Strawman-motivationalIf there is one theme I find myself seeing over and over again, it is that standardized tests are evil.

Time and time again, I am reading claims that testing is ruining education and preventing teachers from doing their jobs. By forcing teachers to “teach for the test” rather than teach the skills ostensibly being tested, education is compromised in the hunt for government funding and to prevent a school from being tagged as a “failed” institution.

This is a straw man.

The true debate is not about testing. Rather, the real point of contention is whether to focus on fundamental reading and writing skills (and their equivalents in subjects other than language) or whether to focus on social education and instilling creativity and artistic values instead.

In addition, I continually see arguments raised that children must be educated to engage in critical thinking: they must learn how to question and challenge what would otherwise be taken for granted. This, however, is a political argument.

To those who want to reform the schools with school vouchers as proposed by the likes of Milton Friedman and Bill Gates, schools used to be a vehicle for teaching fundamental literacy skills and instilling children with society’s values. This is an assumption heavily resisted by liberal politics: to those on the other side of the political spectrum, “society’s values” are anachronisms that need to be questioned, criticized, challenged, and overcome with social and political action. These goals are oil and water; they cannot be mixed. One must be predominant over the other.

Standardized testing has simply become a front in this larger political war. Therefore, it has nothing to do with literacy skills; it has to do with values.

Frankly, I don’t care about that. This is a war between parental choice and governmental choice. Neither is my priority.

My priority is empowering the student to make his or her own choices in life.

Once politics become involved, the issue ceases to be the ability of the student to find an answer; the issue becomes the student’s likelihood of finding the “right” answer. This cheats students of what should be their birthright as members of a civilized society: the tools required to find their own answer.

These tools are the written word, the spoken word, and mathematics.

Without mastery of these three fundamental areas, all further learning is compromised. Students become vulnerable to being led astray by “experts” and “gurus” because they are forced by their own ignorance of logic and fact to trust those who dazzle with statistics and deceive with half-truths. Deep ignorance would protect such individuals from being so easily led astray, because the truly uneducated often grasp that this is so and gird themselves against those parading charm and waving around numbers; but those who believe themselves educated, yet who are not, are all the more vulnerable to those who would flatter their belief that they are knowledgeable and provide the illusion of certain truth. This is the thinking of those for whom the ends justify the means.

Enough about freedom of parents. Enough about freedom of government officials to enforce their own societal vision. Students were not born to be chained by ignorance. Teach them reading and writing, and set them free.

Language is the tool that liberates the human mind to process information that was not gained as a result of direct experience. It is the only means for learning besides our own accidental successes or our own mistakes. It must be taught, and taught well.

Teaching the fundamentals of language properly and thoroughly is an act of both trust and faith: trust, that knowledge will empower students to make enlightened decisions; and faith that most will do so wisely and productively. However, the responsibility of choice rests with the individual who makes it. Focusing on teaching “how to think” carries the implicit promise of guiding the individual to “what to think,” presenting life in a certain light making a particular outcome seem obvious and inevitable. Yet teaching fundamental language skills allows students to grow into knowledgeable adults who can make those decisions for themselves.

We may not agree with those decisions; that is outside the purview of the teacher. The teacher’s obligation  is to ensure, so far as is possible, that students are able to think for themselves.

There are those who believe that such an intensive focus on the fundamentals is foolish and ridiculous, compromising the loftier values of education in favor of the base and vulgar aspects of the English language, such as grammar and syntax, and ignores what the content means in a deeper, more artistic or even spiritual sense; that such education lacks a soul. I have a simple reply to you:

Without fundamentally sound English, a student can never understand the meaning contained in a single paragraph. He will obtain only a vague impression of what is being said, but can never understand with certainty what is being said, nor appreciate whether the content is logical or illogical; sense or nonsense.

Standardized testing is an effort to ensure that teachers teach students fundamentals of English, mathematics, science, and so forth. Standardized testing is a blunt instrument that has many shortcomings; chiefly, the tendency of teachers to “teach for the test.” A current scandal in Georgia involving school cheating demonstrates another pitfall: cheating can potentially gain money for a school. Nonetheless, my eyes see it as a straw man.

I would have more sympathy for this argument if I was convinced that the opponents of standardized testing are being obstructed from teaching the fundamentals of language to their students because of the stringent requirements of the tests. Rather, I see many teachers who are not interested in teaching the fundamentals at all, but who want to further competing sets of societal agendas and therefore consider a rigorous dedication to fundamentals to be a distraction from “real” education, rather than education itself.

I am engaged in the business of repairing the damage caused by such attitudes. I take people who are not given adequate fundamental education and teach them to read and write better English – and for that matter, better Japanese – to give them the power to educate themselves and gain knowledge about the world around them. Without that power, they would be limited to flailing and beating their heads against a wall, which describes the state of affairs for far too many people in our supposedly civilized society than my conscience is comfortable with.

Without proper language skills, the “sage on the stage” or “guide on the side” argument is meaningless drivel, for the student will neither comprehend the sage, nor be able to follow the advice of the guide. The fight over standardized testing is thus nothing but a distraction from the bitter truth.