[dropcap]At[/dropcap] face value, these sorts of targets in literacy and numeracy may seem perfectly reasonable. Surely, eleven-year-olds should be able to do basic math including the times tables, write proper sentences, and read and focus well enough to get through a whole novel. I agree. I could do those things reasonably well when I was eleven and I’m glad I could. It concerns me that the children who rely completely on digital technologies to do calculations may lack a proper understanding of the mathematical concepts and processes that underpin them and may lose something in mental rigor and cultural understanding as a result. If one purpose of writing is the clear expression of thought, becoming competent in spelling, punctuation, and grammar is important, not incidental. Not everyone agrees, but I think there’s a strong case to consider here. So what’s the problem? There are several.
First, the high penalties for not meeting these targets can incline schools to focus on them in isolation, especially when teachers’ jobs are on the line. A common result is an emphasis on drilling, rote learning, and repetitive testing. Another is that other forms of learning are severely cut back or sacrificed altogether. One of the effects of NCLB in the United States has been a devastating decline in arts programs in schools as well as cuts in recess time and in provision for physical activity. All of this in spite of the copious research and practical experience that confirm how vital they all are for a healthy and productive learning environment. Politicians typically say that this is not what they have in mind, but it is typically what they achieve.
The second problem is that these policies demean teaching as a profession. Effective teaching is a sophisticated human process, not an impersonal delivery system. Properly understood, teachers are not service workers for government targets. Teachers have many roles for young people and for their communities, which require a complex understanding of content, pedagogy, and the students themselves. Effective teachers need to know the material they are teaching, the abilities and dispositions of their students, and the best ways to engage them. Even so, they cannot guarantee how much or how well children will learn. There are just too many variables. To set absolute targets and to threaten dismissal for those who fail to meet them show a crude misconception of how teaching and learning actually work in real schools with real people.
There is a third problem. These sorts of policies disregard the basic need for education to be child centered, a concept that is at the heart of the Reggio Emilia system. I know that for some people, child-centered education is a provocative term. They see it as code for what they consider to be discredited theories of “progressive” as opposed to “traditional” education, and it conjures up for them worrying images of children being allowed to roam free and buck authority as they “learn by discovery.” Nonetheless, for a range of reasons, the sorts of education that are most needed now must be child centered. Making education child centered is not the opposite of helping children to learn basic skills or to achieve high standards in other disciplines. On the contrary, it is the best way to facilitate them. But education has broader and deeper purposes too. Child-centered education is not the best way of achieving these purposes; it is the only way. So what is it?
The Teacher You Want To Be: Essays About Children, Learning, and Teaching, edited by Matt Glover and Ellin Oliver Keene, will release October 22nd.