09/04/2014 12:34 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

The Miseducation of the Masses

As millions of students head back to school, experiencing the familiar mix of dread and excitement which comes with a new academic year, they also face a new degree of anxiety represented by the vast amount of pressure from the high stakes testing that awaits them. As a former public school teacher, and now professor and education activist, I have been deeply struck by the enigma this poses, especially when one considers that the end result of this testing is tied to an outcome that is likely not in the cards for many of our students: matriculation at a four year college or university. This, of course, raises the much larger question: Why do we continue to insist on educational standards that do not meet the needs of the vast majority of students who will be seeking employment, rather than advanced degrees?

This is especially important when one examines the language often used to push the agenda of so-called education reform. The phrase, "college and career ready", for example, is one that continues to buzz around in education policy. Achieve, Inc., a company who helped create the Common Core State Standards, coined it, and this wording is designed to prompt schools to focus on the outcomes of education, rather than the journey of learning.  

College and career ready is an understandable effort to hold everyone to high standards. The basic philosophy is that instruction is rooted in skills, which are necessary and important for success in college, as well as in working-class jobs.

But as our nation's children enter the schools this fall, most will spend more days preparing for tests and assessments, rather than developing the skills and content knowledge to be truly career-ready. Their recess and physical education classes, that once offered chances of learning positive social interaction, teamwork, and healthy habits, will be reduced -- drastically -- so that they can spend more time sitting in a desk, preparing for a test. And music and art and theatre and photography? Our students will be lucky if those classes are even offered, due to budget cuts and an increased focus on reading, and math, and science. 

I believe reading, math, science, and history are important. But I also believe that our students deserve to explore other interests that can often lead to the mastery of skills they don't even realize they need yet. If we are going to focus on educating the whole child, then the education needs to be well-rounded. Electives such as home economics, culinary arts, health, foreign language, creative writing, speech, study skills, keyboarding, pottery, etc. must be offered to our students throughout their years of public education. They must have the opportunity to interact with other students, in various social situations, and express themselves creatively. They must be able to explore personal interests and be actively part of their own learning. 

Learning and education are a process. Think of them as a journey -- a journey that takes many, many years, beyond our formal schooling. Developing life-long learners should be one of the main focuses in classrooms across this country. Teachers know this -- we go into education and teaching because we love learning, and we love the process of discovery. It is our hope to inspire these qualities in our students. However, with a main emphasis on "college and career readiness" and standardized testing, teachers are torn between doing what is right for our students, and keeping our jobs, which are now heavily dependent upon student test scores.

And what about the students who will not go to college (for various reasons) or have no desire to attend college? The biggest problem with "college and career readiness" is that the focus is on college, and not so much on the career. We need citizens who are mechanics, plumbers, electricians, beauticians, etc., none of which require traditional college degrees. What happened to offering these types of classes, in our high schools, or partnering with companies who offer internships, so that our students can ready themselves for careers of this nature? 

We are doing a huge disservice to the education of our nation's children, when the focus must be placed on how to take tests and how to score well on them, rather than on developing skills and deep content knowledge in a variety of subjects, thus sparking curiosity and a passion for learning. Students should be provided with a range of course offerings and opportunities which help to develop those skills that will allow them to succeed, no matter which path they choose. A true college and career ready path involves social interaction, group work, exploration of interests, and real-world problem solving, rather than filling in bubbles on test sheets--unless the students are interested in careers as professional test takers.