Children told to choose parents well

17th April 2009 at 01:00

The controlling metaphor that has shaped our discourse on schools for years imagines education as a commodity: a car, a box of bolts, a toilet. It posits schools as factories cranking out products. This 19th-century image for 21st-century schools is a dismal failure in its own terms, and worse, it betrays the demands of democracy.

The metaphor of schools as businesses, teachers as workers, students as commodities has taken hold in the United States, and has led to people imagining that closures and privatisations are natural and that relentless standardised testing is sensible; in fact, this is what true-believers call "reform".

State schools in many cities here have a chief executive officer (it's a business, remember). The CEO for Washington DC's schools, Michelle Rhee, warranted a cover story in Time magazine in early December entitled: "How to Fix America's Schools." The pivotal paragraph praised her for making more changes in a year-and-a-half on the job than other school leaders - "even reform-minded ones" - make in five: closing 21 schools (15 per cent of the total), and firing 100 central office personnel, 270 teachers and 36 principals. These are all policy moves that are supposed to stand for improvement.

Not a word on kids' learning or engagement with school, or a nod at evidence that might connect these moves with student progress. Not a mention of getting greater resources into this starving system, nor parent involvement... But, of course, evidence is the enemy of dogma, and this is faith-based, fact-free school policy at its purest.

Education in a democracy, at least theoretically, is distinct from education under an authoritarian regime. This is because life is geared toward and powered by a precious and fragile ideal: every human is of infinite and incalculable value, each a unique force.

All schools serve the societies in which they're embedded - an ancient agrarian community apprentices the young for participation in that world, apartheid schools mirror an apartheid society, and so on. An outsider can learn a lot about any society by peeking into its classrooms-the old South Africa had palaces of learning and small classes for the white kids, and overcrowded, dilapidated, and ill-equipped classes for the African kids. It makes perfect and perverse sense. Schools serve society; society is reflected in its schools.

Of course, practically all schools want their students to study hard and do their homework. Furthermore, schools in the old Soviet Union and fascist Germany produced some excellent scientists, athletes, musicians and so on. They also produced obedience and conformity, moral blindness and easy agreement, obtuse patriotism and a willingness to follow orders right into the furnaces.

In a democracy, one would expect something different-and this takes us back to first principles: democracy is based on a common faith in the incalculable value of every human, and that means that what the wisest and most privileged parents want for their kid is exactly what the community wants for all of its children.

This core value and first principle has obvious implications for educational policy: racial segregation is wrong, class separation unjust, disparate funding immoral. There is no justification in a democracy for the existence of one school for wealthy white kids funded to the tune of Pounds 15,000 per student per year, and another for poor immigrant kids or the descendants of formerly-enslaved people with access to Pounds 3,500 per student per year.

That offends the very idea that each person is equal in value and regard, and reflects instead the reactionary idea that some of us are more deserving and valuable than others. It also expresses the simple but crude and cruel message we send to children today concerning social policy toward them: choose the right parents! If you choose parents with money, access, social connection, privilege, your choices and your chances will expand; if not, you're on your own.

The democratic injunction has big implications for curriculum and teaching as well, for what is taught and how. We want our students to be able to think for themselves, to make judgments based on evidence and argument, to develop minds of their own.

We should refuse to teach obedience and conformity in favour of teaching courage, initiative, imagination, creativity, and more. These qualities cannot be delivered in top-down ways: they must be modelled and nourished, encouraged and defended.

Democratic teaching encourages students to develop the capacity to name the world for themselves, to identify the obstacles to their full humanity, and the courage to act on whatever the known demands. This kind of education is eye-popping and mind-blowing - always about opening doors and opening minds, as students forge their own pathways into a wider, shared world.

Much of what we call schooling shuts down meaningful choice-making. Much is based on obedience and conformity, the hallmarks of every authoritarian regime throughout history. Much of it banishes the unpopular, squirms in the presence of the unorthodox, hides the unpleasant. There's little space for scepticism, irreverence, questioning, doubt.

While many of us long for teaching as something transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves often locked in situations that reduce teaching to a kind of glorified clerking, passing along a curriculum of received wisdom and predigested and often false bits of information. This is a recipe for disaster.

Teachers, students and citizens should press for an education worthy of a democracy, including an end to sorting people into winners and losers through expensive standardised tests which act as pseudo-scientific forms of surveillance and an end to starving schools of needed resources, then blaming teachers and their unions for dismal outcomes.

All young people in a democracy, regardless of economic circumstance, deserve full access to richly-resourced classrooms led by caring, thoughtful, fully-qualified and generously-compensated teachers.

Bill Ayers, professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, is best known as Barack Obama's "terrorist pal", a dig at the academic's radical past in the Weather Underground. In an exclusive for 'The TES' England, he calls for fundamental changes to education in western countries.

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