“The single biggest problem in American education is that no one agrees on why we educate,” observes Diane Ravitch. ”Faced with this lack of consensus, policy makers define good education as higher test scores.” Ravitch’s comments come in a forum published by the New York Times Magazine, which also features input from Tom Vander Ark, Geoffrey Canada, Charles Murray and others. Ravitch writes:
Why do we educate? We educate because we want citizens who are capable of taking responsibility for their lives and for our democracy. We want citizens who understand how their government works, who are knowledgeable about the history of their nation and other nations. We need citizens who are thoroughly educated in science. We need people who can communicate in other languages. We must ensure that every young person has the chance to engage in the arts.
Reflecting on the theme of “How to Remake Education,” Vander Ark stumps for more attention to technology. “By 2020, I believe most high-school students will do most of their learning online,” he writes. “It shouldn’t take that long, but it will.” Charles Murray argues we should “discredit the bachelor’s degree as a job credential”; while Canada believes we should lengthen the U.S. school year, which is “one of the shortest school years in the industrialized world.”
I’m with Diane. There is a clear failure of vision in American education at present, especially in poor, urban schools. We have narrowed the definition of what it means to be educated in America. When affluent parents choose a school for their children—when they enroll in a private school or buy a home near specific schools–reading scores are simply not part of their calculus. It is assumed that in a good school every child will learn to read, and then read to learn. That’s simply what schools do. When policy makers, education reformers and even teachers and administrators evaluate what makes schools in poor, urban neighborhoods good or bad, however, a single litmus test applies: performance on standardized reading tests. For the children of the poor, a good grade on a state reading test has become what it means to be educated. The contrast could not be clearer: we set the finish line for other people’s children where we set the starting line for our own.