Our vision began with A Nation at Risk creating an urgency based on competition against Russia and emerging global economies. We have since transitioned into leaving no child behind, and we are now focused on "college and career readiness".
These have all sounded good from their inception, all have been used in campaign speeches and state of the union addresses. They have been the cornerstone of education policies and created a nearly one trillion dollar industry. These visions have crafted every sub-category of our educational debate. The US Department of Education wants to "promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness", the Florida Department of Education wants to "increase the proficiency of all students", and my own local school district wants to be the "top producer of successful students in the nation."
Who can argue with such great soundbites? I will.
"Achievement", "proficiency", and "success" along with other great buzzwords like "rigor", "data", and "accountability" have done wonders for elected officials, government appointees, and educational leaders (who are rarely, if ever, educators). Policies are crafted around these words, bills are written around these words, textbooks and curriculum packages are sold around these words, and students are forgotten because of these words. All these words fit under the current national education vision of "college and career readiness" and I am here to say that this vision is wrong and it is this vision that is currently hurting our students and will suffocate our future.
What is our purpose of education? Currently, the purpose is to fit children into college enrollment statistics or cubicles/uniforms that already exist. All the education policies of today, from the national level to the school level are doing this. Ask why I teach algebra to my students and one of those two options will be the answer. These two ends for children have created the education industry. In this industry created by our national education vision, college and career readiness can be analyzed and measured. Therefore, all stakeholders within the industry, from state chancellors to students, can be measured against the metrics and held accountable. New tools for success in these two ends, from tests to entire schools, are being created and used. Students are reduced to data points, teachers are rendered obsolete, and we can claim success based on two simplistic ends: college and career readiness.
The problem is that the current vision ignores 2 large issues. The first is the rate of change in the global economy. Advancements in technology, communications, and thought are making the world much smaller and competition much more fierce. The second issue is the disabling of the greatest advantage the United States has: innovation. As a country we were born, raised, and launched to prominence due to our spirit, creativity, and thirst for newness and adventure. We can regain all this by simply changing the vision of education.
What should be the purpose of education? First and foremost it should be about the students. It should be about what they can do for themselves and the future. Since none of us can predict the future, we need to abandon the focus on college and career readiness. With our current vision, by the time students graduate from high school their education will be obsolete. So, we should have an education vision that is adaptable, focused on the student, and ready for innovation.
Our vision should be about Learning and Knowledge. Yes it is vague. Yes it is difficult to measure. Yes it will look different for nearly everyone. Yet students are people (which we currently do not acknowledge) and people are complex. So, our education must be complex. We cannot fit students into molds. We must give them all the knowledge possible so they can learn to think and create their own molds. Can a test measure this? No. Can a pre-designed curriculum deliver this? Not on its own. As much as I love Khan Academy, it works best when I am there to give a high five, or a touch on the shoulder. With this vision, we will need teachers. We will need our schools to support our students, not the other way around (which is what we currently have).
In the current focus on "college and career ready", we are narrowing our potential, alienating students, and stifling innovation. Why do I teach algebra to my students? Because it is knowledge, it can be learned, and most importantly, it can be fun. It's not a means an end, it is the end itself. If we focus on Learning and Knowledge, we can set every student on their own path. We can teach students for the sake of learning, not some utilitarian design (be it a test score, enrollment requirement, or a job skill). We can ensure students have a love of thinking, a love of discovery, and what our world truly needs: a love of creativity and innovation. But this can only happen if we Challenge the Vision.