Earlier this week, I responded to a column by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who constructed an artificial divide between our “formal education” (aka school) — which he indifferently described as linear, objective and ordinary — and our “emotional curriculum” (aka life) — which he approvingly described as nonlinear, subjective and transformational.
In fairness to Brooks, he’s hardly alone in this misconception — in fact, it’s probably inaccurate to call it a misconception, since this is how it works for too many of us: formal schooling is what you endure, and informal schooling is what helps you discover what really matters to you, what your personal strengths and weaknesses are, etc. But just because that’s the way things have been doesn’t mean that’s the way they should continue to be — a particularly relevant point for folks like Brooks, who are supposed to help light a better path, and for reform-minded cities like Washington, DC, where I now live. And yesterday I read something that gives me hope our city may be slowly adjusting its course to a more fruitful strategy for school improvement.
The event was a radio appearance by interim schools chancellor Kaya Henderson, a former deputy to Michelle Rhee, and a person who, depending on whom you ask, is either a constructive bridge between the Rhee era and the Gray administration, or a destructive reminder of the past four years. In the interview, Henderson artfully addressed the source of this artificial divide between formal and informal schooling, and suggested, to me at least, a nuanced understanding of what needs to happen going forward — in short, exactly what I want to hear from the top education official of my city.
“I think we’ve gotten something wrong,” she began. “Previously there was no measure of student achievement. We just sent kids to school and hoped for the best. And then the standards and accountability movement came along and said what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done, so we have to test. And I think testing is incredibly important. But I also think that we have to help people understand that tests are a benchmark, not the goal. The goal is to educate children. And I think the swing of the pendulum from absolutely no accountability to what I might call data craziness is starting to hurt.”
Henderson ceded that, currently, test scores remain the most objective available indicator of academic growth across the school system. “But I feel like we have to make people understand that test scores are not the only thing happening in our classrooms,” she said.
Imagine if more of our education policies were being constructed to address this vital insight? Imagine if more of our public leaders urged us all to end our obsession with either side of the pendulum extreme — and charted a course to let that pendulum settle in the middle, where we value both measures and meaning, and where our schools are incentivized to create environments that nurture the academic, emotional and spiritual needs of our children (and communities)? And imagine if the Gray administration, under Kaya Henderson’s leadership, set out to establish three conditions that are not being met today:
- To measure all things worth measuring in the context of providing children the most meaningful education possible (aka Brooks’s “informal curriculum”).
- To ensure we know how to measure what we set out to measure.
- To attach no more importance to measurable things than we attach to things equally or more valuable that elude our instruments.
I like what I’m hearing.