either/or priorities?

NPR’s Steve Inskeep recently interviewed Merrill Vargo, a school testing consultant, about the impact of No Child Left Behind (listen to the entire interview here). When asked about the curricular choices schools sometimes have to make, she had this to say:

“Life is full of trade-offs. If you’ve got a student population that is struggling to learn English, their lives depend on their getting good at that. And if you need to walk away from your music class, your art class, you may need to do that. That’s not the best of all possible worlds, but that may be the best choice in the real world.”

Nonsense. Learning is posited here as an either/or proposition: either you can do art and music, or you can learn English. I think most of us understand that the most powerful learning happens in an enriched environment. By focusing only on “basics,” we teach students to hate school, where learning becomes a joyless enterprise. If students’ lives truly depend on learning English (which seems like a weird idea in itself), then maybe we should make school a place worth going to every day. When I was in high school, sometimes the only reason I got out of bed in the morning was for the music classes. I don’t think arts education is optional.

The real limiting factor here is not students’ ability to learn, but instead schools’ willingness to devote resources to subjects like art and music. Schools have limited budgets. And, when it really comes down to it, it’s the schools, not the students, who depend on students performing well on standardized tests. Thanks, NCLB!


One thought on “either/or priorities?

  1. There are at least two other things wrong with her basic argument.

    First, Vargo argues that the learning potential of children is to blame for diminishing curriculum, as if kids only have so much cognitive energy to spend on learning, and so it should all go to basics. Bosh. Cognitive load works exactly the opposite way, in fact. Occasionally changing up the nature of the cognitive task (like, for example, 40 minutes of music instead of endlessly sitting at desks doing worksheets!) is the best way to ensure continued engagement and successful learning.

    Second, this is yet another example of the increasing rhetoric in education that seeks to shift the locus of control for educational outcomes onto the children that education is supposed to serve. I can’t even count how many teachers and administrators I’ve heard talk about “the child having responsibility for his or her own learning.” Ostensibly this is empowering to the child somehow, but it also serves as a convenient excuse for educational failure. It’s not our fault, because the children just didn’t try hard enough! Yes, let’s blame the multiple system failure of public education on third-graders. That’s a good idea.


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