I applaud the NYT for taking an interest in nation-wide educational reforms and I am grateful that they ask for a year of grace for teachers making this transition.
But I'm still waiting for the perfect editorial on public education.
It would go something like this:
We applaud recent reforms intended to bring more rigorous standards to the public school curriculum. At the same time, we lament the reform's inattention to the structural issues that give rise to many of our system's challenges.
Our schools are desperately in need of more resources. In particular, there is a need for an immediate shift of one percent of the nation's budget away from defense and toward education. This would dramatically increase the resources available to the next generation of leaders. A large amount of these funds should go to increasing teachers' salaries. Teaching is already an enormous challenge, why must it also be a serious financial sacrifice?
Secondly, we send students to universities to get a liberal arts education, but our public schools look like factories for creating employees, for sorting those who deserve a liberal arts education from those who deserve nothing but a vocation. Suzanne Pepper, in her masterful work on education in authoritarian China, describes it this way, "Schools did not develop talent as much as they performed a sorting, labeling and certification function that was, by reason of the educational inflation also under way, more than sufficient to meet the cognitive requirements of most jobs that most school leavers would fill. Through meritocratic values - with grades allocated for performance and promotion for grades - schools were therefore legitimating the present and future status of all who passed through them" (2000:29).
Schools teach people their place in society, and help employers identify potential employees. Is that what we want from them? Our students study math, science, social studies, history and literature. But what about all of the other aspects of being a human being, about which our schools are silent?
We should admit that we do not prepare students for most of the challenges they will certainly have: managing their finances, cooking for themselves, dancing at weddings, maintaining their cars or marketing themselves in the age of social media. We act as if students are more likely to have to estimate the length of a hypotenuse than to pay their electric bill. Think of how much more engaging schooling would be if American history were taught through the lens of pop music and the music industry, if home economics were required for all students and actually taught them life skills like how to maintain a budget or save up for a car, if disagreements between students were seen not as disciplinary problems but as opportunities for talking about healthy relationships.
[Significant Newspaper Editorial Staff}
I know what my critics think: all of these things should be learned in the family, and that is certainly a valid critique. At the same time, the most effective lessons are taught in multiple locations and I'll be honest, I don't care if my kids can calculate the length of the hypotenuse of a triangle.