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As Obama seeks to revamp No Child Left Behind, a scientist asks why we educate children at all

New book suggests big-picture questions we should be asking about education policy

Rockefeller University

The Obama administration recently introduced a proposal to overhaul President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which emphasizes accountability of American schools by tying federal funding to achievement on annual standardized tests.

Obama's proposal, which is already fueling debate, calls for new guidelines that do not focus as rigidly on absolute measures in reading and math, but rather on relative year-over-year improvement among schools, which can measure their success in a broader range of subjects as well.

The differences between the Bush and Obama approaches, significant though they are in the debate over American education, are relatively narrow compared to the huge range in objectives of education systems worldwide, according to Joel E. Cohen, a researcher at The Rockefeller University. Cohen believes understanding the diverse international and domestic rationales for why we educate children could sharpen thinking about what should be stressed in the United States. Exploring the thinking about the goals of education at home and across the globe is the subject of a new book co-edited by Cohen, which follows up his 2007 survey titled Educating All Children: A Global Agenda. One chapter focuses on the major disconnect between what American adults say they want education to provide children and what current law requires school systems to achieve.

"Our earlier book talked about assessment, but assessment without goals lacks a direction," says Cohen, who is the Abby Mauzé Rockefeller Professor and head of the Laboratory of Populations. "In our new book, we ask, 'Where do we want to go with education?'"

In surveys of American stakeholders, including parents, educators, school board members and legislators, the results are surprisingly consistent, and reach far beyond basic academic skills and knowledge. "Most people wanted students to develop skills in critical thinking and problem solving, social skills and work ethic, citizenship and community responsibility, physical and emotional health, love of the arts and literature and preparation for skilled work that does not require a college degree," Cohen says. By contrast, the Bush-era law, now up for revision and renewal, overwhelmingly relies on the standardized testing of students' reading and math skills as the measure of schools' success.

Published in December, International Perspectives on the Goals of Universal Basic and Secondary Education, includes a sweeping range of views on education, with chapters written by authors from every inhabited continent and many cultures and religions. Cohen co-edited the book with Martin B. Malin, executive director of the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "It turns out that people have amazingly diverse views of the goals of education," Cohen says. "We hear about the need to teach tolerance and open-minded understanding of sacred texts in the Arab world from the late, great former minister of education in Tunisia. We hear from the headmaster of a Nigerian Koranic school about the need to inculcate moral behavior. A Chinese educator favors education for world commerce and collaboration in business. A Singaporean diplomat favors developing skepticism and a questioning attitude in the spirit of Socrates.

"The diversity of voices, views, and assumed purposes for education should provoke any thoughtful reader to consider why we should educate children," he says.

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