Wednesday, February 9, 2011

12th and Falling

Stanley Aronowitz teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He studies labor, social movements, science and technology, education, social theory and cultural studies. This is the long way of saying that when he announced the death of critical education on last September, he knew of which he spoke.

He begins his essay, entitled “Education Reconsidered: Beyond the Death of Critical Education,” by telling me something I already knew: “Credentials seem to have lost their advantage; parents and politicians are complaining that the schools have faltered in delivering what students need.” His first point leads directly to the second. Graduating from an education school with a license or credential does not, on the whole, produce good teachers, and therefore, the public has lost faith in, and no longer trusts, the educators in our schools.

People hear the media’s overwhelming focus on failing schools; they see the incompetence of school administrations and teachers; they are hit with increased fees and taxes to pay for school systems mired in entropy and stagnation; they realize the failures of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation; they observe the falling graduation rates—12th “among capitalist societies” and falling; and they hear President Obama and others decry that “the engines of global economy are math and science, and this country is turning out fewer trained physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists.”

Aronowitz argues what we do not need is more time in school, more discipline, and more homework. He also says to stop punishing teachers for students’ poor performance. We need to use the time in school more productively and stop focusing so much energy and attention on standardized testing scores. Because of this heavy-handed focus, teachers are tempted to teach to the test in order to receive positive performance reviews, pay raises, and tenure. Once the testing concludes, many times so does the instruction. We must use every minute of every day in the classroom to educate kids for life. I have argued for a longer school day, but we could make a huge difference now if we use the time we already have in the classroom more judiciously.

Aronowitz asserts that the right and the left have thrown their weight behind the idea that “schooling should serve the economy; first and foremost students should be prepared to take their respective places in the world of work.” The goal of education is not to prepare a child to fit into a workplace niche. “Education should be a preparation for life,” Aronowitz writes. Working and making a living are a part of that life, however separate from a job, people must know themselves and the world and understand the beauty and truth of life. We must educate our children not to simply be a cog in the economic machine, but to have a deeper life of the mind.

Aronowitz breaks down what each stage of a child’s educational life should include, using the work of Vygotsky, Piaget, and Bruner. Age three to seven requires imagination to be the subject and object of learning. “Reading, writing, and math need not be withheld, but the main content of learning at the earliest years can be delivered by means of play,” Aronowitz writes.

The years eight to twelve should not confine the student to a desk, but transfer the classroom “to a large extent, from the school building to the wider world.” He advocates trips to museums, research labs, health and senior centers, concerts, factories, offices, parks, even streets. Literally anything could be a site for learning.

Age eleven to eighteen should introduce academic rigor and higher order thinking skills. “Rote should be combined with a broader understanding” of the uses of particular knowledge. Introduction and development of math skills, chronology of history, laws and procedures of the sciences, and ecology, all have a central place here at this level of education. The middle and high school levels are where we have dropped the ball. What we offer high school kids today does not challenge them to excel and is woefully insufficient to prepare students for the rigors of college and university study. We must push our students harder at this level, meaning more critical and analytical thinking, self-directed learning, and the idea of research as a way forward to a more complete understanding of the universe. No more forty math problems on a worksheet. No more busy work.

Aronowitz also has interesting views on student publications and the requirement to teach philosophy. He argues that “students need their own periodicals that they control without interference by school authorities.” These outlets for writing and opinion foster critical thinking and create an environment where “criticism of both school and society can flourish outside the official channels.” He tells us that like the French, we should include philosophy as a core subject. Knowing the ideas behind world cultures and thinking teaches students how to think. The concepts of doubt and skepticism, so crucial to a method of inquiry, can be taught and developed here. Students should be required to read and understand complex texts and differentiate between fact and propaganda.

Aronowitz returns to his initial point at the end of the essay: “we need a major reformation of education schools.” He writes, “the students must be required to major in subject matter, and education becomes only a minor. The education minor should not focus on teaching methods, but on the concepts associated with critical thought, that is, philosophy and history, but not only of education.”

Education schools have failed to produce better teachers or improved education. They teach theories over subject matter, and they neglect to get down to the basics of the art and craft of teaching. Many of these teachers of teachers, the education professors, have never set foot in an elementary or secondary school classroom. The professoriate, Aronowitz argues, needs renovation as much as teacher education.

Aronowitz does not hold out much hope for major changes in the future. “School reform is unlikely except in the cosmetic sense,” he writes. “But we need projects that challenge the mainstream if there is to be any change at all.”

The art of teaching is one of constantly rethinking and revising practice, procedure, and methodology. We never reach perfection, and every year presents new obstacles and challenges. We must rise to meet these challenges if we want to reform education in America. 12th place and falling is just not acceptable.


  1. W.O.W.! Full of Wonderful Old Wisdom.

  2. Laura, thank you. Your reading and commenting are always deeply appreciated. Although, I found the post least when doing the research.

    Vassilis, thanks to you as well. The post might be full of wonderful old wisdom (wow), however the wife says I am usually just full of nonsense. I jest...Good to hear from you.


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