Thursday, January 6, 2011

Do you know how to improve our schools?

Bill Gates knows. Yes, Bill Gates who gave us Windows – well, he did not exactly give it to us. After all, he ended up the world’s richest man and we are stuck with Windows. He has now distanced himself from Microsoft and become a national leader in education reform.
Bill Gates supports Pres. Obama’s intensified version of “No Child Left Behind”: standard testing in English, Math and Science which has transformed many schools into examination mills that prepare children to pass multiple-choice exams. But these children are only being drilled in English, Math and Science. They do not learn American history or world history. They know nothing about our political system. They know nothing about art; they do not learn to play an instrument. They are not equipped to be citizens in a democracy.
In science they may be able to answer certain age-appropriate questions on a test, but they have never tried to perform a scientific experiment. They have not played with robotics or computer programming. They may be able to read but are they able to think for themselves? No they just have memorized the “correct” answers. They are getting prepared for 1984.
Gates thinks about schools as any businessman thinks about his employees. If the business is not thriving – and many of our schools are not – who gets the blame? Well the teachers of course. Gates thinks that teachers should not be paid more for getting more education. We should not encourage teachers to learn more, to be intellectually curious and alive. They should be cogs in a complex machine. They should let their leaders do the thinking. (Maybe that’s how Microsoft manages to produce products like Vista)
Like many businesspeople, Gates thinks about education as a process producing future employees. Not too long ago, Jill Biden, wife of the vice president Joe Biden, held a conference in the White House about community colleges. The question was: how can community colleges prepare young people for the workplace of the future?
What an utterly inhuman way of thinking about the next generation of Americans and their education! The question we should ask about all education is: how will our schools prepare children and young people to lives the richest, most satisfying, fullest lives? The focus of education should not be on American children as workers but on their lives as valuable human beings. We should help them to be the best and most wonderful people they could possibly be.
Teachers deserve the same respect. They are not robots on an assembly line. They have individual relations with hundreds and thousands of children and young people in the course of which they try to transmit knowledge and skills, develop latent capacities, hold out high ideals and encourage their students to believe in themselves and to do as well as they possibly can.
Gates does not seem to know that there is a high correlation between poverty and poor school performance. 20% of American children live in poverty. Instead of badmouthing teachers, maybe Gates could use some of his billions to alleviate the poverty of these children. The odds are very good they would be doing much better in school also.
Passing multiple-choice tests every two years is not education. That might be good for rats in the laboratory. It is not adequate for human beings.
Why is that so hard to understand, Bill?