March 18, 2009

Expert: Globalization, ‘No Child Left Behind’ don’t mix

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Forget the call for a return to academic standards and lots of memorization and drills, says an education professor. What our brave, new, global world needs are responsible, active, fair-minded citizens, and we can’t produce them by focusing on improving test scores.

“A standards-driven, skill/drill/test system actually exacerbates the very problems associated with unfettered global capitalism, including self-centered individualism (and) unhealthy competition,” writes Kathryn A. Hytten in an article just published in the yearbook “Philosophy of Education.”

Hytten, interim chair of educational administration and higher education at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, will talk about democratic education and the challenge of globalization at noon Thursday, April 2, in Room 219 of Wham Education Building on the SIUC campus, capping off the College of Education and Human Services’ free brown bag lecture series. Those attending may bring their lunches; the dean’s office will provide light refreshments.

Google “globalization,” and you’ll find more than five million online articles. Yet despite the term’s widespread use, Hytten finds most folks she encounters have only a fuzzy idea of what it is.

“They think of it as this kind of benign force bringing us together, allowing us to easily and quickly communicate with others and to access a huge variety of consumer choices,” Hytten says.

“With the exception of the internationals, most of my students have only a shallow and naïve understanding of what it means -- ‘I can talk on the Internet around the world’ -- rather than the uneven distribution of free-market capitalism’s costs and benefits.”

Make no mistake, Hytten says, globalization is primarily a synonym for just that kind of capitalism.

“If you scratch the surface, you see it’s not about making the world better,” Hytten says.

“It’s about acquisition and profit and no limits. Corporations do whatever it takes to produce goods and services the most inexpensively, which is invariably in locations where there is little protection for either workers or the environment.”

We don’t talk much about capitalism in this country, much less teach about it in schools, in part because of a common assumption that communism is its only alternative. That’s not the case, Hytten maintains. The opposite of unfettered, free-market capitalism is democracy.

“Democracy balances individual rights with a commitment to the common good -- capitalism doesn’t do that,” she says.

“All that matters in a capitalist system is increasing price for shareholders, no matter what.”

To counter globalization’s “dark side,” democracy must become more than a label for a form of government, more than a trip to the polls on election day, more than the belief that we can do whatever we want. Schools used to play a key role in teaching students about what it means to live in a democracy, but somewhere along the line they have lost their way.

“Where once we aimed to teach the habits and behaviors that make democratic life possible, now we try to create docile citizens who won’t make waves in preparation for the work world,” Hytten says.

In her article, Hytten calls for teachers to return to the idea that they are shaping thoughtful future citizens who will hold those in power accountable to the common good. And to do that, she says, requires schools to depart from the standards-driven model built on drills and tests.

“Stuffing kids with information and then testing them doesn’t teach them to question or problem solve, and when they’re learning something for a test, they typically don’t have a sense of why it matters,” Hytten says.

“All that testing mandated by No Child Left Behind (federal legislation tying funding with tests scores in basic skills) is about sorting, selecting and rationalizing winners and losers. Tests largely serve to make the people who did the best feel better about themselves.”

To teach students to become fully functioning citizens in a dynamic, participatory democracy, teachers must draw on problems, activities and experiments that focus on asking questions, finding information and evaluating the results. The curricula also should include healthy doses of service activity and community involvement to connect students with the wider world. Students should be encouraged to get lost in the subject matter, to reflect, to go beyond the surface.

“This is easier with young kids -- they ask questions all the time,” Hytten says.

“It’s when the testing starts that it’s no longer about knowing something but about getting the right answer. It’s almost like they become their test scores. And that creates habits that follow them all through school.”

Ultimately, Hytten hopes to see schools foster the development of what she calls “justice-oriented citizens,” who assess situations, call attention to injustice and know how to bring about lasting change.

“Rethinking democracy in light of the dilemmas of globalization is crucial if we hope to live up to our own best visions,” Hytten says.