Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Weapons of Mass Instruction

I just finished reading Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto. Being an advocate of homeschooling as a legal option, I supposed that reading his book might be rather like being a choir member hearing a sermon on the importance of worship. In many ways, it was. I do not feel it wise of our society to force children younger than 7 or 8 and older than 16 to be schooled; those in the former group are often too immature for institutional academics, and many in the latter group are mature enough to make life decisions (that's why nearly every U.S. state and the majority of European countries allow 16-year-olds to marry with parental consent). Also, I value the information Mr. Gatto included about the origins of compulsory schooling and the proven ability of many to succeed in life without being "A" students.

But, here's my big "however" about this book. Mr. Gatto, while pointing out the ineffectiveness of many schools to actually educate, is on a crusade against standardized testing. Why? Doesn't he realize that standardized testing is the only way for those not personally involved with a school to find out to what degree it is successfully producing students who can read and do basic math? We can't just trust that schools are seeing to instruction in these basic skills. (And we just can't do away with all schools, either.) As Mr. Gatto points out on page 197 when discussing the lack of sufficient--despite being legally-mandated--physical exercise in New York City schools,
96 percent of all schools in New York City break the law with impunity in a matter threatening the health of the students. What makes it even more ominous is that school officials are known far and wide for lacking independent judgment and courage in the face of bureaucratic superiors; but something in this particular matter must give them confidence that they won't be held personally liable.

You must face the fact that an outlaw ethic runs throughout institutional schooling. It's well-hidden inside ugly buildings, masked by dull people, mindless drills, and the boring nature of almost everything associated with schools, but make no mistake--under orders from somewhere, this institution is perfectly capable of lying about life-and-death matters, so how much more readily about standardized testing?
I am not against standardized tests per se, and I have no inclination to take part in a "Bartleby Project" campaign against them (I never liked Melville's fictional scrivener; he seemed an empty, purposeless man unworthy of emulation). Standardized tests serve an important function: holding schools accountable for academic instruction. If schools can get away with insufficient P.E. time, then they are certainly capable of not doing any effective academic teaching where no way exists to catch them being delinquent in that basic duty.

For the record, I am against more than one or two days per year being spent taking or even preparing overtly for standardized tests. They should be written well in order to accurately measure proficiency in reading and math and science comprehension, proficiency which should already be being developed by the teachers and curriculum throughout the year. Teachers should have no need to "teach to the test" because the test should be measuring that which they should have been teaching all along.

While I learned much from Weapons of Mass Instruction, I am not enamored of this book in large part because of the author's unwillingness to recognize any value in a moderate amount of standardized testing. I have no philosophical objection to my children being tested as Colorado law requires (first in 3rd grade, then every second year thereafter). I expect the exams to be easy for my children because I will have educated them far above the standard, which is actually quite a low level these days. Any shortcomings they might have in their exam scores, I will take responsibility for and work to remedy, as becomes an adult who has taken charge of a child's education.

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