Skinner, Freire… and Ravitch

In a speech last week, Diane Ravitch said:

The philanthropists and Wall Street hedge fund managers and Republicans and the Obama administration and assorted rightwing billionaires have some ideas about how to change American education. They aren’t teachers but they think they know how to fix the schools.

Their ideas boil down to this strategy: NCLB [No Child Left Behind] failed because we didn’t use enough carrots and sticks. They say that schools should operate like businesses, because the free market is more efficient than government. So these reformers—I call them corporate reformers—advocate market-based reforms. They say that states must hand public schools over to private management because the private sector will be more successful than the public sector. They say that teachers will work harder if they get bonuses when test scores go up. They say that teachers should have no job protections because workers in the private sector don’t have job protections, not even the right to a hearing. They say that if schools have low scores, they should be closed and replaced by new schools, just like a chain store—a burger franchise or a shoe store–would be closed if it didn’t make a profit; or the entire staff should be fired and replaced by new staff. They say that the quality of teachers should be judged based on whether their students’ scores go up or down.

This is nonsense, of course—which is Ravitch’s point.  It is nonsense for reasons that few bother to consider seriously these days.  It is nonsense because in precludes the diversity of ideas, people, and possibilities that are at the heart of good education—along with dialogue, the mutual exploration whose goal is to shed light on the unknown.  Education needs to be something of an oxymoron, of ‘planned chaos,’ something that cannot be attained through standardized testing, where everything is funneled toward pre-set benchmarks.

Writing in the sixties (and using a different sense of ‘diversity’ than we often do now—but including our contemporary one), B. F. Skinner wrote of education that:

in the long run, an effective diversity must be planned.  There is no virtue in accident as such, nor can we trust it.  The advantages of a planned diversity have been abundantly demonstrated in science.  Men first learned about the world through accidental contacts under accidental conditions and, hence, only within the range of accident.  Scientific methods are largely concerned with increasing the diversity of the conditions under which things are known.  Current differences among our students are for the most part accidents.  A technology of teaching should permit us to diversify environmental histories and increase the range of the mutations from which the cultures of the future will be selected.  (Skinner, The Technology of Teaching, 236)

Things change; our education should be ready for that and should be part of that.  By establishing exactly what should be learned, and by judging teaching on that basis, we make this impossible.  New thought comes through encounter with the unknown, and diversity—of all sorts—promotes that.  Preparing for tests does not.  Operating schools like businesses does not, either.

Through the attitudes of today’s “reformers,” we also are making dialogue impossible.  As Paulo Freire wrote at about the same time Skinner was writing, dialogue is an essential part of that diversity of Skinner’s and of education, dialogue based on love, humility, and faith—not only as preparation for filling in answer sheets:

Nor yet can dialogue exist without hope.  Hope is rooted in men’s incompletion, from which they move out in constant search—a search which can be carried out only in communion with other men.  Hopelessness is a form of silence, of denying the world and fleeing from it….  As long as I fight, I am moved by hope; and if I fight with hope, then I can wait.  As the encounter of men seeking to be more fully human, dialogue cannot be carried out in a climate of hopelessness.  (Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 80)

Working to impress an unknown test preparer or unknown grader (in the case of standardized essay exams) almost completely removes hope from the equation… taking it out as effectively as it removes love, humility, and faith.  These are, in Freire’s view, the basis for any real dialogue—and dialogue and diversity are the basis for any real education. The regimens of the group Ravitch describes squelch both.  They run counter to effective education instead of promoting it.

It is time we stop this nonsense and return education to promotion of learning, through diversity, dialogue, experiment and, yes, risk.
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