Monday, June 1, 2009

Civic Engagement


Today I went on a civic engagement spree, attending both the city council and school board meetings in my town. I was eager to see how many people attend and what kinds of things are discussed. The city council meeting was slightly bland and virtually unattended, though our town is installing LED lights (yay!)... but the school board meeting was fascinating. Parents, teachers, professors from the local university, and journalists had all shown up to argue about the math curriculum in the local schools. Should the school district stick with “Investigations,” a discovery-based model, or move toward a more traditional, memory-based scheme. This issue relates to the larger debate between (traditionally) Democratic and Republican education mindsets. The Democratic mindset has been for educating the “whole child” through experiential learning, team projects, and treating education as a public good. The Republican mindset has been for “excellence,” individualism, standardized tests, lots of homework, and competition. The Democratic mindset is generally refuted after economic downturns because it’s seen as soft and weak—not competitive enough for the global economy. We have been experiencing this Republican backlash since 1980 with Reagan’s “A Nation at Risk.”

The issue manifested itself tonight as follows: teachers, people associated with the schools, and some parents supported the “Investigations” curriculum. Parents and external “experts” (professors, engineers, and particularly self-possessed parents) supported the traditional curriculum. Two of my favorite commentators supported the former (this is also where my allegiances lie). The first was a woman from Taiwan, who said that the true issue between the international achievement gap is not curriculum, but the time spent in the classroom. Children in Taiwan go to school before it's light, come home after dark, go to evening tutors, and spend every other Saturday in school. The main pedagogical approach is rote memorization. The woman said that she’s impressed with the way her sons can talk about and conceptualize math. They are more empowered and creative than she was with her math education. Coming from a part of the world the U.S. tries to imitate, she passionately called for this school district to “stay the course” (at least in this way). The other commentator I particularly liked is a man who worked in the school district, though not as a teacher. He tried to dispel the misconception that teachers are robots who read from scripts, suggesting instead that they’re dedicated people who tailor the curriculum to meet each child. He said that parents know their children, but that it’s impossible to know all children. As a result, parents and other external experts should leave the task of deciding curriculum in the hands of the true experts and professionals: the teachers. All in all, it was an exciting evening. I relished the chance to see a national debate brought down to scale.

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