Sunday, October 27, 2013

An education that inspires

On Friday morning, I presented the Reading Partners program  model  to five SAP employees at one of our schools in South Dallas. The elementary school students at Roger Q. Mills are in need of mentors and tutors who will support and encourage them – believe in their ability to succeed not only in school, but also in life. I spoke of the Reading Center and how it is purposely designed to be a warm, welcoming environment where students can come and not fear making mistakes, but rather have the freedom to learn and grow with all the mistakes that this process essentially requires.

Just one day later, I spoke to a 11th grade English and theology teacher, and though not teaching in a low-income elementary school, in our short conversation, I gathered he felt conflicted by the same sentiment I did my utmost to express to the SAP volunteers – our dire need for an education that inspires.

One thought led to another and so here I am  sharing a small section from  a paper  I wrote last year. I have since had the privilege of hearing Arne Duncan speak in-person and my study of his rhetoric has thereafter been of even more personal appeal to me.

A note of caution, this may be long and tiresome for some, but if you are even slightly interested in education policy or political rhetoric, you may find something (maybe just a sentence or two) somewhat fascinating. : )

To start, knowledge is an abstract term, difficult both to measure and define. Unlike the agricultural age, the information age does not provide measures by which quantity or worth can be rightly determined. Whereas information implies the knowing of facts, knowledge seems to imply much more and yet, a cogent definition is found wanting (Jonshcer, 1999, p. 37). This epistemology dilemma has long been debated and today has relevance to economic life. It is acknowledged “the root of the word ‘knowledge’ is the verb ‘to know’, which refers to a state of knowing, a continuous ongoing state” (Jonschcer, 1999, p. 44). This considered, knowledge is advanced over an extended period of time. For the human being, knowledge is accumulated throughout the duration of one’s life. For humankind, knowledge is conserved for generations to come and thus is accumulated on a grand scale, allowing for the continual expansion of globally shared knowledge (Jonschcer, 1999, pp. 44-45). Scientific knowledge, business information, indeed, all forms of knowledge are expanding at an immense degree. The information age, as the modern day has been called, is propelled by knowledge and innovative advances in information technology (Jonschcer, 1999, p. 62). Current society has been dramatically altered by this age of information. Evidence of this can be observed in almost all spheres of society, most particularly economic life.

In contrast to the debated economic benefit afforded by this great diffusion of knowledge, several potential problems must also be addressed. As identified by Frances Cairncross, three problems encompass the primary policy issues as observed today. The first problem concerns the sharing or rather, the non-sharing of knowledge (2001, p. 13). This can best be observed in the evolution of the legal principles that govern today’s intellectual property rights (Cairncross, 2011, p. 231). Secondly, the globalization of knowledge creates concerns regarding the regulation of personal information. Matters of privacy and questions regarding the government’s role in its preservation are greatly contested. Thirdly, as previously mentioned, society has been greatly altered, resulting in an altered workplace and home. Societal roles are flexible in nature and knowledge has become both a product and means of economic gain (Cairncross, 2001, p. 13). The United States is posed with the challenge of keeping in step with the information technology revolution, or else fall terribly behind.

Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum (2011) reflect on the state of the United States in That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back and boldly state the following: “America plays a huge and, more often than not, constructive role in the world today. But that role depends on the country's social, political, and economic health. And America today is not healthy—economically or politically” (2011, p. xi). As the title suggests, the authors contend that the United States is failing to overcome the challenges of the current day. Should this pattern persist, the United States will no longer be recognized as a leader of nations. The revolution in information technology, as previously discussed, is identified as one of the four main challenges posed to the United States. The authors address this challenge and call for the revitalization of creative, critical thinking. In today’s altered world, there is a dire need for an education that inspires. According to Friedman and Mandelbaum (2011), the education system in the United States is in flux, continually changing in response to advances in technology. They contend that “the world increasingly will be divided between high-imagination-enabling counties, which encourage and enable the imagination and extras of their people, and low-imagination-enabling countries . . .” (2011, p. 138). American educators are thus posed with the challenge of inspiring imagination and teaching students to become workers in a world defined by the knowledge economy. In order to maintain its international competitiveness, the United States must be counted among the “high-imagination-enabling counties.” Such a feat, however, is not easily recognized.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international study coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and designed to determine the efficacy of education systems throughout the world. The study was first conducted in 2000 and since then has been administered every three years. It produces reliable data gathered by testing the knowledge and skills of 15-year-old students from participating countries and economies. The 2009 survey provides the most recent results concerning the comparative success of students in reading, mathematics and science (OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, 2011). For the United States, the results indicate a difficult truth. The United is essentially being “out-educated” by a number of countries and economies.

These harrowing findings were directly addressed by Duncan at the National Center on Education and the Economy National Symposium. Reflecting upon the results of the 2009 PISA survey, Duncan remarks, “These top performing nations not only were doing a better job of accelerating achievement and attainment nationwide than America, they also were doing a better job of closing achievement gaps among minority and disadvantaged students.” Later in the address he states, “Clearly, our education system is not as far down the track as those of top performers, nor are we anywhere near where we need to be to win the race for the future. But we are not off-track, or chugging down an abandoned spur line” (U.S. Department of Education, 2011a). Laden with metaphors, Duncan’s linguistic choices seem to frame education reform as a competitive challenge. The situation is defined as a “race for the future” where countries compete on a “track”, racing one another for first place.

In this matter, Duncan’s remarks are deeply reminiscent of the landmark report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. According to Holly G. McIntush, the report “treated education reform as an urgent problem couched in economic terms” (McIntush, 2000, p. 426). In a similar manner to Duncan’s address, the academic underachievement of American students is framed as a boding threat, inciting a sense of competitive nationalism. Reform in the education system is considered a dire necessity, without which national security and the economy are in jeopardy (McIntush, 2000, p. 427). As such, universal education is subservient to the economic interests of the United States in this matter. The focus on building the United States’ competitive advantage in today’s knowledge economy is evident in Duncan’s address. He states, “Throughout the globe, education is now recognized as the new game-changer that drives economic growth and social change” (U.S. Department of Education, 2011a). This sentiment is carried throughout the text.

Indeed, schools are instructed to prepare students to be competitive in today’s knowledge economy at the risk, according to Robert B. Stevenson (2007), of utterly ignoring the creative arts and principles of citizenship. Stevenson continues to states that rather than inspire young people to be responsible environmental citizens, teachers are solely concerned with ensuring students rank well on standardized tests (2007, pp. 270-271). Elizabeth Bullen, Simon Robb, and Jane Kenway (2004) make a similar argument and offer an alternative conceptualization of the knowledge economy, one that includes the prioritization of the humanities and creative arts. The authors lament that the knowledge economy policy views knowledge simply in terms of education’s economic advantage. Knowledge as a social good, it is posited, is no longer a policy concern. The value of the humanities and creative arts in education is not a measurable commodity and thus fails to be recognized amidst the rhetoric of the technology revolution and knowledge economy (Bullen et al., 2004, p. 9). Furthermore, Sheldon Ungar (2003) contends that in reaction to the processes of the knowledge economy, society has, in fact, become “knowledge-adverse.” The overload of information and emphasis on specialized knowledge has increased ignorance rather than knowledge. James D. Marshall (2008) posits that in reaction to the knowledge economy, knowledge takes precedent over ethics and a moral approach to education reform. As such, the self has been lost among the rhetoric of competitive nationalism. Marshall contends that the knowledge economy “has become a catchword in political and educational debate over the last decade or so, especially in the area of educational policy where the role of education in preparing young people to take their part in the Knowledge Economy is often seen as paramount over traditional schooling activities” (Marshall, 2008, p. 149-150). Such criticisms of the knowledge economy are not addressed by Duncan in his address. Rather, Duncan speaks positively of the future of education in the United States and the strengthening of the nation’s competitive advantage in the knowledge economy.