What We Measure Matters

I don’t usually write about the details of my 9-to-5 work (0r 8-to-6, or whatever) here in the Wild West of the blogosphere. Besides my general level of caution about being “inappropriate” or “indiscreet,” I also know someone in my circle of acquaintance who was quite literally Dooced, some years ago. So yeah: I consider discretion to be very much the better part of valor.

Marshallville-One-room-Schoolhouse-300x225What I do feel comfortable saying is that I do advancement work for an educational non-profit — which is the field and non-profit sector I’ve been working in for 11 years now. And, because it’s helpful to my work AND because I have a genuine interest in the topic, I regularly make the time to read books, articles, blogposts, etc. that help me expand my understanding of the challenges, trends, concerns, and opportunities that exist in schools and in the educational field writ large. Sometimes I even borrow books from the office “library” to help me stay plugged in.

And today, in that spirit — between the truly massive amount of sleeping I did last night, the tiny bit of laundry-folding/house-puttering that occurred, and then the lengthy nap that was required ‘cos I hadn’t slept enough last night* — I finished reading Mike Rose’s collection of essays Why School?

Rose’s subtitle, Reclaiming Education for All of Us, is suggestive of his desire to refocus the lens of educational discourse away from the usual obsessive focus on knowledge and workforce preparation as signaled by the results of high-stakes standardized testing. This desire is summarized by Rose in this HuffPo post about the book:

There’s not much public discussion of achievement that includes curiosity, reflectiveness, imagination, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Consider how little we hear about intellect, aesthetics, joy, courage, creativity, civility, understanding. For that matter, think of how rarely we hear of commitment to public education as the center of a free society. . . . My hope is that “Why School?” contributes to a more humane and imaginative discussion of schooling in America.

The book is an engaging and thought-provoking read, and I definitely recommend it for folks interested in education. Be aware going in that the book is about asking big questions and providing answers that rest at the level of ideals, values, and visions. Not so many concrete implementable suggestions, but that’s okay by me.

Rose lays out a cogent analysis of how current educational trends are the inevitable flowering of a flawed set of values. I found some of the middle essays in the collection most persuasive and illuminating on this score.

For example, “Business Goes to School”  highlights the self-serving contradictions of a corporate culture that demands the education system prepare critically reflective problem-solving workers-of-the-future while also selling an easy economy of glitz and glamour and anti-intellectualism:

So many of the commercially driven verbal and imagistic messages that surround our young people work against the development of the very qualities of mind the business community tells the schools it wants. (61)

“Reflections on Intelligence in the Workplace and the Schoolhouse” calls out the intellectual laziness of intellectual snobbery around defining “intelligence” as solely located in the institutions of schoolhouse and university:

If we think that whole categories of people–identified by class, by occupation–are not that bright, then we reinforce social separations and cripple our ability to talk across our current cultural divides. . . . To acknowledge our collective capacity is to take the concept of variability seriously. . . . To affirm this conception of mind and work is to be vigilant for the intelligence not only in the boardroom but on the shop floor; in the laboratory and alongside the house frame; in the workshop and in the classroom. This is a model of mind that befits the democratic imagination. (86-87)

And, finally,** “Re-mediating Remediation”  draws on Rose’s own teaching history to argue that the most effective way to increase literacy skills for teen, college and adult learners is to address reading and writing challenges in the context of challenging, engaging, age-appropriate metrical, rather than through the usual menu of “dumbed down” workbook assignments:

[W]riting filled with grammatical error does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and that error can be addressed effectively as one is engaging such material. (130, emphasis added)

I am inclined to agree with Rose’s analysis that a lot of the flaws and misguided obsessions in the U.S. educational system are rooted in these flawed values and prejudices. Given that reality, I would suggest that an essential first step in effectively rethinking American education would be to plant the seeds of different, more functional values. And I’m grateful to Rose for carrying that task forward so persuasively.

* D’you think last weekend’s work finally caught up with me? I think so, too.

** “Finally” insofar as it’s the final essay I’m going to specifically highlight — not that this is the final insightful thing Rose has to say…


Image credit: http://www.hcsv.org/visit/tour-the-village/marshallville-school/

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