THOMPSON: Will We Measure Up?
Would a hostile power be more likely to challenge the gumption and the creative insubordination that we knew as "the American Character," or generations trained to fill-in-the-blanks and survive in an educational culture of compliance? Who would have thunk it, the creative culture that produced Google would be displaced in schools by "a culture of accountability?"
I partially blame the litigious desire for guarantees; "reformers" demand policies that educators can’t weasel out of, so education leaders demand "teacher proof" solutions that make it certain that the numbers will come out right. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, "Cover Your Ass" is hardly the posture we expect of a great nation.
The last time we faced such an economic challenge, Americans repudiated social engineering and adopted the unlovely infrastructure-building of the W.P.A, the C.C.C., and dam construction. Now, the challenge of building an informational $80 billion infrastructure for medical records is also daunting, but
I hate to believe that it would be more cost effective to put young people to work building roads than to build an educational data infrastructure. It would moral cowardice to turn the clock back, and not attempt 21st century solutions for 21st century problems. (We’ve already tried NCLB as a bridge to the early 20th century, and data-driven accountability to revive Taylorism, turning education into an old-fashioned assembly line.)
But the greatest accomplishments of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and especially the G.I. Bill were unplanned and unintended. The #1 lesson of American democracy is that we can trust in the dynamism of the people. Rather than invest in educational engineers, let’s trust in our young people. Let’s cut out the adult "reformers," and invest in AmeriCorps, including teacher corps; recruit twenty-somethings to invent exciting computer gaming programs in urban schools; bring poor kids to national parks and fund travel abroad programs; and put urban youth to work building a "green economy."
And this would be the kicker. Match all of those investments with personal educational savings accounts. In return for a community educator job, for instance, the young person would agree to financial counseling and receive a marketing campaign via their cell phones. Dropouts would get periodic reminders that they have X amount in their educational savings account, and that caring adults stand ready to help them be what they can be. It would be up to the young person to decide whether to use his or her account as a school voucher or to even travel overseas. Once, American backpackers were unintended ambassaders for American democracy. I bet today's kids would also measure up. - John Thompson