Education: the Sabotage of a Generation

Everything in this heartbreaking article rings bell after bell, from the perspective of more than forty years on both sides of college and graduate classrooms. And from my desk, critiquing student written work. I think we will find the intellectual damage done to current American students by the testing/NCLB disaster is comparable to the effect of poisoning previous generations with leaded gasoline. Well, at least it doesn’t cause violent crime.

This outcome is the predictable offspring of a marriage of two profound misapprehensions. The first is a desperate, but doomed, hope that something as complicated and personal as education can be fixed by a piece of bureaucratic, mechanistic administrative machinery. Really helping students learn is complicated, hard to do, and probably expensive; surely there’s some automatic process we can wind up and let loose that operates without anyone having to really think about what it is doing! The second is the absurd imperialism of a crippled, myopic economics that (i) infers, from the undeniable effects of money (and firing-threat) incentives in some contexts, that people can be either bribed or threatened to do anything, and (ii) that the only reality is what can be easily measured, whether by prices in markets or bubble short answer tests.

As readers of my other posts are aware, I am far from hiding behind the preparation problem as an excuse not to attend to our own (college) practice. But two things can true at the same time. There is no way four years of college can do what we traditionally expect of it, and also make up the unfinished work being passed to us.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.