What Do We Want for Our Children?

Battles over education policy are raging across the US this year, part of a long and explosive buildup that’s created acrimonious relationships between teachers, administrators, parents, children, policymakers, and others involved in the process of education. One of the things that the debate has highlighted is a deep sense of conflict in the United States over what people want for their children, who gets to be in charge of determining what is good for children overall in the US, regardless as to the personal wishes of parents and their families. In an era when everything seems to be falling apart, we are failing the future generation, and all the proposals for ‘fixing’ education seem to be focused on some very specific aims that don’t necessarily address the needs of children and educators.

We’re told that education is meant to provide opportunities to the next generation, to benefit them and society. And that’s something I happen to believe, as well. More educated people have a better chance of succeeding at life, and they become part of the replacement generation of professionals we need to replace retiring firefighters, doctors, attorneys, and other critical members of society. Education also provides more intrinsic benefits to society, creating a culture rich in arts, exploration, research, and curiousity. Opening young minds opens society as a whole to create a more complex and innovative nation.

Yet, these goals seem to be at a mismatch with what schools are actually providing. Not by fault of the teachers, but as a result of peculiar tangles of policy that don’t serve children at all. At the same time politicians trumpet about accountability for teachers and demand the use of standardised testing in the classroom to assess children and their instructors, they don’t seem to be clear on what they want teachers to be accountable for; and this is a key component of this discussion.

While schools are ostensibly about providing education, policymakers seem to have their own priorities. There’s a definite tendency to promote policies that aren’t designed to expand young minds and provide opportunities, but rather to force children into conformity, creating molds that children must adhere to. Teachers are ordered to stick to extremely narrow curricula that advances specific ideas and their instruction is supposed to be more about rote and forcing information into children, rather than encouraging children to explore.

I had what one might consider a sort of liberal arts education through high school because of the nature of the schools I attended and the priorities set by teachers and administrators. I was encouraged to think critically, to evaluate information independently, to challenge my teachers. I was not taught to the test, although standardised testing was imposed in our schools by the state (I didn’t take the tests because I requested an exemption). I graduated as a well-rounded student, but, more than that, as a student with the tools to go on educating myself and engaging with society in new ways.

Such opportunities can’t be provided in an educational model where teachers are restricted and where the focus is on arbitrary metrics of performance rather than meaningful evaluations. It’s telling that advocates for testing, limited curricula, and very prescriptive educational methods usually aren’t educators and don’t have education experience. Children are not machines; you can’t perform an 18 point inspection to determine whether they’re good to go. They are complex human beings with varied talents and skills who need to be encouraged and allowed to develop in the way that best serves them, which is going to vary from student to student.

One student might be more suited to a very academic path, with an interest in higher education and specific educational needs to prepare for it. Another student might be interested in the arts, or planning to become a tradesperson, and these students have different requirements. All these students would potentially perform very differently on standardised tests, but that wouldn’t mean the teacher or students are failing; they could be preparing for precisely the lives they need and want, developing the skills they need, and being enriched by their educational experience. None of that shows when you fill out a bubble sheet.

Politically, the signaling I’m getting about what this nation wants for its children is a nation of standardised automatons who perform in exactly the same way and are taught to think, act, and move in uniformity. This is at odds with the stated goals for education, with the reality of education, and with the supposed mission of the US as a whole. This is supposed to be a nation of innovators, of thinkers, of people who can dream of amazing things and then do them. The current approach to education on a national policy level is not one that facilitates that. In fact, it actively hinders it.

What do we want for our children? We want them to be happy and safe, of course, but we also want them to be educated appropriately. And everyone seems to have a very different idea of what an appropriate education looks like, which illustrates the failings of a system that attempts to be one size fits all. There’s a reason so many teachers are frustrated and fed up, striking because of poor working conditions and onerous policies. And there’s a reason so many parents and children are angry with the education system, feeling let-down and underserved by it.

Very few students flourish in an environment dedicated to very rigid educational standards that don’t have a meaningful connection with reality in the classroom or the outside world at large. And I don’t want to live in a country that suppresses critical thought, creativity, and diversity in its youth and calls it education.