National, Politics

Just Educate

So this topic is a bit broader than just what we’ve gone through here in Kansas, but given our recent history with education, the stuff happening in Texas does have a certain flavor that we know well. What I’m referring to, specifically, is the news that Texas has recently approved the usage of “updated” textbooks. I say “updated,” because of the obvious argument from the detractors that the books are being filled with biased information. And I’ve made no bones about my opinion that we’re already doing plenty to ensure students don’t have the skills necessary for truly powerful higher reasoning.

Let me be clear, I don’t know how true the bias is in Texas’s case, since I haven’t seen the books in question. But, there are some things I am comfortable commenting on that we should all be keeping in mind when it comes to education. The foremost of which is that education is only a political battleground when politicians are involved. Federal, state, it doesn’t matter. Go figure, right? Teachers just want to teach (yes, there’s always a bad apple people can find, but they are by far and long the exception, not the norm). Why, exactly, are we entranced with this idea that politicians are in a position to tell people how to educate kids? Is this not, exactly, what we’ve entrusted teachers for? These are the people with the day to day contact with kids, and the training (in theory) to try and adapt lessons to the ever-changing landscape of kids they see year after year. What, exactly, is your representative’s background in education that would entrust them to you to be telling your school how to do its job? The reality is, you cannot legislate success. Success comes from execution.

Aside: I’d love to see our representatives spend a month in the classrooms they are dictating requirements to. Even better, I’d like to see them handle the kids under the rules the teachers have to follow, without the teachers’ help. Walk a mile in their shoes, and all that.

Education has always been a somewhat contentious area for discussions of bias. But, we need to also be reasonable about our views of it. Even as recently as 2000, our educational system was relatively functional. I was a student in the 80s and 90s, and for the most part, I feel like my school served us with a general degree of success. We were seeing signs of that changing (and there’s a million stories of various types of manipulation that’s taken place over the decades), but No Child Left Behind was, in my humble opinion, the real watershed moment for political involvement. That said, you can’t escape debates of teacher bias, and their attempts to “indoctrinate” kids into one way of thinking or another. Most of that is subconscious though, not intentional – and it’s most certainly not malicious. Here’s the thing with that, though – more government involvement doesn’t, and hasn’t, made that better. All we do by inviting the legislators in is we compound that problem exponentially. Gasoline, meet the fire.

For instance, in this case, though I don’t know the actual degree to which bias exists in Texas’s books, we do know that whatever changes the politicians were dictating, they didn’t even review all of them before voting on it, because the changes were still being made up until the vote. Nothing about that is rational, meaning nothing about the process is aimed at improving the education or solving a problem. They’re trying to address the perceived bias in educational materials by injecting their own bias, with the idea that two wrongs make a right. That isn’t a solution to the problem, that’s just trying to ignore the problem.

As usual, plenty of conversation also swirled around the inclusion of creationism alongside evolution. Let me be clear, I have no real issue with the teaching of creationism – in an academic sense. What it is, where the idea comes from, who believes it, etc. But, to argue that it belongs next to evolution in a science class is a position that I can’t figure out. In no sense is creationism a discussion of science. In most ways, it is diametrically opposed to it (the discussion of evolution being a property of intelligent design not withstanding). And this is the ultimate kick in the butt to me:

“I understand the National Academy of Sciences’ strong support of the theory of evolution. At the same time, this is a theory.”Karen Beathard

Karen is a nutritionist who happens to be on the Texas board for textbook review. As a nutritionist, I could excuse her mistake, if she was just being asked the question on the street or something. But as someone helping set policy and select educational materials for kids, I can’t. The mistake is a common one – this idea that a scientific theory is somehow analogous with a colloquial theory. That’s so far from the truth of the discussion though, that someone making that kind of comparison should be disqualified from further involvement on the spot. It’s insulting to education.

We need to re-emphasize the importance of classroom education that takes place at the district and classroom level. Class to class, and city to city, the dynamics of education change in subtle but important ways. We require more and more of teachers, and expect them to be “highly qualified” as a matter of certification in their topics, and yet we allow our legislators to take increasing amounts of power out of their hands, and control what they are allowed to teach. They attempt to manipulate everything they get their hands on. Teaching to the tests is now the norm, instead of actual educating that prepares students with the critical thinking skills necessary to be strong, intelligent individuals. Let me be clear, if the goal is to “teach to the tests,” you don’t need teachers anymore, because you aren’t actually educating students then.

All this at a time when we have amazing open-educational resources in development. One of the best ways to tackle bias in materials is to attack the underlying monetary incentive to create materials the state will pay money for. This is better for state budgets, better for students, and better for learning. That’s not to say the problem can be solved overnight this way, but it’s the first step down the right road.

(Photo Credit: CC by 2.0 Sean MacEntee)