By Kimberley Johnson
Associate Professor of Political Science

Today in the U.S., the ability to make choices—for the best restaurant, movie, doctor, or a house—is widely celebrated. Choice is good. Right? But, does what work in the world of the market, work in the world of the public good?

During her lecture at Barnard on February 21, Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education, challenged one of the reigning ideas in the public sphere: education as a consumer good.

A democratic society relies on education to help shape its future citizens and contributors to society. However, the market place as the metric by which life ought to be judged has shifted the meaning of education away from its purpose of educating future members of society to a much narrower focus on cultivating a productive workforce. Such a focus may help the U.S. become economically competitive in a global marketplace. And it is hard to argue with such a strategy in the face of relentless deindustrialization, growing income inequality, and the rise of global labor force.

To make good choices, individuals have to rely on credible information from friends, family, experts, businesses or government, and rely on an ever-increasing number of different measures—all purporting to measure what a “good” education is. Herein lies the rub, as Ravitch argued during her lecture. Unlike a shoe that may or may not fit, education is part science and part art. It involves not just the acquisition of knowledge but also learning how to learn: how to think, to write, and to express oneself in a critical, aware manner. Education is also deeply personal—the teacher makes connections with both student and parent.

The current trend toward high-stakes testing is the opposite of the purpose and practice of teaching and learning. Increasingly schools are encouraged to teach to the lowest common denominator in an ultimately futile task of having all students score above average on tests. Not only is this a statistical impossibility, but the only way to get the educational system to that state is to relentlessly strip education of the very features that enable students to become educated and stay engaged: music, art, physical education, science. “Kids don’t come to school to be tested,” Ravitch told her audience. Rather, she said, they come to be part of a community.

Endless drilling enables students to pass tests, but the pedagogy does not educate them in ways that create the desired skills in a workforce. Ironically, in a moment when the factory model of production is being phased out across society and the economy in favor of flexible and smart systems of thoughtful and reasoned production, the American education system is returning to the nineteenth-century model of repetition and rote learning.

Even more alarming is that the standards and metrics devised by proponents of high-stakes testing have not been proven. Schools are shut and teachers are fired for failing to achieve progress on unvalidated or irrelevant tests. High-stakes testing, as Ravitch pointed out, disempowers teachers, parents, and ultimately kids. It’s a system designed to fail, perhaps even to delegitimize public education in favor of a market-based educational system dominated by private players who have little to no accountability to the public, whose dollars it relies on for profits.  

Read more about this event in the "For the Public Good" series from a member of Barnard's education faculty, as well as additional reflections on last semester's event.