10/08/2010 02:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Time to Decriminalize Learning

There is something in a policy discussion that just loves numbers. We need data. No matter if the data are fuzzy, distorting, or simply unusable. People in the social sciences suffer from physics envy, we want clear and settled facts backed up by interesting charts, slopes, regression tables. Never mind that the best physics begins to call into question the settled nature of the data, still they get to use numbers. Our holy grail is the standardized test, even though these tests have been shown to be laughable in tracking student knowledge, biased towards those with more wealth and cultural capital, and destructive in narrowing and dumbing down the curriculum as schools focus on test prep to avoid closure. Any attempt to describe what happens in a good classroom in a complex way, in a way that captures the human elements, is dismissed as "anecdotal evidence" at best and, at worst, as granola-fuzzy-hippy sentimentality.

So the learning process, that interaction between humans and between us and our environment, that complicated psychological and cultural practice, that dance of motivation and compulsion, is being handcuffed into narrow moments of transmission -- the downloading of facts. Students today are so deeply watched by security guards, teachers, administrators, and ubiquitous cameras; their acts in class are so patrolled in the search for errors, wrong answers, mistakes, missteps, and hesitations; their imaginations so hemmed in by the demands of the tests; and the brilliance, capacity, and literacy brought from home so discounted and attacked as simply a deficit; that the inspiration and curiosity for learning is being beat out of them. Those who excel, and some do, are a testament to the capacity of some children to endure boredom and persevere in doing what they are told. That is how the best of learning has become a crime. And it is time we called for a decriminalization campaign.

But we are suffering now because the narrative of reform, the framing of reform, has been hijacked by a new set of enthusiastic fixers, billionaires who command the agenda, politicians seeking to cut the public sphere, and right wing activists interested in vouchers and the privatization of education. All of these forces are far, far from the classroom.

Yes, education should be accountable, accountable to communities, to children, and to our highest aspirations. It is not simply about filling slots in the corporate structure that we have today. It is to help this generation imagine a just and positive future and to give them the tools to go out and build it. The best learning, the kind of learning that we really need over the next decades, is being squeezed out by our obsession with testing and punishment. Let's fight for what we, who are with the kids every day, know is right.