In the last two months the New York Times has put out a series of articles addressing No Child Left Behind Act.
One of these articles notes that in upcoming revision of the bill, education standards will likely be made more rigorous. Although I'm not exactly sure what that means, the article hints that it will involve requiring states to use better standardized tests and set learning standards that are more on par with states that have traditionally been known for holding high expectations for students (like Massachusetts). I can only imagine the goal of this is to attempt to ensure that all of our students will be well-prepared for their post-public-education experience. And while I agree that it is a worthwhile endeavor to see to it that all of our students share some collective base of knowledge, I believe there is one element of education sadly underrepresented in almost every state's standards: character/ethics education.
There are days that I finish teaching and ask myself why my students really need to know what I just taught them. Why do my sophomores need to know that Midway was a turning point in World War II? or that John Locke believed the state of nature would be a relatively peaceful place? It's not that I don't see the relevance. There are many reasons these things are worth studying, but so often I believe that so many of my students need another kind of education far more desperately than they need the one I'm giving them. In all honesty, many of my students will never, ever, ever need to explain why John Locke was so optimistic about human nature or why it matters. Nintety-nine percent of them will have no problem living their lives contently without this knowledge.
And so I ask myself, "If it's three-quarters through the year, and I'm so burnt out on teaching this material that I've lost my enthusiasm, and I'm just pushing the kids through it so they can take the test and pass (and forget all the material within a few days), and all of my students just see it as a hoop to jump through if they ever want to graduate, then what the hell am I doing? Why am I wasting my time and their time on this?" And most importantly, "Is this the purpose of education?"
Sigh. I've always believed the single most important benefit of education is to improve the quality of life for as many people as possible. Education does this in a number of ways. It empowers us to take action in our community. It empowers us to apply for better paying jobs. It empowers us to think critically about our world and take satisfaction in the little things in life. It empowers us to empower others. However, I believe there is a big difference between valuable, quality education and the educational system. And I fear that many students confuse the two for one. The system makes you jump through hoops to graduate. The system requires that you learn to sit silently for ninety mintues until your teacher is done talking. The system teaches you to fill bubbles in properly. The system forces knowledge down your throat so that you may not create it yourself. Education on the other hand is a glorious, creative, wonderful process in which students develop a sense of wonder and empowerment. I fear, though, that too many of our students believe that the system is education.
Forgetting standards for a minute, what difference do I really want to make on my students? How do I want them to change? Part of the answer to these questions does lie in the standards. I want my students to learn to compare and contrast. I want them to be able to detect bias. I want them to realize the important role the past plays in their everyday lives. But more importantly than any of that, I want my students to become tolerant, compassionate, loving citizens who care about their community and want to make a difference in the world. I think of Helen Keller's famous quote: "The highest result of education is tolerance." Nothing could be more true. These are the values (standards) I believe our classrooms so often fail to demonstrate to our students. They need to know that they are worth something, that they are valued and that it is important for them to value others, despite differences they may encounter. So where are those standards? Why do I spend so much time stressing about how to teach my students about the Battle of Midway and not stressing about ways to get my them to internalize the values of tolerance and acceptance. (I do believe, by the way, that the Battle of Midway - or any war related topic - is a great jumping off point for teaching these values. It's just that I too often feel that I don't have time to jump off before I have to move to the next standard.)
It's not that standards aren't useful or that all knowledge isn't valuable. It's that knowledge can only take you so far in life. I believe it's our attitutudes and dispositions toward life and people that contribute more to our quality of life in the long run. This is the wisdom we should spend the most amount of time on with our young people. Instead, these values are far too often left to after school activities and between-class discussions. If standards are going to drive what we as teachers, parents, and administrators stress over, then let's implement more standards that have to do with developing a sense of community, self-worth, and tolerance; or at the very least commit more to encorporating those values into the cirriculum we already teach. Our students deserve something different from an education than scorn for the repetition of the system.