(This has been cross-posted at Blue Virginia.)
Upon prompting from the blog Blue Virginia, on Tuesday evening, December 7th, I journeyed to Richmond's Southside to attend a panel entitled, "A Conversation About the Future of Public Education" co-hosted by The Greater Jefferson Davis Community Association and Policy Diary and featuring Virginia politician George Allen and former Democratic Party of Virginia Chair Paul Goldman.
In his opening and later remarks, George Allen said the two most important services a state government can provide are law enforcement and education and he described his role in establishing the SOLs (Standards of Learning) in Virginia, which he emphasized go beyond the NCLB requirements of reading and math to include science, social studies, and writing. Allen mentioned the importance of innovation (charter schools!), of accountability (high-stakes standardized testing!), and of limiting federal intrusion into education (states' rights!).
Paul Goldman talked about the challenges facing the public education system in Virginia, and particularly in the city of Richmond, where he said the poverty rate is twice that of the state of Mississippi. He also talked about the need for an honest discussion about education, that even though most Virginia schools are accredited and the graduation rate is rising, that the standards have been dumbed down and that high school graduates are not prepared for jobs, for college, or for service in the military. He made reference to Richmond education reporter Chris Dovi's recent article in Richmond Magazine, which I discussed in a prior post. Finally, he railed against the for-profit higher education industry and praised the Obama administration's efforts to reign it in. He also hailed Obama as the strongest ever president on education reform.
Audience consensus didn't dispute the need for accountability and standardized tests, but was clearly troubled by the high-stakes piece. High stakes testing and the SOLs have lead to dumbed down, test-centered curricula, to a focus on testing and measuring at the expense of quality teaching and meaningful learning, causing the standards to become the default curricula and not the basis of them. There was some mention of charter schools, but it seemed to be more along the lines of, let's replicate what Geoffrey Canada is doing in our public schools, rather than let's wholesale replace neighborhood schools with charters.
I have lived and voted in central Virginia as a Democrat for almost eight of the past ten years. I was surprised and impressed with George Allen's ease, curiosity, and ability to listen (damn, that guy is likable!). Paul Goldman's commentary was refreshingly honest, encyclopedic, and astute. Neither of them, though, seemed to get how NCLB has negatively affected Virginia's curricula. Allen seemed genuinely baffled to hear of the community's critiques of the SOLs. While Goldman understood, and proffered even, that students weren't being adequately prepared, he seemed clueless about how the policies of NCLB, and now of the Obama administration, may have led to this.
I appreciated that Allen and Goldman did not fall prey to the politically expedient teacher and school bashing that is all the rage now, but like so many other politicians, Democrats, national journalists, and even citizens, they seemed to take for granted that George W. Bush and now Obama and Duncan were fixing K-12. There was no suggestion of questioning or examining their policies, no connecting of the dots between educational outcomes and the policies (NCLB) that have certainly played a role in producing them.
There was also talk, both from the panelists and audience members, about our not being able to "compete" with China and India. I'm sure this was in part in light of the recent PISA results. I won't comment too much on this as So Educated blogger Alice Ginsburg has already done so eloquently here. While I'm not one for chest thumping, I'll concede that we need to "compete" and "perform," and that there are certainly aspects of China's culture that are worth emulating, but their lack of a free and open society is not one of them. Although the attendees were articulate, passionate, and informed, the event was not that well attended and I, age thirty-seven, was among the younger attendees. Yes, we want our young citizens to go on to excel and innovate in math and science, but we also want them to have the desire to attend events such as these, to know the importance of debate and of being part of an active, informed, and articulate citizenry who holds our political leaders accountable and pushes them to advocate for the needs and rights of the people they represent. We want them to focus not simply on the solutions our politicians give us, but to be a critical part of the process of forming them. And while it may be challenging to test and measure that, it's downright un-American not to teach it. Our education policies must not emphasize testing and measuring at the expense of a vibrant democracy.
I thank the hosts for holding the event and I ask them for the sake of our democracy and of our public schools to keep 'em coming.