collegial connections

reflections and musings from the School of Education at Mills College

Egypt, Tucson, Sputnik moments

with 3 comments

Dave Donahue, Associate Professor Mills College School of Education

Dave Donahue, Associate Professor
Mills College School of Education

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama referred to our “Sputnik moment” and called on Americans to “out-educate” the rest of the world. On the one hand, I have no idea what it means to “out-educate.” Fatter homework packets than those in China? More school days than in Finland? Sadly, the furlough days in California’s public schools to balance the budget make me think we’re not out-educating anyone on that front. Higher math test scores for U.S. students than Singaporean students? I suspect this last possibility gets closer to the truth of “out-educating.”

So while on the one hand, the concept of “out-educating” makes no sense, on the other hand, I can imagine exactly what it means – more math testing, more teaching to the test, more unmotivated students, consequently lower test scores, punishments for teachers and schools, and ultimately more math testing as the cycle continues in a downward spiral. This is all quite different from the curriculum, such as Advanced Placement courses, that grew out of our original Sputnik-prompted school reform. Like the reform efforts of the 1950s and 1960s following the Soviet satellite’s launch, our current efforts, whether designed well or poorly, will no doubt focus on quantitative disciplines.

If this is a Sputnik moment, however, it also strikes me as an “Egypt moment” and a “Tucson moment,” a time when we ignore education for democracy and human rights at our own peril. As important as learning math and biology or any other subject for which there are tests and international comparisons, preparing for democratic life has been a cornerstone of U.S. education. I take heart from the examples of two graduates from the Mills teacher credential program, who have managed to find ways to make sure their students are prepared for life as citizens in this country and the world.

Ines Trinh teaches a fifth grade class in San Lorenzo. In honor of the first Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties in California, she taught her students about the removal and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and how Korematsu challenged this abuse of civil and human rights. Though unsuccessful at the time, he eventually won exoneration in 1983. Ultimately, the U.S. Government apologized and paid reparations to the internees. Trinh’s lesson provided students with an important history lesson, an understanding of Constitutional rights, and a model of citizenship that emphasizes standing up for justice.

Annie Hatch teaches tenth grade English at Life Academy in Oakland. Her students read Elie Wiesel’s Night, an account of life in the Nazi concentration camps, a book which raises fundamental questions about God, life’s purpose, and the nature of humanity. Having learned that students do their best writing when they are communicating to authentic audiences, Hatch asked her students to write to Wiesel. They made connections between Weisel’s experiences and their own, Weisel’s times and intolerance, xenophobia, and scapegoating today. They asked questions about faith, justice, and home. Hatch sent the letters to the author who replied to the class. In the conclusion to his reply, Weisel told students that what they learn today will guide them in the future. What they learned was to see life as more than a competition based on who “does school” best.

The lessons in Trinh’s and Hatch’s classrooms are not part of “out-educating” any nation in the “Sputnik moment” sense. They are a reminder, though, of one important purpose of our schools. When we educate for citizenship, human rights, and democracy, we do so not in competition, but as model to other nations as well as a reminder to ourselves of the kind of society in which we want to live.

Written by collegialconnections

February 17, 2011 at 1:20 pm

3 Responses

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  1. cool post, dave!

    i guess the question it leaves me with, though, is how *will* we improve education in math/science and then measure that improvement? i think when politicians make cold war space race analogies, they’re channeling concerns they hear from the business community, particularly the innovative tech-heavy sector, which is pretty concerned that we’re just not educating enough mathematicians, scientists, and engineers to keep driving innovations that fuel our economy and thus our material well-being as a state and nation.

    here’s a blurb from the silicon valley leadership group’s webpage on education:

    “The pressures to recruit new talent are increasing, and we are not producing enough scientists and engineers. A widely cited statistic from the National Science Foundation tells us that South Korea, with 1/6 the population of the United States, awards nearly the same number of engineering degrees. Moreover, nearly half of all Master’s Degrees and Ph.D.s awarded in the US are to foreign nationals, whose incentives to stay, work and build companies in the United States are diminishing, as is our ability to grow our own talent to fill these voids.”

    so part of the “out educate” mantra might be less about the process of education and more about its ends. we need, i think, more people in this country who are graduating from college with strong quantitative and analytical skills. in an increasingly technology-dependent world, this seems imperative to maintain US standards of living.

    so how do we get on the path towards success? and how do we fairly test students to see when they’ve arrived? it seems to me we need not dismiss rigorous standards and standardized testing but rather improve them – if they need improvement – and then, without numbly teaching to a test, prepare students to ace those tests *and* instill in them a love of learning and the skills to pursue knowledge and investigate the unknown and thrive in a democracy.

    it must be the case that all these things can happen simultaneously.

    Soren Tjernell

    February 17, 2011 at 2:08 pm

  2. Thanks for the eloquent reminder about why we do this crazy thing called teaching.

    Jonn Warren

    February 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm

  3. Dave,
    Do you remember me, I got my music credential in 1993, back then my last name was Lasson? I remember you!!!
    I loved your article. So after 15 years in the classroom, here it is.
    My 2 cents is, (and this is my first blog ever so it may be worth less than 2 cents), there is always a giant schism between the theory of politicians and the reality of schools. My belief is that theory is critical, it’s what gives hope and keeps the profound concepts on the table. But you can’t ignore the schism. Secondly, engagement. Why do older kids drop out, and younger kids check out? Because too often, we’re not speaking to them in a way that means something to them. Bruno Buber’s triangle, with each point representing the teacher, the student, and the subject, is so prescient because it brings everything back to relationships. The teacher has a relationship to the subject, the students have a relationship with the subject, the teacher has a relationship with the students, and the students have relationships with each other. If just these things were happening every day in schools in a good way, kids wouldn’t drop out. That part is simple. Figuring out what to do about it, is not.

    lisa shedd

    March 4, 2011 at 4:40 pm


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