By Emily Brandt
I believe that education and government have experienced a continuing megalithic transformation in expectations. Schools are expected to graduate “college and career-ready” students who will be able to move into university or college without experiencing much of a transition while at the same time from the same group of students, those who opt to go directly into careers, will be able to have the entry-level skills for an unspecified range of careers. This new formula refuses to recognize that most technical fields aren’t accessible through universities because the role of the American university is to provide some elements of a liberal arts education during the first two years followed by subject specialization—which sometimes does lead to specific careers like nursing and teaching and related fields—in the last two to four years depending on certificate programs or required masters’ degree programs for those fields. These first two years focus on survey classes that expose students to major ideas, writings, thinking and science that are considered as important to building a broader understanding of the world in general.
These goals required a non-specialized generally formative high school curriculum and they grew in acceptance as more and more Americans opted for college rather than the trade or vocational schools of my grandparents’ era. Many Americans tout that system as being superior to the range of European schools which test students at around 12 or 13 years of age to determine whether or not they have the “smarts” to go on to high schools called lycées or gymnasia. Americans have traditionally argued that 12 or 13 years of age is too young for students to understand why academic work may or may not be a better match for their proclivities and talents than vocational training. Many students perform exceedingly well in elementary school only to do terribly in high school and vice versa. Now we see U.S. school districts trying to create an educational system which can’t decide what it is: vocational or academic that thinks it can do both at the same time in the same classes and with the same students fulfilling neither the needs of business nor of academia.
Without going into detail about the development of American education, it’s clear that today’s world values technology over the arts and STEM over the humanities. Where once there was thought to be a bond or link between creativity in both areas, there has developed a very deep divide. What caused this divide? I think it is the persistent assumption that what’s good in business is good in any field. Business theories have been applied to running everything from schools to churches. Business operates on one fundamental transaction—the “sell,” the latest hot-shot idea that will make some lucky schmuck rich. For some of us, the suspicion with which we view business may be from encountering one too many con-persons.
Since education is still based on the idea that there are some universal truths and facts that need to be transferred from one generation to the next, it would follow that one of the major roles of education is that of developing the historical knowledge and philosophical understanding of the human condition beyond what are literally, today and yesterday. This learning and reflection, it is believed elucidates decision-making and guides conscience away from disastrous choices and their consequences. This commonly held belief has been supplanted by solving problems with the newest available gadgetry—a simpler word for technology—mousetrap or paradigm that can be marketed to the world and eclipses the lengthier time-tested basis for decision-making. If this new technology manages to stay around long enough, it may prove itself superior, but all too often it is again replaced by the newer, better model. Education isn’t this kind of process and it is suffering from the effects of models that “sell” knowledge to learners wrapped in a new package with new instructions.
School systems and teachers have long been preyed upon by textbook manufacturers (forget the word publishers) who write the facts to suit any given state’s view of its own history, or any given loud political faction’s view of science (climate change-deniers, pure creationists, etc.), but this is not all of it; they market other manner of computer applications, programs and systems that manage grades, attendance, discipline, teacher collaboration, curriculum, lesson planning, and on and on. I think the general public would be amazed by the amount of money that goes to short use arrangements for very expensive trainings and access, many of which overlap, duplicate or contradict each other.
The important point here is that these new gadgets and curricula which have been created by large corporations and sometimes attached to foundation grants exert major influence on what kinds of educational menus our teachers must learn to prepare and present, and what choices of careers and professions our students have open or closed to them, not to mention what universities and colleges will accept some of these specialized classes and programs. Parents can’t expect their students to complete a seamless academic program since programs are routinely dropped or not fully implemented because funding runs out.
Some of these corporations and foundation-shells operate behind closed doors creating the appearance of charity, but they are in reality systems based on networks exerting control over and profit from them; they are worse than parasites. While others launch their attacks from the inside preying on the frustrations felt by teachers and administrators who recognize that they have lost all control of their curriculum and their classrooms due to frequent changes of federal and state education law. To them and to the desperate parents who see their children struggling with this ever-changing set of academic rules, standards and standardized tests, corporations and foundations, charter schools run by these corporations and foundations sell false hope of independence from the constant surveillance of classrooms by outsider officials and require teachers to follow the textbook. They may not be allowed to teach any complete novels or plays at all if the textbook series doesn’t include them.
Don’t misunderstand my meaning here. There are obsolete laws, ideas and practices (and even readings that have not aged well) and there are innovative attempts to inject more applied learning and extend the classroom outside of the traditional school campus, as well as, to use new technologies that do prove effective in the teaching learning process, but the need of new skills should be added to the old skills; they do not replace reading, calculating and writing skills. A teacher can only cram in so much within the space of an academic year and teaching new technologies or different materials requires experience with them, no matter how young and open to innovation teachers and students are. Sometimes this learning process by experienced and effective teachers who are models for younger teachers is at the expense of student learning because so much time and effort is taken in learning how the applications and programs work that the content is sacrificed to accommodate the extensive curriculum. This means that teachers cannot work on reinforcing concepts, which is the only way students really attain mastery of a skill or content.
Constant trainings by companies that push untested new books based on shaky or unstudied research or theory, software, tools and other education paraphernalia appear on a regular cycle. Experienced and effective teachers exert much deeper impact on creating good teachers than any of that. Yet, school districts attract attention by chasing funds to implement some new ploy to increase graduation rates that will last but a few years before another program comes selling its wares. Any and all gains from methods and textbooks, school paraphernalia are quickly replaced by a new set! The funding has run out for that one; we need to implement a new one simply to finance education. How does anyone become a good teacher or a consistent learner under these circumstances? We need to use every means to get financial profit out of education just as much as we need to get big money out of politics and to operate on an education, not business model.
Emily Brandt is an English teacher who teaches at a Fresno Unified high school. In her teaching, she steers clear of party politics, but points students to narratives as voices of social history.