Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Election Day

I always try to be first to vote in my town, and usually lose out to a local electrician whose job starts even earlier than mine. Part of the reason for my early arrival is that it gives me time to check in and chat with our former students who are working the polls as well as those that are showing up to vote.

Some educators claim that their decisions are “data-driven.” By this they mean that they spend hours parsing standardized test scores to see what tweak they can make to the curriculum in order to raise scores a percentile or two. At my school we do “data-driven” decisions as well—but we use data that actually has meaning to our community and school. And part of that data I was collecting on Election Day; seeing which of our graduates were voting and working at the polls.

It is a shame that our public schools, the most important weapon in the arsenal of democracy, are not seen as the incubators of democratic life that they were intended to be. Thomas Jefferson, who was one of the earliest to call for a system of free public schools, realized that democracy rested upon the wisdom of the public. And the best way to insure that citizens could exercise their own judgment was to make sure they could read, write, and reason.

Today this is still the most important mission of our public schools. Contrary to popular belief, we cannot and should not be preparing kids for specific jobs nor should we simply be a boot camp for college. Rather, public schools should be focusing on the attributes we want in citizens, in our neighbors. A short list includes the ability to read critically; to write for an audience; to understand numbers and how they work—in particular statistics, which are often used to deceive; to know how science works; and to have a background in our history and the cultures that have made this nation great. You might add to that an appreciation of the visual and performing arts; a familiarity with our environment and where our food comes from; and the knowledge of how government works (or doesn’t). Finally, a set of personal characteristics that would include the ability to work with others, including those who are different from oneself; the ability to listen; and a willingness to suspend decision-making until requisite information is available.

Now here’s the rub. As a former college professor, I would have loved to have students come to me who could do all of those things. And I cannot imagine an employer, who really wants people he or she can train to do a job knowing full well that jobs change quickly, that would not also list these characteristics as desirable in our graduates. That is, the attributes that make for a good democratically engaged citizen are the same that we might want in college students or employees. However, it does not work the other way around.

Simply prepping kids to do well on the ACT or other college admission examinations does not ensure that they will be the type of participants our democracy needs. And teaching students how to do jobs that may be phased out in the next wave of technological innovation does not prepare students to be life long learners.

At my school, as with many, we take seriously the challenge we have given ourselves to prepare our charges to be life long learners, active democratic citizens, and flexible in their career choices. Young people here have to demonstrate, through actions ranging from community service, to voting, to working at the polls, to taking on leadership within the school that they are practicing habits of democratic life. Along with demonstrations of life long learning skills and career flexibility these things are placed in a portfolio for graduation. What we know is that what we assess and value at school is what students will not only do now, but will continue to do after school.

Election Day is assessment day in my little corner of the world. It is one day in which we observe how well we prepared our students to take on the challenges of democratic life. One more piece of data as to how well we are doing as a school. One more way of testing ourselves to see if we are living up to Mr. Jefferson’s ideal.

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