One of the primary elements of a true, functioning, representative democratic republic, like we aim for here in the United States, is that its citizens be well informed.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his friend J. Correa de Serra on January 28, 1786, and said, "Our liberty depends upon the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost," he was assuming that Americans knew how to read their daily newspapers.
Not anymore. A 2005 study by the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that about 5 percent of the adults in the United States are not literate in English, meaning 11 million people lack the skills to handle many everyday tasks. Some 30 million adults, or 14 percent of the population, have "below basic" skills in prose. Their ability is so limited that they may not be able to make sense of a simple pamphlet, for example. Another 95 million adults, or 44 percent of the population, have intermediate prose skills, meaning they can do only moderately challenging activities. An example would be consulting a reference book to determine which foods contain a certain vitamin.
The cons' solution, as usual, is to privatize education. They say the public school system is too broken to fix. And just to make sure it stays broken, they passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which will cost the states more in property taxes and other taxes than they are going to get out of it.
Education Is an Investment
There is a growing consensus that something is melting down in our schools, but the solution is not to abolish free public education. The solution is to make free public education better.
All the issues around education come down to one question: investment or expense? The conservatives would have you think that any kind of social programs are expenses. It's really important to reframe the conversation in terms of investment.
The cons, however, don't get it. The whole con agenda seems to be, "Let's go back to a caste system." They are hearkening back to men like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who believed we should have a ruling class and a working class and that the ruling class should be literate and the working class should just know enough to make change when they buy something.
They are doing their best to destroy public education. They are trying to destroy the teachers' unions and starve the schools.
Traditionally, we've determined the success or failure of the U.S. public education system by how competent our citizens are at being part of the workforce, participating in our democracy, and having social mobility. Those are all things that you can measure, and in many ways they all relate back to building critical-thinking skills-seeing the big picture, being able to challenge conventional wisdom, thinking outside the box to use the old cliché-as much as they do to the actual imparting of information. We've historically seen education as an essential and organic part of our democracy and considered access to higher education-regardless of the parents' income level-to be one of the keys to building a strong middle class, a strong economy, and a strong nation.
The cons, however, see education as just another commodity. And if it's just a commodity, like shoes or carrots, there must be a simple way to measure it. So instead of measuring its impact on society, they say, "Let's just see how well our kids are doing at memorizing some of the things that we think are important."
The Wrong Measure
The tragedy of treating education as a commodity is twofold. First, the things the cons are measuring in their one-size-fits-all tests don't include the basic issues of democracy, freedom, liberty, and the history of this nation.
The second tragedy for us and our children is that the cons-in their effort to commodify education-have turned the testing over to a few large corporations. Back when I was in school in the 1950s and 1960s, our teachers would write up their own tests, sometimes even in longhand, and make copies of them on the mimeograph machine. The cost was just a few cents-basically the cost of the paper and the mimeo machine's amortization. But the testing companies can charge $5, $10, $20 or more for 5 cents worth of paper. And the No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to buy these tests from specific large, politically active testing companies.
Testing has gone from being insignificant-basically just IQ tests-during the Golden Age of the middle class to being a million-dollar-a-year industry in the Reagan eighties to a multibillion-dollar annual industry after the passage of NCLB. They've used it as a way to privatize another part of education.