Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Not Every Education Problem Begins and Ends at NCLB

Over the weekend, Naomi Wolf has an op-ed in the Washington Post talking about how the young people of America seem aloof or indifferent about politics these days.
When I speak on college campuses, I find that students are either baffled by democracy's workings or that they don't see any point in engaging in the democratic process. Sometimes both.

Not long ago, I gave a talk at a major university in the Midwest. "They're going to raze our meadows and put in a shopping mall!" a young woman in the audience wailed. "And there's nothing we can do!" she said, to the nods of young and old alike.

I stared at her in amazement and asked how old she was. When she said 26, I suggested that she run for city council. Then she stared at me-- with complete incomprehension. It took me a long time to convince her and her peers in the audience that what I'd suggested was possible, even if she didn't have money, a major media outlet of her own or a political "machine" behind her.
That young people are not involved in politics is not all that new or surprising. The one group of people with the greatest untapped potential for political activism is and always has been voters age 18-25, which historically have the lowest turnout of any age cohort.

Wolf points out, not incorrectly, that many American high school students are no longer required to take a course in American government or civics and that such a dearth of civic instruction is damaging our young people's perception of politics. But it was this statement that bothered me most:
In recent years, the trend away from teaching democracy to young Americans has been at least partly a consequence of the trend of teaching to the standardized tests introduced by the Bush administration. Mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the tests assess chiefly math and reading comprehension. Basic civics and history have suffered.
I would like to point out to Ms. Wolf that the Bush Administration did not invent standardized tests and while they may be used differently, standardized tests are not necessarily an evil to be dispised at the mere mention of the term. Attacking NCLB as the strawman for all that is wrong with current American curricula ignores the reality that, just as the hapless college student had the power to change her political circumstances, we have the power through local activism to change the curricula in our schools.

I will admit that NCLB may have accelerated the trend away from teaching civics and American government, but it is not the cause of the decreased number of civically illiterate in America. Wolf was speaking to a 26-year-old person and on a college campus. These are students who came of age before NCLB, and so that crutch, that NCLB has undermined civic education, is not available to them or their educators.

The root cause of the lack of civic education in America's students lies in changes in curricula and what was and is deemed important. Curricula change, ebbing and flowing, with what is deemed important by our communities. Certainly, math skills and reading comprehension are important and should be stressed. But one of the things we are starting to learn is that there are many subjects that are important to the development of a liberally (in the classic sense) educated child. It takes math, reading, and science skills, but a well-educated child must also have an exposure to the arts, history, literature, and yes, government and civics, to have that well-rounded, well-prepared status of citizenship before exiting high school. Curricula have evolved away from history, the arts and literature, and civics in favor of an emphasis on reading, math and science. This is not, in itself, a bad thing since the decisions have been made politically. While the consequences of the decisions at all levels of the government may not have been fully considered, they are political decisions.

NCLB did not cause the curricular change, but the emphasis on math and reading has caused America to realize what gets lost when basic skills are not learned in elementary school. Schools have two scare resources to contend with--time and talent. There are only so many hours in a school day and so many schools days in the calendar. While adding hours or days may expand the opportunity to teach reading, math, science and all the other necessary subjects, in the end, there are political and policy decisions to be made. There are only so many teachers available and those teachers have specialitis that may not lend themselves to the teaching of civics or government (although that may be a problem to consider as well).

In Maryland, at least, students must take an exam in Government in order to graduate. Students must take a class before they take an exam. Maryland has made the policy decision that goverment is an important subject to learn and enforced that decision. If civic education is important (and I whole-heartedly agree that it is), then we must treat it as such and make the decision to include it in the curriculum.

We can't blame a law (a political document) for our failings and it is ironic to say the least, that Wolf doesn't understand the politics of education so much as she misunderstands the education of politics.

No comments: