Regardless of which network you prefer to watch, you can’t turn on the news without hearing about the BP oil spill. For those of us living on the Gulf Coast, it is a nightmarish reality that we’re dealing with on a daily basis (for example, one of the local oyster shops in New Orleans just stopped selling). While I would usually use an event like this to fuel my rant about corporate greed and the dangers of the oil industry, I find it is equally well-suited for a post on a quality education. And lo and behold, that happens to be the title of this blog. This is my lucky day.
While a lot of the news continues to focus on the gushing pipe itself, Rachel Maddow, host of The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, is focusing on the more disturbing elements of the man-made disaster. At the risk of editorializing, the list of BP’s miscalculations and failures is sickening, but perhaps the most atrocious is that despite the risks associated with deep offshore drilling, they invested no funds into developing methods and technologies capable of cleaning up an oil spill should it occur. Focused on profits, they never stopped to consider how their private interests might not jive with the public good. In short, BP committed an act of gross negligence. They put profits—their industry indicator of success—above safety and now we’re all paying.
As I’ve listened to the news reports and commentary, I can’t help but wonder if our education system’s misplaced focus on standards and results could lead to more BP oil spill situations in the future. In other words, as teachers focus increasingly on test skills, values that we consider important in a democratic society—compassion, equality, social justice, civic engagement, etc—are neglected from the classroom, and such circumstances could lead us to raise children who are capable of climbing the corporate ladder but insensitive to the consequences of actions taken to fulfill their private interest.
While we spend a lot of time these days talking about providing every child with a quality education, our concept of quality rarely extends beyond teaching those skills that can be empirically evaluated. We talk about improving math scores and English language arts scores, and our educational policy is subsequently focused on improving student learning in those areas. However, if a quality education is supposed to provide students with the ability to not only get a job but also to become a fully engaged member of society, then students need more than lessons in long division and prepositions. They need a space in which they can learn the values and skills they will need as adults in our democratic society and in a globalized world. That means that a quality education is not just about providing every child with time for reading, writing, and arithmetic; it is also about providing students with opportunities to interact with diverse peer groups, learn about other cultures, and engage in activities that encourage critical thought on various issues (environmental awareness comes to mind here.)
As a New Orleans native, I am enraged and saddened by the tragedy in the Gulf. However, while there is nothing to be done now but wait for the pipe to stop gushing, there are changes we can make in our education system to prevent future leaders and corporate execs from committing the same errors. Such changes include expanding our definition of a quality education, diverting some of our attention away from test scores, and spending more time educating students to become, in the most cliché way, engaged citizens of the world.