as the Obama administration launches its major initiatives aimed at both K-12 and college schooling. Congress will take up reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the legislation that in its most recent incarnation, brought us No Child Left Behind. Additionally, at both local and national levels, a staggering array of advocacy groups, philanthropies, and non-profit and for-profit organizations are becoming increasingly involved in school reform.
Though debate pervades over specific proposals - national standards, charter schools, linking teacher evaluation to student test scores - no one seems to be asking the essential questions: What are the goals of education in a democracy and how will current proposals advance those goals?
Instead, we get the standard default justification for school reform: We send our kids to school to compete in the global economy. ("21st Century skills for 21st Century jobs.") The economic goal is an important one, but if you think about it, that is also the goal of just about every other nation on the planet, democratic or totalitarian.
If we don't articulate what distinguishes our nation's education system then we won't teach it. So we will end up with a narrow focus on work-force preparation and the exclusion of the other goals of education in a democratic society: intellectual development, civic engagement, deliberation, self reflection, creativity, aesthetics, risk-taking, and the ability to voice dissent.
Not only do current reform efforts operate with a limited set of educational goals, they also embody a narrow, top-down, and technocratic model of teaching and learning. Experts determine what children are to learn. The teacher's job is to follow that script and transmit its information. Standardized test then determine the success or failure of that transmission.
There is a naive model of cognition here that runs counter to all the current research on learning. Also this way of thinking forges into policy a terribly reductive understanding of teaching, one that sets a low bar for the skills and talents we should want for a teacher in America.
We know more and can do better.
We need an education policy that is based on our best current knowledge of learning and teaching. We need to scrap the technocratic model of teacher effectiveness and training and replace it with a human capital model that offers a robust program of teacher education and development - like those found in the countries with education outcomes we envy. And most of all we need an education policy that embeds economic goals within a civic and humane philosophy of education.