an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Oh, Austin. The world has been witnessing your gentrification from all angles. When we look back as recently as Richard Linklater’s early filmography, we see a more desirable city than we roam now, hip and well-educated but with fewer people trying to capitalize on that. Or so we remember. And too, true Austinites remember a time before thirteen or so standardized tests were required in order to graduate from high school. Texas has always loved testing. Texas also influences what textbooks are available to students all over the US. We remember Austin as the black sheep of Texas. In terms of education, Austin still longs to hold that clichéd distinction—
Education has been dying for a long time across Texas. As a state, it leans in favor to a kind of schooling that is more akin to training. Training focuses on learning skills, like welding, or test-taking. Students can be trained to learn sets of facts deemed important by test makers. Education, traditionally, involves promoting the development of one’s mind by encouraging independent thinking and analysis when faced with knowledge—what we commonly accept as historical or scientific facts. An education gives a student a sense of understanding herself and the world around her and the ability to develop values that reflect the knowledge she has gained. Education encourages curiosity; training isn’t as much about curiosity as it is about an ability to perform accurately.
Obviously training is necessary—we want well-trained doctors, even well-trained teachers. I received training when I took a tefl course in Austin, and this helped me further my education as I taught English to students in Korea. But should public schools be training grounds? Are they teaching a specific skill? Shouldn’t the focus of public education be developing young minds so they can approach future training—and their lives—with vitality and curiosity?
I understand the dichotomies I’m constructing here—training and death vs. education and life—but the metaphor stands when looking at education in Texas. We train students to perform on tests so we can collect statistics that are too often used to determine things they weren’t designed for, like teacher pay or even home property values. Who doesn’t love the certainty of statistics? If we measure something we can know it, right? We can know that we know it—math, or how to read a particular kind of text— and talk about it in certain terms. It is no longer growing, or evolving, even if for just that moment.
The only time we can complete our understanding of another person is after they have died, when they are no longer growing, evolving, and changing in ways that we may not be able to see. Texas, and a growing educational reform movement in our country, wants to be able to have a complete understanding of what its children have learned—
Texas wants its schools to be machines with predictable inputs and outputs. Start charter schools with long days that tie teacher pay to test scores, end with better test scores and higher graduation rates. But are these children getting an education? Is this measurable?
Austin seems skeptical. There’s evidence that education in Austin is fighting for its life. A professor at University of Texas in Austin even pointed out a design flaw in the standardized tests in the state’s beloved standardized tests. Charter schools? Austin has some, but famously kicked out IDEA public schools from the former Allan Elementary School in East Austin after protests from the community. Now, the Austin Independent School District is seeking the community’s advice on how to repurpose this building.
How very Austin.
Austin is also the home of parents who opt out of state tests, like Edy Chamness. On the days that she keeps her son home from school, they take nature walks and visit museums. She argues that these activities are more educational than taking a test, and perhaps more so than the worksheets and other means used to train students for success. These activities promote the development of the mind through experiences of the world, not paper under fluorescent lighting.
Schooling will always involve a degree of classroom instruction, as is necessary. Not to the degree to which it is dying across Texas. Nevertheless, we have examples of education in Austin fighting for its life. These stories may be mere tokens, but they are hopeful evidence for educated Austinites that want to see a vital, educated city in the future.
Sean Lords taught English in Seoul, South Korea for three years before pursuing his Master of Education. He now likes to write about education and urban farming while raising his wonderful family.