In his State of the Union address on January 28, President Bush, our self-styled “education president,” urged Congress to re-authorize the No Child Left Behind Act, calling it a “good law” and claiming that because of this legislation student learning is improving and “minority students are closing the achievement gap.” In reality, student learning is not improving under NCLB, and the so-called racial achievement gap is a fraud. But through a combination of sleight-of-hand, cooking the numbers, and manipulating the metaphors George Bush could make those claims with a smile.
The education revolution that Bush touts is the result of decades of “school reform” spearheaded by business and powered by ideologues. “Global competitiveness” is the preoccupation, “accountability” and “standards” the watch-words, and all of it results in a ramped-up obsession with standardized testing and an emphasis on minimal competencies along a narrow band of cognition and skills. The business metaphor dominates the discourse: inputs in relation to outputs, discipline and punishment, incentives and competitiveness.
It’s worth asking ourselves what makes education in a democracy distinct. Of course we want children to study hard, to be responsible, to stay away from drugs, and to be prepared for work. But those are goals we share with totalitarian regimes, monarchies, dictators and kings. So what is uniquely characteristic of democratic education?
The founders of American education spoke of forging a common culture and preparing youth for lives of citizenship. The democratic aspiration was that young people would grow into reflective, critical citizens, capable of work and also self-governance, full participation and free thinking. The aim of education in a democracy is not the production of things but the production of free human beings; the goal, in W.E.B. DuBois’ phrase, not so much to make carpenters of men, but to make full human beings of carpenters.
Education in a democracy demands equity, access, and an acknowledgment of the humanity of each person. The job of schools is to stimulate latent interests, desires, and dreams that cause people to question, to challenge, to criticize, and to act. Obedience and conformity are the enemies of democracy; initiative and courage are its hallmarks.
The right wing attack on public education has taken many forms: an unhealthy obsession with standardized tests as a measure of intelligence and accomplishment; the elevation of zero tolerance as a cultural weapon used to sort students into winners and losers with a disproportionate number of students of color on the losing end, and the widespread use of a market metaphor to judge school effectiveness. This campaign never raises the issue of fair funding, of equal access, of generous pay for teachers, of rebuilding dilapidated schools, of encouraging students to ask their own questions in pursuit of their own goals.
NCLB has had a huge impact on school districts, and the impact has been devastating for poor schools. The curriculum has narrowed to what is testable, the arts and sports have been stripped from schools, teachers have been dispirited and discouraged. President Bush’s overall grade is F.
William Ayers, author of Teaching Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom, is Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the founder of the Small Schools Workshop and the Center for Youth and Society, and other books include Teaching the Personal and Political, On the Side of the Child, To Teach, A Simple Justice, A Kind and Just Parent, and Fugitive Days: A Memoir.