What Is the Purpose of Education?

If appointed by the State Legislature to the Board of Regents, I will use my position as a platform to organize the people of New York to fight for social justice for children, in schools, and in society as a whole.
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In interviews for positions on the New York State Board of Regents, State Assembly Education chair Catherine Nolan asks candidates to share their vision for education in the state. These are my views on the purpose of education. During the interview process candidates are also asked how they will stay in contact with parents, teachers, and concerned citizens across the state. I will use my Huffington Post blog to promote open discussion that includes students. To support my nomination to the New York State Board of Regents contact Steven McCutcheon, the State Assembly Program and Counsel Staff at mccutcheons@assembly.state.ny.us.

Recent articles in the New York Times and an editorial on graduation rates raised important questions about the purpose of education. The superintendent of a high-achieving New Jersey school district located near Princeton University sent a letter to parents. He was concerned that pressure placed on the district's children to take multiple advanced classes, participate in resume building extra-curricular activities, get super-high grades, and be admitted to prestigious universities was producing extraordinary stress in young people and creating a mental health crisis in the community. In the past school year alone 120 middle and high school students were recommended for mental health assessments and forty were hospitalized. The superintendent, David Aderhold, urged a holistic, "whole child" approach to schooling that respects "social-emotional development" and "deep and meaningful learning" and not only academics achievement.

The Times article focused on ethnic division in the community between White parents who tended to endorse Aderhold's position and Asian families, whose children make up 65% of the student enrollment, that feared proposed reforms would dumb-down education in the district and handicap talented students who want to attend elite universities.

But the article never addressed the underlying issue raised by Aderhold, 'What is the purpose of education?" The West Windsor - Plainsboro Regional School District is already one of the most affluent in the United States with well-funded enrichment programs. Should this school district and others be part of an enormous sorting mechanism that separates the affluent from everyone else and the elite from the ordinarily privileged? Is the purpose of a public education system to provide a selected few with a pathway to attain wealth, influence, and power? Or should public schools educate human beings to live full lives with respect for diversity, concern for others, a belief in equity, and the desire and ability to participate in a democratic society.

Another article, this time an opinion essay in the Sunday Review, reported on "alarming rates of anxiety and depression" in American students ranging from secondary school through medical school. In one California school district "54 percent of students showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression. More alarming, 80 percent suffered moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety." Test pressure on students, schools, school districts, and states under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top laws continue with the new Every Student Succeeds Act. But another recent article in the Times documents the futility of curriculum based on testing and test prep.

Apparently, the easiest way for states to satisfy federal curriculum mandates is to cook the books. The Times reported on a high school in Greenville, South Carolina where students are told "Failure Is Not an Option. You Will Pass. You Will Learn. You Will Succeed." At first glance the sloganeering was very successful. In just four years the schools graduation rate jumped from about 65% to over 80%; clearly a documented education miracle.

Unfortunately under closer scrutiny the South Carolina education miracle fads. On Spring 2015 college readiness examinations, only a dismal 10% of 11th grade students in this school were prepared for college-level reading and an even more dismal 7% were prepared for college-level math. On another test, fewer than half of the students had the basic math skills needed in an entry-level job. This is not just a South Carolina phenomenon. Nationally, while high school graduation rates in 2012-2013 rose to over 80%, less than forty percent of high school graduates were considered ready for college level work. After fifteen years of No Child Left Behind, more than six years of Race to the Top and Common Core, and endless high-states standardized testing, states discovered they could meet the new stricter academic standards simply by lowering the standard for graduation. A Times editorial denounced what it called "The Counterfeit High School Diploma." In the editorial the outraged editors praised a national high-stakes testing regime that clearly failed and Common Core standards whose main contribution was confusion.

The Times bemoaned the fact that "The country has yet to confront this problem [low academic standards] and commit itself to the steps it would take to correct it. Until it does, the United States will continue to lose ground to nations that have better prepared teachers and rigorous school systems that do better jobs of giving their citizens the skills they need." Unfortunately, the Times never asked the question "What is the purpose of education?" or attempted to answer it. In support of its position the Times also chose to cite two organizations, the Education Trust and Achieve, that have a history of being involved with individuals and groups opposed to teachers unions and teacher tenure, and in favor of charter schools, Common Core, and high-stakes testing.

The sad reality is that in other countries, countries whose education systems the United States claims to admire, there is actual discussion on the purpose of education and the best way to educate young people. One country in particular, Finland stands out because its students continually rank high on international exams. Last spring, Finnish education officials announced that they were totally revising the country's entire education curriculum. By 2020, Finland plans to phase out teaching individual compartmentalized subjects in its schools. Instead of studying math, science, and history in isolation, students will explore broad interdisciplinary topics and questions such as "How can the world effectively respond to climate change?"

Finland started implementing a thematic approach in its equivalent of high school two years ago. A heavy investment is being made in preparing teachers and preliminary results are largely seen as positive. Finnish leaders believe this approach is a better way to prepare young people for advanced education, modern work, and citizenship.

In the United States such a plan would interfere with the powerful testing lobby, the ability of many states and localities to ignore educational inequality, and school budgets that want educational miracles done for cheap. It might also disturb Republican Party voters and Presidential candidates who don't believe in science or climate change.

The changes in education in Finland were reported in the Washington Post. Curiously, I could not find anything about the new Finnish curriculum in the New York Times.

One thing the Times and America's education deformers never address is that maybe the American school system is working the way it is intended to work. It sorts people out in school preparing them to be sorted out in life. It prepares some people for power, influence, and wealth convincing them that they earned their extravagant rewards based on hard work and merit rather than luck or privilege, which sounds a lot like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz's vision of America.

Meanwhile the bulk of the population receives few of society's tasty cookies. They are tracked into racially and economically segregated school and come to accept that failure is either their own fault or the fault of "others" - immigrants, Blacks, Latinos, and Muslims, who supposedly steal their jobs and threaten their imagined way of life. An educated populace would never accept this fairy tale, which is probably the reason education remains underfunded, teachers are constantly under attack, and states and localities remain free to provide substandard education to racial and ethnic minorities and the working class and poor.

If appointed by the State Legislature to the Board of Regents, I will use my position as a platform to organize the people of New York to fight for social justice for children, in schools, and in society as a whole. I will work with teachers and their unions as partners for education and I will publicly challenge elected and appointed government officials who make deals with companies like Pearson, channel money to special interest groups including charter and religious schools, and allow affluent communities to pretend that poorer neighbors do not exist.

In an earlier blog I posted answers to questions posed by the New York Allies for Public Education. An interview is posted on their website along with a brief resume.

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