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Educating for Democracy

Joel Schechter
December 7, 2009

No Citizen Left Behind

by Joel Shatzky
The well-known failures of American education today have less to do with the absence of solutions than with our school system’s inability, or unwillingness, to implement them.
John Dewey, after all, gave us fundamental insights about the importance of active, participatory learning some seventy years ago. In Experience and Education (1938), Dewey contrasted traditional education with “progressive education,” in which, he wrote, “imposition from above” is replaced by “expression and cultivation of individuality;” “external discipline” by “free activity;” “learning from tests and teachers” by “learning from experience;” and the “acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill” by “acquisition of skills as means of attaining ends.”
As early as 1915, in Schools of Tomorrow (written with his wife Evelyn), Dewey described the importance of experiential learning tailored to the cultural environment and experiences of students. “Things remote in time and space, and things of an abstract nature, are most readily reduced to uniformity and doled out to children en masse. Unfortunately. . . Efforts to bring the work into vital connection with pupils’ experiences necessarily [begins] to vary school materials to meet the special needs and definite features of local life.”
According to Catherine Twomey Forest (Constructivism: Theory, Perspectives and Practice, 2001), “constructivist” education — one model derived from Dewey’s teachings — does not view the classroom as a place where the teacher “pours knowledge into passive students, who wait like empty vessels to be filled.” Rather, writes Forest, the “teacher functions more as a facilitator who coaches, mediates, prompts, and helps students develop and assess their understanding. One of the teacher’s biggest jobs becomes asking good questions. . .” Constructivist schools find ways to clear a student’s path rather than obstructing it when the child is learning through his or her own strategies (using video games, for example, or hip-hop verse as formats for the exploration of subjects).
Such schools develop collaborative learning methods and integrate school activities with community resources, encourage and reward gifted teachers who find original ways to inspire learning, and give students opportunities to initiate, develop and present to their peers and mentors their own projects in a flexible, interdisciplinary framework.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 13 percent of the U.S. population is able to compare the viewpoints of two editorials, interpret a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity, and compute and compare the cost-per-ounce of food items. If these tasks are beyond the capacity of 87 percent of Americans, is it surprising that our democratic system of government continues to descend into a culture of infantile rhetoric and rage? For people to function as active citizens of a democracy, they have to be offered an education that develops in them basic skills of discernment and independent thought. Howard Gardner, widely known for his breakthrough work on “multiple intelligences” (Gardner has identified a variety of types of intelligence, ranging from the mathematical to the kinesthetic in the interpersonal, and has vigorously challenged the I.Q. theory of intelligence), writes that “knowledge and understanding are entirely different from memorization and regurgitation of facts and information that . . . dominates discussion” today.
Tragically, the assessment movement fostered by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation is accelerating the “dumbing down” of America. Using high-stakes tests as the principal way of measuring student achievement — with even kindergartners being tested! — has produced rote learning, easily forgotten since it is not consistently applied, rather than “active learning” that enables students to build on their skills and knowledge as they grow.
Even Diane Ravitch, the conservative educator who served in the first Bush administration, said of No Child Left Behind: “The primary strategy— to test all children in those subjects in grades three through eight every year — has unleashed an unhealthy obsession with standardized testing that has reduced the time . . . for teaching other important subjects.” Indeed the combination of budget-cutting and high-stakes testing has often resulted in the sacrifice of art, music, and other subjects that for many students constitute the most effective and memorable parts of their public school education.
Joel Westheimer, professor of education at the University of Ottawa, illustrates the impact that high-stakes testing has on the structures of democracy (“No Child Left Thinking: Democracy at Risk in American Schools,” Democratic Dialogue Series, May 2008). Westheimer divides into three categories the kinds of citizens shaped by education:

  • Personally Responsible Citizens, who see themselves as of “good character” and “honest, responsible, and law-abiding members of the community.”
  • Participatory Citizens, who “actively participate and take leadership positions within established systems and community structures.”
  • Social Justice-Oriented Citizens, who “question and change established systems and structures when they reproduce patterns of injustice over time.”

Westheimer argues that the methods and goals of teaching in the public schools do not prepare learners for the third form of citizenship, only for “status quo” citizenship. The critical thinking processes that enable active citizens to promote change in our society, he maintains, are largely absent from our pressurized, test-oriented system.
“Will students ever debate the role of science or theology in making public policy when all that counts is listing the steps in the scientific method?” writes George Wood, a high school principal in Ohio. “Are schools going to provide time for internships, community service, or field trips if the only measure of their success is a test score, not how engaged our children are? . . . [T]here will not be time to teach young people to think when the only thing that counts is how well they test.”
As John Dewey observed in his 1916 study, Democracy and Education: “A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of . . . communicated experience. . . . each has to refer his own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his own, [which] is equivalent to breaking down the barriers of class, race and national territory. . .” This broad perspective is seriously compromised by the narrow, crabbed objectives of curricula in schools that are dependent on test scores to justify their very survival.
The low high school graduation rate of 68 percent over the last decade, according to the National Council of Higher Education Management Systems, provides more evidence of our school system’s failures. This number is actually inflated by the counting as graduates of those youngsters who leave school to gain a Graduation Equivalency Diploma — which has requirements much lower than those of an academic diploma.
New York City’s educational system, one of the most watched in the country, has been praised as a “success” by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — despite the fact that only 30 percent of Latino and 32 percent of African-American students graduate, according to the Independent Commission on Public Education (an organization opposed to mayoral control of the schools; their statistics match up closely with other studies, including by conservative think tanks). Duncan, in an interview on WNYC, conceded that many states were “dumbing down” their tests to look as if they have improved student learning. He added that he wanted to allow teachers a variety of “best teaching” methods to improve learning, but he has not disavowed the testing focus itself.
In fact, state tests are virtually meaningless, designed only to achieve adequate ratings for schools under No Child Left Behind. The latest results from the New York City math and reading tests, for example, showed a totally implausible success rate of 97 percent for schools rated A or B. This result embarrassed State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch, who noted that the disproportionate number of high grades was “one more indicator why we need to address the testing issue as quickly as possible. . . . When you are telling parents that all of our schools are A’s and B’s or that all our students are proficient, we are not providing a clear view of what is really happening in a school or with a student.” Far more realistic results on federal math tests administered to fourth and eighth graders were headlined in the Times in October, showing that only 34 percent of New York’s eighth graders had proficiency (a result similar to those of most other states).
Meanwhile, a survey of New York City teachers conducted last year revealed that 85 percent of the more than 61,000 members of the United Federation of Teachers who responded “disagreed. . . that [Chancellor Joel Klein’s] emphasis on testing had improved education in their schools.”
Not all teachers, however, would see eye-to-eye with me about the benefits of “constructivist” education. Recently, for example, I conducted an in-depth interview with an eighteen-year veteran English teacher from a Brooklyn middle school. (He asked for anonymity for fear of being fired for his remarks.) On paper, he said, the pedagogy for the public schools does emphasize collaborative, “student-centered” learning, free choice of reading materials, and a “balanced literacy” concept.
In practice, however, the methods don’t work, as they might for a highly motivated group of learners. Student-centered learning in a low-functioning class, he said, is like “the blind leading the blind,” especially since all students who score below standards on tests are grouped together, as are the high-achieving test-takers.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that whatever sounds enlightened about the curriculum tends to be undercut by the sad fact that students are being drilled to pass the four state-wide “assessment” tests as well as two mid-year, two-day English Language Arts tests. Preparation books rather than literary works become the focus of the students’ learning, and four months of the school term, according to my interviewee, are dedicated to “drilling.”
To understand how to make schools more effective as places of learning, we can learn from students themselves. Last year, some Canadian high school students presented their ideas for an “active learning” school at a local symposium. They suggested that the physical layout of a school have many open spaces, including an atrium in which students can congregate, and a great deal of natural light in the classrooms; that inter-disciplinary approaches to learning rather than subject-based curricula be initiated in the middle grades; that students be evaluated through projects and problem-solving applications of knowledge rather than through tests; that a significant question such as “How does global warming affect you?” be used as a thematic problem for students to approach, with increasing sophistication at subsequent grade levels, in an accumulating portfolio system. The students also urged that application rather than memorization be used to assess mastery of subjects; that teachers be in a position of authority rather than superiority; that teachers have a passion for the subject and mentor each other regularly to improve their teaching techniques.
Some successful schools have been practicing methods like these for decades. A critique by Lois Holzman, however, reveals their political isolation in a society apparently unmoved by their “democratic” objectives. “The lack of constraints on creative activity, coupled with the demand for personal and collective responsibility (via participatory democracy), creates infinite possibilities for learning development,” Holzman notes with admiration, but she also finds “a cynicism and mistrust about the possibility of collective social transformation — an unspoken assumption that the creation of havens is the best we can do” (Schools for Growth: Radical Alternatives to Current Educational Models, 1997). Moreover, although such schools can be successful on a small scale, many of them are private and not accessible to low-income students. Today, however, the revived movement for alternative education may be expanding the opportunities for public, student-centered education.
One public school that uses such learning techniques is the Urban Academy, located in the Julia Richman complex in Manhattan. Among its features are classes with heterogenous groupings, as students of different ages select courses based upon their interests and skill levels. Students are also required to participate in community service, which helps them learn about careers and college (97 percent of the graduates go to college). Thomas Toch (High Schools on a Human Scale, 2003) observes that the Urban Academy “serves many students who have failed at other schools, places students in leading roles in the classroom, and replaces standardized tests with long-term projects culminating in public presentations.”
A more detailed evaluation reveals that Urban Academy is “an unorthodox high school. Teachers go by their first names. Kids can listen to iPods and other gadgets while they take tests. Classes are made up of students from all grades. In-class debates get heated and so can students’ language. The halls are lined with worn couches, where students retire in groups during lunch and other breaks to hang out or listen to impromptu musical performances by their classmates.” In this atmosphere, Urban is “able to take kids who have not been successful anywhere else and prepare them for graduation and subsequent achievement, in some cases at elite colleges . . .”
El Puente in New York City, with an 83 percent Latino student population of 180, is another public school that uses the more progressive educational techniques of “active learning.” According to an outside evaluation, “El Puente expects its students to become activists. . . Students get involved in community projects. A senior might intern at a medical clinic run by local Woodhull Hospital to help research the rate of diabetes . . . in the community, and write a paper about it for science. Students also maintain nearby gardens; seniors . . . paint murals on the garden walls.” El Puente’s graduation rate is already higher than the city-wide rate for minority students (48 percent compared to the previously cited 30 percent for Latinos) – a disappointing rate, but the school is only in its formative stage.
One of the most comprehensive approaches to education today takes place at the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) and its Promise Academies, founded by Geoffrey Canada. This is a public school that serves low-income, predominantly African-American children, and has been cited by President Obama as a model of school reform. Starting with a “Baby College” that gives workshops to parents of infants and toddlers, the HCZ network includes in-school, after-school, social-service, health, and community-building programs. (John Dewey made clear the need for such community-centered learning environments when he emphasized “bring[ing] the work into vital connection with pupils’ experiences” and “vary[ing] school materials to meet the special needs and definite features of local life.”)
While the learning and assessment styles at HCZ have been criticized as no different from any other teach-to-the-test school, Marty Lipp, communications director, defends the school as “a new project in a high-needs area” that “has admitted young learners who enter the program far behind in basic skills and has had to produce these testing results to validate our approach.” Students who have been in the HCZ from early childhood and are working at grade level, he told me, have opportunities for a richer classroom learning experience: “The Promise Academies teach art, music and other subjects besides reading and math for all their students.”
Many methods of assessment other than standardized testing are known to educators and policymakers. Why are these student-centered educational techniques rarely implemented?
The first reason is that small and enlightened learning environments are expensive to run — and American budget priorities are hugely skewed against such expenditure. In 2002, our country ranked thirty-seventh in the world in education spending as a percentage of GNP—while our military spending greatly exceeded the rest of the world’s combined. According to the National Priorities Project, expenditures on the Iraq war alone, as of 2007, could have provided over 21 million full scholarships to public universities, or more than seven million new public school teachers.
Second, admission to such schools is usually determined by lottery rather than by neighborhood location. As my late mother, a great educator, was fond of saying, “Some kids are smart enough to pick the right parents.”) As a result, the schools rarely become neighborhood-centered institutions or receive much community support.
Another stumbling block is that the educated, highly motivated women who used to be limited to teaching as a career option today have many others. Such teachers are likely to be driven out of the profession by the excessive bureaucratization and test-driven agenda of the public school system. Overall, in fact, about 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within five years of entering it.
Finally, the purpose of education for most school systems is simply not the individual development of young minds, but the drilling of youngsters into conformist patterns of behavior to make them amenable to the demands of our economic system. For all that corporations cry about needing creative, collaborative, self-motivated workers in the new ‘information’ economy, they are really talking about an elite strata of managers, not “social conscience” citizens of the kind described by Joel Westheimer. What John Dewey saw —and opposed — as an essentially vocational system of education is still the norm. It is doubtful, therefore, that even if the high-stakes testing assessment movement were discredited, the changes necessary in our school systems would be widely adopted. True school reform requires a thorough reappraisal of the actual meaning of education, and a reorientation towards the cultivation of citizens, not merely wage-earners.

Joel Shatzky is Professor Emeritus of English at the State University of New York College at Cortland. He has written a critical study of the decline of writing in college, The Thinking Crisis (with T. Ellen Hill, 2001).

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