When the history of this period of American domestic policy is chronicled I think we should label it The Great Leap Forward.
Chairman Mao would approve, I think.
There are obvious differences, of course, between China in the late 1950’s and the USA circa 2002-2012 but the parallels fascinate me.
My understanding—and I admit I’m not widely read in this area—is that Mao became fixated on the inability of his vast Chinese nation to match Western countries in industrial production, particularly the bellwether commodity, steel.
Bringing Chinese steel production up became a kind of obsession with the Great Leader.
According to that fount of wisdom, Wikipedia, a goal was set to have Chinese output surpass that of the United Kingdom within fifteen years. Those who suggested that such goals were unrealistic were branded counter-revolutionaries.
Tremendous amounts of investment in money and labor were poured into this project. As in most things like this the idealistic young were recruited to lead the way.
Intellectuals were distrusted.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Flash forward to 2002. Our dear leader, George W. Bush, fixed his gaze on education. He and his allies, notably Senator Edward Kennedy, resolved that the United States would match China in educational “production”. Nationwide test scores would be used to monitor progress.
The bellwether commodity was called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Statistics were trotted out to prove that the US was lagging in the development of human capital. We were importing software engineers, biochemists, and chemical engineers.
When you dialed for help with your laptop you were likely to be connected to Bangalore.
It was humiliating. A once-proud industrial power was forced to utilize foreign expertise to make its iPads.
Bush crafted lofty, uncompromising goals (all children proficient in math and English by 2014) that some folks said were unrealistic.
Critics were branded “pointy-headed intellectuals”.
Fortunately the President had a ready-made assemblage of young idealists ready to go into the hinterland and lead this revolutionary movement. They were called Teach for America. Suddenly graduates of Ivy League universities who had heretofore shunned education as a career flocked to TFA recruitment meetings.
Photos of young, mostly White, recent college grads began appearing in the daily newspapers. On the Saturday Education page you might see something like this:
“John Smith (Princeton, 2009) teaches at the inner-city Walden Academy,” quoth the caption. “Walden, a charter school, recently opened to serve the children of East Harlem.”
“We believe every child deserves a good education, said Smith.”
The Chinese Leap Forward, we now know, resulted in mass starvation. According to Wikipedia, “tremendous amounts of investment produced only modest increases in production or none at all.”
I think it would be fair to say that No Child Left Behind could bear the same judgment today, though, of course, we can’t know what lies ahead.
Ironically I think Teach For America and charter schools are positive developments. Attracting the best and the brightest into education and giving parents educational choices seem like common sense improvements.
But when I notice the eerie parallels between Mao’s preoccupation with steel, and our similar fixation on test scores it gives me pause.
Will the history books describe this time as one of a “learning famine” for our children? Will they say that we diverted resources from art, history, and practical skills and thus starved our children of real learning?
Will our descendants mock us for spending vast amounts of capital on testing when we could have used it for more obvious improvements like smaller class sizes or newer school buildings?
I like to think that if I’d lived in China in 1960 I would have been a counter-revolutionary. Twenty years from now what will I think about the role I played in the Bush/Obama revolution of our time?
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