Although it is well established that there is a 'problem' with public education in America, there is no consensus as to what caused it: is a lack of funding for critical academic programs? Or is it because many parents don’t help their children with their schoolwork? Erica Goldson, who graduated Coxsackie-Athens High School in 2010, argues in her valedictorian speech that the root of the problem lies in a current overemphasis on standardized testing. "We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective." (Goldson) To become valedictorian, Ms. Goldson had to give up learning for the sake of her objective; the almighty 'A'. Non-valedictorians must also do 'whatever it takes' if they want to achieve their original objective, which, according to Ms. Goldson, is usually "to get out [of school] as soon as possible." (Goldson). This means that pursuing their passions, whether in the areas of literature, music, technology or the sciences, must take second seat to their schoolwork. For Ms. Goldson, the tragedy in this is that schools are failing to give their students a proper education; by forcing their students to adopt a "whatever it takes" mentality, they suppress their natural propensity towards intellectual inquiry. But the success of Ms. Goldson and others like her seems to contradict this idea; if some students are able to finish public school with an education, why can’t others?
Peg Tyre, author of "The Writing Revolution", argues that public schools fail to educate students by not teaching them how to write analytically. Backing her claim is the success story of New Dorp High School, a formerly failing public school on Long Island that succeeded in improving its graduation rate from 63% to 80% between 2009 and 2011. Observing that its worst students were usually the least adept at expository writing, New Dorp’s principal changed the curriculum to make analytic writing a central component of every subject, from science and mathematics to history and english. Students were taught "how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts - but, because and so." (7) Once they had mastered the basics of sentence construction, they were taught "how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own." (7) Although the program is ostensibly a "rigid, unswerving, formula", it worked: from 2009 to 2011, New Dorp's passing rates on the English Regents exams jumped from 69% to 80%, and its passing rates on the Global History Regents shot from 64% to 75% (3). These statistics support the idea that analytical writing is a critical skill for any student's education. Although this may be the case, it is certainly not the whole picture. Erica Goldson would argue that, despite an improvement in passing rates on the regents, students were still not really learning, and the unless New Dorp stopped ‘teaching to the test’, it would continue to fail to educate its students.Both authors are trying to answer the question of what, exactly, students need in order to succeed within the education system. But neither Goldson nor Tyre can hope to find the answer without understanding what schools are supposed to be teaching in the first place.
Paolo Freire, a writer best known for his work teaching Brazilian peasants, believes that schools aren't supposed to teach using any form of rote memorization, or lessons that involve a lecture, because these teaching methods create a disconnect between the lesson and the real world; something Freire refers to at “narration sickness” (368). Instead of immersing students in the world they are supposed to be learning about, the imperative of the lecture "leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content." People, places, and events, become discrete facts embedded in the matrix of the test they are taught towards, and students' minds become "receptacles to be "filled" by the teacher." (368) Because of this, public education becomes reduced to a series of business-like transactions:
Education thus becomes an action of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the "banking" concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human.
Like Erica Goldson, Freire believes that the education process provides negative feedback upon a student's willingness and ability to learn, which is inherently dehumanizing; if the best that students can aspire to do with the information they receive is collecting and cataloguing it, they have been gravely underserved. The daily transactions of lessons to be received, memorized, and repeated, serve to wear down the primal urge that all humans share to discover everything they can about the world around them. If Freire’s assertion holds true, then we cannot fix our education system without levelling the playing field; a greater level of communication must be established between teachers and their students, both in and out of the classroom.
There is one instance, in my mind, where such communication has happened, which is between Ian Downing, a high school senior at Humanities Prep, and myself. For the past several weeks, I have tutored Ian on writing his PBAT, an essay that is prerequisite to his graduation, and we have often talked together on Skype before and after our Thursday afternoon tutoring sessions. Halfway through the month of April, Ian had not yet written the introduction to his paper, when the final draft was due the first week of May. When we sat down together that Thursday, I held my breath. How are we going to get this done in time? If we didn't do any writing that day, there would be no way he would finish his work by the deadline. I scribbled down a skeleton outline for the introductory paragraph, before sliding the paper over to him and explaining the process step by step. "Your first sentence is the hook; the statement, as in-your-face and controversial as you can make it, that will get your readers interested. In the second and third sentences, you expand the idea in question and give the readers a taste of why the issue is complicated - opposing sides of the 'debate', and so on. Your last sentence is the 'thesis' - the platform on which the rest of your paper will stand." I looked him in the eye and asked: "Are you up for it?" Ian nodded his head. "Sure, I can do it."
Ten, fifteen, then twenty minutes passed. I kept trying to surreptitiously glance over at his work, but he kept turning the computer screen away from me. When he finally turned the computer around, what I read was even more than I'd dared hope for: he used an analogy to introduce his topic ("Our current economy is like an outfield in baseball. There is such a large area to cover and only three people available to do so.") Building on the analogy, he made the argument that a lack of economic diversity in the U.S. poses a significant risk to the middle and lower classes. He pointed out that the government bailouts of the banking and auto industries were largely ineffective in stimulating economic growth, and argued that greater economic strength would come from the encouragement of small businesses:
Because the government does not prioritize these [small] businesses, they are not only taking a gamble with little industries, but are not motivating small business owners to grow enough to become major sources of income.
Everything I would expect of a college-level paper, I found in this first draft of the introduction. It did need editing, but it showed me that my student had a firm grasp on the fundamentals of good writing. Although I would need to continue to push him to write more, and to expand and challenge his ideas, I did not need to pretend that this was a remedial English class. When I recently asked Ian via Skype what he thought the most helpful things I'd done with him in tutoring were, he listed my helping him with his intro as number one; "since I didn't know what to write for it exactly." Moreover, the second most helpful thing was "seeing your reaction to my paper each week, it kept me really motivated to write more." It seems as if what Ian needed from me was not a lesson on how to write a paper, but rather he needed me to teach him specific tools he could use to better express his ideas. As far as I can tell, Humanities Prep does a good job of educating students like Ian who take the time and effort to apply the lessons they learn in school in their everyday lives. However, Humanities prep is a high school that a. uses the New York Regents exam system and b. is a public school whose curriculum appears to match Freire's description of "The Banking Concept of Education." I doubt that Ian was able to Skype with any of his high school teachers, and certainly not on a regular basis. I can also assume that he didn’t have any tutors before me, as all students from humanities prep in this program were graduating seniors. So if Humanities Prep doesn’t emphasize teacher-student communication, as Freire prescribes, then why is its program still effective?
What Freire misses, in his attack on banking education, is that there are some things that have to be learned by rote. Freire assumes that ‘creativity, knowledge, and transformation’ occur spontaneously, which is patently untrue; students cannot learn without the proper intellectual tools. In the context of literacy, those tools include proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar usage. These tools require rote memorization, because they cannot be permanently impressed into a student’s mind after the first exposure. This is why Peg Tyre takes pains to point out that New Dorp’s success came from the fact that it abandoned the predominant theory of teaching literacy, which held that knowledge was “caught, not taught” (Tyre). Schools that subscribed to this theory, which included most public schools throughout the 1900’s, typically gave kids interesting, social, creative-writing assignments where their work would be shared, under the assumption that kids would “catch” what they needed to become successful writers. What this theory forgot, much to the detriment of public school students, was formal instruction in grammar, sentence composition, and essay writing. Although this theory works for some kids, it doesn’t work at all for kids who are unable to catch anything from their home environment, namely, kids who grow up in poverty, or who had weak early instruction, or have learning disabilities. These kids never learn how to write an essay, and New Dorp high school had a lot of students who fell under this category.
To develop students’ analytical skills, New Dorp’s program used classroom discussion to teach the socratic method. When students speak in class, they were required to use specific prompts, "I agree/disagree with ___ because...", "I have a different opinion...", "I have something to add..." and "Can you explain your answer?" (Tyre). This form of structured speaking turned classroom discussions into opportunities for classmates “to listen to each other, to think more carefully, and speak more precisely, in ways they could then echo in persuasive writing.” (Tyre) By doing this, New Dorp’s revamped curriculum was developing its students’ ability to translate lessons learned in the classroom into real-world actions, or what Sylvia Scribner refers to as ‘functional literacy’. According to writer Sylvia Scribner, functional literacy is defined as "the level of proficiency necessary for effective performance in a range of settings and customary activities." (9) By extension, Sylvia argues, functional literacy also applies to the ability to use computers and other now-commonplace technologies, which are forms of "second-order literacy" (11). In other words, literacy is the ability to use tools and concepts that you know to learn something that you don't yet know. This is why Erica Goldson credits her education largely to her 10th-grade English Teacher, Donna Bryan, who taught her how to open her mind and "ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine." (Goldson) Knowing how to ask questions before accepting doctrine is part of learning how to learn, which is exactly what functional literacy entails.
Paolo Freire would be against the concept of functional literacy, because he believes that literacy programs are intended to teach textbook doctrine - not to enable students to question it. If the banking concept of education is true, then the teacher’s role is "to regulate the way the world ‘enters into’ the students", instilling in them a mindset where they must become complacent with the unsavory aspects of the world, rather than attempt to change them. This implies that functional literacy is essentially a brainwashing tool used by those in power to maintain the status quo (373):
The more completely the majority adapt to the purposes which the dominant minority prescribe for them (thereby depriving them of the right to their own purposes), the more easily the minority can continue to prescribe. The theory and practice of banking education serve this end quite efficiently. Verbalistic lessons, reading requirements, the methods for evaluating "knowledge," the distance between the teacher and the taught, the criteria for promotion: everything in this ready-to-wear approach serves to obviate thinking.
Literacy is a notion prescribed by a minority to define what the majority of society should know, and how they should respond behaviorally to given situations. Students themselves are deprived of the right to self-determination in terms of what they learn, and what career choices are made available for their pursuit. Per Freire, this is accomplished by putting up an artificial social barrier between teachers and students, which takes the form of required readings and ultra-specific forms of testing, shoehorning nearly everyone into the same, narrow, education spectrum. This is an accusation that toes the definition of a conspiracy theory; our own government, which is one of the most stable, cohesive forms of government today, is so divided that there are factions within political factions - especially among the wealthy. No real, historical conspiracy has ever been executed as flawlessly as Freire imagines the ‘banking concept.’ Using Occam’s razor, which states that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is often the one that’s correct, we may assume that any grave errors in our education system are due either to incompetence or to well-intentioned, albeit misguided, initiatives.
It must be conceded that there is a certain ready-to-wear approach that the government has used over the past few decades, which can be seen most recently in the No Child Left Behind Act. That is what (likely) Freire is reacting to in this passage; such top-down education reform acts tend to do more harm than good because they allow no room for flexibility at the level of the school districts. The attitude that ‘what’s good for some is good for all’ fails, because not everyone learns the same way.
One barrier to real education reform is coming up with an operational (read: measurable) definition of functional literacy. Because literacy is a social convention, it may have different connotations in different contexts. For example, although economics is not widely taught as a core subject, compared to history, literature or mathematics, I believe that it should be. During one tutoring session in April, when Ian and I first began to work on the body arguments of his PBAT, I noticed that although he had a cogent argument, there was a major logic gap between his argument that a lack of economic diversity would cause the downfall of the middle class and his main piece of evidence, which was that Apple, Inc. and other major tech companies played too large a role in the U.S. economy. I stopped reading to point out the error. "You've got a great idea, here, Ian, but your discussion about Apple has nothing to do with it... at least nothing your readers will pick up on their own." Ian frowned a little and nodded as he re-read the passage. "Uh-huh." I backtracked in case I had hurt his feelings. "That's not to say you shouldn't talk about Apple at all; just not right here." I explained that he needed to find a numerical way to compare individual companies, as well as their respective industries, to the overall economy. Ian gave me a puzzled look; "And... how do I do that?" Both of us fell silent for a minute. Neither of us had taken any real economics courses, and my only grounding in the subject came from the fact that my mother is a lawyer who represents major firms on Wall Street. After a minute or two,I blurted out "Let's find out how much money Apple and other big companies make in yearly revenues, and then compare that to the U.S.'s GDP. That'll give readers the sense of perspective that you're trying to convey." This ad-hoc solution worked, but it bothered me that we had any difficulty figuring it out. Both of us should have at least had some idea of what numbers to analyze besides GDP and company annual revenues. Knowing how and why you get paid a certain salary, and where that money gets spent - both in retail and on taxes - is as necessary an intellectual tool as writing itself. Thankfully, although I was unable to help Ian produce a paper worthy of Paul Krugman’s critique, we were able to both satisfy the requirements of the paper and learn something new along the way, thanks to adequate research. That tutoring session impressed upon me that, whether or not economics becomes part of the ‘common core’ standards, the ability to effectively research a topic online is a form of functional literacy that everyone should master.
There are too many schools, and too many teachers, for any comprehensive education reform plan to be feasible. The public education system is simply too large for any single curriculum, or any one test, to be applicable to all students; one size simply cannot fit all. But there are guidelines that can help individual teachers and principals decide on what is best for their pupils. Peg Tyre's analytical writing program could help show students how to learn, when they might not otherwise know how to. Paolo Freire's model of liberating education could help give an education to students who may have given up on learning, due to extrinsic factors. Erica Goldson’s speech could help introduce newcomers to the national, and global, education forum. Lastly, Ian Downing’s term paper could help teachers realize that, besides reading ability alone, functional literacy is something that must be taught before anyone can do it themselves. The sheer number of moving parts involved in the education system is staggering, but it should not discourage anyone’s attempts to fix the parts that are broken. Like any organic system, if one teacher comes up with an effective solution for a given problem, other teachers will copy him or her. The same applies at any level, be it the principals of various high schools, or the administrators of different school districts; no one is alone in their attempt to better teach the next generations. But anyone attempting to start their own education crusade would do well to remember that inertia can come from the students themselves, and that one would do well to ask their permission before starting any new kinds of pedagogical movements. Per Erica Goldson; “We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.” (Goldson)
Freire, Paolo. "The “Banking” Concept Of Education." Dwc.edu. Daniel Webster College. 11 May 2013 <http://faculty.dwc.edu/wellman/Friere.htm>.
Goldson, Erica. "Here I Stand." America Via Erica. Blogger.com. 11 May 2013 <http://americaviaerica.blogspot.com/2010/07/coxsackie-athens-valedictorian-speech.html>.
Scribner, Sylvia. "Literacy In Three Metaphors." 11 May 2013 <http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true>.Tyre, Peg. "The Writing Revolution." The Atlantic. The Atlantic. 11 May 2013 <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing-revolution/309090/>.