By Ben Sichel | Published May 30th, 2014 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
What is our public education system for? To judge by much of the talk coming from politicians and business leaders, education is purely a matter of preparing students to be workers in a vaguely defined “new economy.”
Certainly, students need to be able to survive economically in the world. But public education is about much more than narrow job-skills training: it’s about teaching our kids how to create and sustain a healthy, engaged society.
This isn’t always reflected in the way we prioritize certain subjects in school.
Take the example of math. A staple of the curriculum since the dawn of schooling, it’s often perceived as the most serious and rigorous of subjects. Why? Because it’s seen as the key to gainful employment, especially in higher-paid fields. Love it or hate it, many students are ingrained from a young age with the idea that their financial future depends on their ability to solve quadratic equations or prove the Pythagorean theorem.
I have nothing against math; in fact, it was one of my majors. But there are some problems here. One is that only a small percentage of jobs actually use anything beyond junior high math – about a fifth, according to a recent Northeastern University study.
Furthermore, jobs aside, is the material learned in a high school math class necessarily that much more important in life than, say, learning about one’s health, macroeconomics, a second language, or Canada’s treaty obligations with First Nations?
These are not just philosophical questions. In the U.S., a decade of education policies focusing on “career and college-readiness” – Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, and Obama’s Race to the Top and more recent Common Core State Standards – have resulted in an obsessive overemphasis on standardized test scores and narrowing of the curriculum.
As teachers spend an inordinate amount of time teaching to the test, subject matter seen as extraneous, i.e. anything not easily testable or immediately relatable to a job, is pushed to the margins.