Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Syria Debate Exposes Another Failure of Our Education System

The current debate over bombing Syria in response to news of nerve gas being used against citizens has led many legislators and commentators to draw on history for analogies as they try to stake out a position on the use of force. This application of history is a stark reminder to me about one of the many deficiencies in New Jersey’s current HSPA exam and the Core Content Curriculum Standards.

In terms of the standards, my recollection is that some but not all of the historical references are “required” by the CCCS. However, my criticism is not that the standards aren’t broad enough, it is rather that they are all too often too broad; teachers will never be able to teach everything, and in fact I believe that the requirements are already so broad that very little true learning is actually taking place, given the amount of time it takes to confirm true learning takes place, given the amount of time that the “learning and assessment” process actually takes. My position is that the more important job of teachers is to instill and reinforce a love of learning in students so that truly interested “future adults” will want and be able to research the information they need to understand the issues being introduced through the media.

My even greater concern is with the HSPA. The current HSPA graduation exam only tests in Language Arts and Math, even though the CCCS requires content in a broad array of subjects including social studies. By not including social studies in the exam- and yes I know that changes are being proposed- the teachers in this subject area are not being held truly accountable for instruction. Equally important, we don’t really know if students are truly learning the subject matter.

Our CCCS are completely detached from reality and the needs of all students graduating from high school. It is incumbent on our political leaders and academic experts to transform the exam into one that tests students in areas they will truly need to function as mature and independent young adults with a love of learning. Health and physical fitness, legal literacy, financial literacy, scientific and environmental literacy, cultural and historical literacy, technological literacy, and the reading, writing, speaking, and researching skills needed to function in business and social settings. These content needs should be narrowly conceived so that the majority of teaching being done is curriculum designed and conceived of by the teachers themselves, based on their personal knowledge and passion. Student wants should also be integrated into the high school learning experience through the use of focus groups.

Back to my original point.  Most adults remember very little of the content they learned in high school, and we frankly do not have any way of knowing whether they received instruction in the moments in history being discussed in the discussion over Syria. My point is that if we turn our focus from content to skills and to a perspicacious attitude towards knowledge that adults will quickly be able to find and evaluate the information they are being exposed to.

A true, vigorous republican form of government requires an informed citizenry. Until we transform the way learning is “delivered,” and until we replenish our pool of teachers will content specialists rather than those with education degrees, we will continue to fail our teenagers and graduate young adults ill-equipped to meet the demands dictated by life in a market economy governed by intelligently selected representatives. Maybe that is what those in power fear the most; what other conclusion can we reach given the failure of today’s leaders to provide a sound system of education, especially for those most vulnerable to our economy and to our democracy.

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