American Exceptionalism is the term often used to describe the special characteristic of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty. Basically, it dates back to the Declaration of Independence with phrases like "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" and "all men were created equal" which was reaffirmed at Gettysburg by President Lincoln. Lincoln honored the fallen solders at Gettysburg by reminding American citizens those soldiers "gave the last full measure of devotion" so that the "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth". American Exceptionalism is the core belief Americans hold believing the American way of doing things is better than anyone else's way of doing things. History tends to agree with that belief. Tom Brokaw proclaimed the World War II generation as the "greatest generation" because of these ideas. America's educational system is based on these ideas. We have set up an educational system where children have access to a "free and appropriate" education. Our educational history has not always been stellar, but we are where we are today because of American Execeptionalism.
The question I ask today is, "Is American Exceptionalism being destroyed by current educational reforms?" Basically, is the American way of educating its citizens still better than the way other countries educate theirs? Many who say American education needs to be reformed point to the 2012 PISA results for 15 year olds. They say the results show a stagnant trend line of math and science scores and how other countries are passing the US in the rankings. Diane Ravitch and others say America has never fared well on international tests and using these results to show a need for more reforms are disingenuous. Diane Ravitch (read her full analysis and conclusions here) points out that when testing started in the mid 1960's the US was either last or next to last on every math assessment. Remember, the 1960's was the generation of mathematicians and scientists who put Americans on the Moon! The fact of the matter is America's students perform well when disaggregated for poverty. The fact of the matter is education is a powerful tool to break the cycle of poverty. The fact of the matter is that as long as poverty exists, educators will need to do a better job of educating the impoverished children of America. However, it is a matter of opinion and not fact on how to improve our educational system. It is fact and not opinion that every attempt to improve our educational institutions drastically and dramatically affects classroom teachers!
Oklahoma, like many other states, has started receiving, passing, and implementing cookie cutter legislation designed to improve public education: social promotion of 3rd graders, using testing data to measure the effectiveness of teachers, High Stakes Testing, OAsS, and A-F accountability systems to name just a few. Have you noticed every reform intended to improve student learning has been directed at the teacher and no reforms have been dedicated toward the actual student or parent? Why is that? We all agree student learning is an active and highly personal process.
Instruction is part of the equation, just as standards are part of the equation, but so is the student's part of the learning process. ...why are the effects of poverty or lack of poverty continually ignored in any school improvement reform initiative with the purpose of improving student learning? Why are teachers constantly under attack? ...but I digress. These educational reforms are constantly putting additional pressure on our classroom teachers.
There are a plethora of current educational reforms placing an undue burden on our classroom teachers. Great teachers are great because they care for their students. They develop and nurture professional relationships with their students, so they will be better equipped to teach them. However, these reforms often pit the best interests of the kids against the best interests of the teacher. For example, how can we expect our best teachers to want to work with the most at risk students if testing data is used to evaluate teacher effectiveness and to reward merit pay? How can we have school improvement when individual teachers knowingly have to do things that cause them personal angst for the possibility of improved student attainment? If teachers had a guarantee these reforms would work, then they would be the first to go along with them, but there are no guarantees. The only thing reforms have proven to do is create a toxic climate for our classroom teachers. They have created animosity between teachers of tested subjects and non tested subjects. They have created distention between primary, elementary, and secondary teachers of the same subjects. They have created an environment of discontent between teachers, counselors, and administrators. In some cases, teachers are not allowed to practice their craft as their professional philosophy suggests in order to satisfy requirements of educational reforms (see socialization vs academic learning in primary grades). Let's be clear, the intent of educational reforms is to show that American students can perform as well as their international peers on achievement tests.
How can one continue to think America's way of educating its citizens is better than the rest of the world when teachers are required to teach math like they do in Singapore or strive to have a PISA ranking like China, Finland, or Japan? Shouldn't our teachers continue to educate Americans using American Exceptionalism ideas and beliefs? Don't parents want their teachers to look at their children, and teach to the learning style of their children? Shouldn't schools want teachers to teach to the teacher's ability in a manner in which the student learns best? Why would we want our teachers to teach students to pass a test like the kids in Shanghai when Shanghai is trying to get their kids to think like American children? As an educator, I want students to be able to create, think, problem solve, and experience the wonderful emotion of Lincoln's Gettysburg address. I want to let students engage in discussions where their opinion is expressed through individual experiences and backed up by evidence. I don't want students to memorize the 272 words of Lincoln's speech; I want them to understand the importance of his words. They can't understand the significance of Lincoln's speech and its application of American Exceptionalism if the only reason they learn it is to get the right answer on a test!