By Gary Earl Ross
The end of the 2012-13 academic year is a perfect time for American education to take a long look in the mirror. What it will see, from stem to stern, is a system greatly in need of re-engineering, despite the much-heralded Common Core learning standards.
As anyone who visits www.core-standards.org can attest, the standards themselves are general and flexible. Thanks to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, however, standardized testing has become the core focus, with teacher and administrator evaluations hinging upon student performance. When livelihoods are at stake, is it at all surprising that suspicions of cheating or outright scandals have arisen in Georgia, Texas, the District of Columbia and elsewhere? With so many state education officials leaving to work for or start standardized testing companies, is it any wonder so much public money is spent on test purchase and scoring?
What happens when scores aren’t high enough? In New York, with shifting Regents passing scores, we have seen the backpedaling Alfie Kohn describes in his 2000 book, “The Case Against Standardized Testing.” Other consequences include more calls for charter schools, dysfunctional school boards drawn into politics and demagoguery, endless reshuffling of personnel and doubling down in obviously foolish ways, like requiring that foreign-born students new to English be on grade level in reading in a year.
As if test-prep, social work, and de facto parenting are not enough, some people now call for educators to be armed so they can add “security guard” to their resumes.
Nor is higher education immune. Colleges are on the verge of pricing themselves out of existence. With student debt that follows to the grave and many graduates underemployed, how can anyone justify $200,000 for a bachelor’s degree? With 60 percent to 70 percent of courses taught by well-educated but poorly paid adjuncts or non-tenure track faculty (while some administrative salaries float in middle six-figures), colleges that embrace the business model of getting the most for the least are seriously undermining their own product.
If the thesis of the new book “Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking” by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander is correct, thinking (and therefore learning) depends upon building a complex web of associations, pictures and metaphors. Any well-educated person can point to mentors who shaped his or her critical thinking. How can true mentors be found among assembly line test-preppers or part-timers teaching eight courses per semester at five colleges, just to make ends meet?
Is this any way for a nation determined to remain on top to run an educational system?
Gary Earl Ross is a professor at the University at Buffalo Educational Opportunity Center.