Arne Duncan, then Chicago public schools chief, with President Obama in 2008. Now secretary of state for education, Duncan wants to recruit more top students to teach in US public schools. Photograph: Jeff Haynes/ReutersState schools in the US are failing not only its children, but also its national security, according to Thomas L Friedman’s recent commentary in the New York Times on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s 4 November speech. Friedman also praises Duncan’s call to reform US education by infusing its teaching core from the top students in the US – a process modelled on the education systems in Finland and Denmark….
Does the US need better schools and do US children deserve the best teachers in every classroom possible? Of course. No one refutes either of these statements.
But these lofty goals cannot be attained as long as leaders refuse to acknowledge the historical pattern of social failures that are reflected in (and, too often, exacerbated by) US schools, such as high dropout rates for racial minorities and children living in poverty. Throughout the world, the full picture of any nation’s schools reflects the social realities of that country; when schools appear to be failures, the facts show that social failures (the conditions of children’s lives outside of school) are driving the educational data.
And we will certainly never address these social failures – and the truth about our schools – if political leaders and media voices refuse even to say the word “poverty”, while promoting simplistic manipulation of data.
Say it, share it, public education more often reflects our cultural patterns than it does shape them. Always ask, “who benefits from this?”, “whose interests are served?” Saskatchewan Education is poised to institutionalize some grading practices in policy. The argued value is equity for all students in Saskatchewan. The solution presented is standardization and uniformity. Differentiation and a contextual response to the needs of individuals is marginalized or dismissed outright. We espouse encouraging students to view their failures as part of the learning experience. We want schools to be a safe place to learn, and then we propose to send these young people the pointed message that they will be systematically penalized for each failure to be honest, each failure to meet an arbitrary deadline, and each failure to attend the equally arbitrary mandated minutes deemed required to learn each day.
Formal learning is beyond complex, it is extreme. Simple problems have clear causes and obvious solutions. Complex problems have clear causes and uncertain solutions. We know what the problem is and we are not certain what the solution should be. I only wish we were dealing with a complex problem here in Saskatchewan. We are not. We are dealing with an extreme problem. There is no consensus on the nature of the learning problem, or what our goal is for public education (see the magnitude of Saskatchewan’s goals of education for example), and therefore we cannot begin to see our way clear to a solution to the problem.
As the Guardian article suggests, we should not ignore the social factors influencing learning in our province. These external factors influence the social and economic capital young people can access. Penalizing student’s grades because of behaviour often reinforces social inequality. That suites the advantaged members of our society just fine. Children of poverty can become adults of poverty. Children of advantage can go on to perpetuate their privilege.
I have lived Saskatchewan’s Goals of Education for almost thirty years. Grades have never been a stated goal. Assessment measures learning. Grades sort. Grades classify. Grades rank. Grades are competitive. Grades offer opportunity and deny opportunity. Grades are arbitrary and political. Grades are never about learning. Our society values classifications, ranks, competition, and scarcity of opportunity. We like hierarchical pyramids and the look of a bell curve that sorts members of society into winners and losers. Those of us at the top like systems that will allow our children to follow our “success”. We want grades to maintain our valued social order. Young people do not need grades to learn. That requires other things.