Standardized education: moving America to the right

Listening to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, one would think that American schools are bastions of the hard left, education factories that churn out soft-headed liberal ideologues.  But in Standardized Education: Moving America to the Right, Arthur Lieber makes precisely the opposite argument.  Lieber believes that the country’s recent shift to the right can be traced directly to our school’s infatuation with standardized tests and the right wing values they encompass.

There are two central ideas in Standardized Education that serve as bookends of sorts for Lieber’s argument–he introduces them early on and then returns to them in a more concrete way in the third and final section of the book.  First, he believes that one of the most important jobs of a school is the teaching and learning of empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  Second, Lieber asserts that schools must teach critical thinking skills—simply put, students should be sophisticated enough to know when information is misleading so that they can make wise choices and become responsible, active citizens.  These two values (empathy and critical thinking) form the core of Lieber’s educational philosophy.

The problem with the values of empathy and critical thinking, of course, is that they are not easy to quantify–they are not going to show up with a percentile next to them on the next standardized test. Though it would be lovely to be able to brag that your son or daughter is in the 89th percentile for “bs detection,” critical thinking skills are slippery and do not lend themselves to objective measurement.  But that does not mean they should be dismissed.  Indeed, in the last section of the book Lieber describes how the values of empathy and critical thinking could contribute to the development of a more just, progressive society.  He also goes a step further and describes what this would look like in the classroom.  Teachers have to model empathy and critical thinking, and students have to be offered opportunities to get out of the classroom and into the real world.  It won’t be easy, especially in an era of budget cuts and standardization, for students to be given authentic experiential learning opportunities.  But even though it can be a tough sell in today’s educational environment, Lieber is very persuasive that it’s a goal worth pursuing.

Though Standardized Education is not a lengthy book, it is a nuanced one that avoids some of the good versus evil dichotomies that you so often find in other education books.  The book’s treatment of teachers offers an excellent example of this.  Too often in books about the American educational system teachers are portrayed as either heroic victims of a dysfunctional system or, in the other extreme, as lazy incompetents biding their time until their cushy pension comes due.  For Lieber, though, teachers are just human beings.  Some are poor teachers, teachers who care only about their test scores and have forgotten what it was like to be a student stuck in a classroom filling in mindless worksheets.  Others are creative, bright individuals who manage despite considerable odds to make their classroom a place for high energy learning.  In Lieber’s view, teachers are human beings who have very difficult jobs to do, and some of them have the grace and stamina to do it well, while others do not.

Similarly, Lieber looks upon both Democrats and Republicans with a critical eye in Standardized Education.  Make no mistake about it, Lieber is arguing for an educational system that imbues its students with more progressive values, but he is quick to point out that Democrats as well as Republicans are standing in the way of that happening because of the bipartisan embrace of the almighty standardized tests.  Standardized tests, as evidenced by Bush’s No Child Left Behind program and Obama’s Race to the Top, are the true villains of Lieber’s book.  The problem with standardized tests, he asserts, is that they value number-crunching over the living, breathing students in the classroom, and they embrace a conservative value of competition as the key barometer to a person’s value as a human being.   Standardized tests, then, both reflect and reinforce a morally bankrupt Republican ethos:  Just as conservative Republicanism supports a status quo in which competition allows only for the survival of the fittest (empathy and compassion be damned) so too does an educational climate where standardized tests reign supreme. Taken as a whole, Standardized Education is a meditation on how the American educational system went wrong, but it is also a call to action, a road map for how to transform American schools into places where democratic, progressive values are embraced.