While I was writing the last post, it occurred to me that the emphasis on "compliance" within classrooms that Stephen Camarata noted in that AP article might be a resurgence of the educational philosophy of the Cold-War 1950s. When I talk with my mom about education, she always tells me that her classwork was mostly rote learning --- she learned French by memorizing dialogues, she memorized and recited speeches and poems --- while my siblings and I have tended to get a lot more creative or analytical assignments.
A few factors stick out to me as possible reasons the pendulum might be swinging back: first, we're in the middle of a huge panic over a perceived loss of American "competitiveness," economically and militarily. We're losing a lot of good-paying, high-skilled jobs overseas, and every year our students seem to fall further behind the rest of the world on science and math tests.
I wonder if this kind of cultural climate of fear of losing status in the international community might be one reason for periodic vogues of "back-to-basics" educational philosophies. After all, in the Cold War Americans worried mightily about what would happen if Russia's engineers and scientists got ahead of ours in the Space Race. Now, we might not be as worried about military threats (all the wars we're involved in, after all, are hugely asymmetrical in terms of firepower), but we see ourselves as extremely vulnerable economically. Globalization means that companies will probably choose to base most of their production in other countries, where labor is cheaper and fewer regulations are in place, while more and more countries are turning out bright, well-educated young workers from their colleges and universities. The West in general, and America in particular, no longer holds a monopoly on highly-skilled labor, and the model of pure, untrammeled capitalism America espouses (as opposed to Europe's more tempered, safer version) will admit of no incentive but profits, which leaves no room for policies geared toward growing a local economy.
Of course, the need corporations have for highly technically skilled grunt workers is only part of the equation describing educational policy in America. Much of the standardization of education can also be blamed on No Child Left Behind, which makes standardized testing just about an annual event, and distorts curricula accordingly. Finally, a related factor that surely contributes to it is the chronic lack of funding and staff that make it down to the classroom level. If a teacher is already taxed to the extent of his or her abilities just by the sheer number of students and volume of material, they're going to place a high value on sitting down, shutting up and letting them get on with it.
Back to the theme of the changing global economy, and its ramifications for education, I've wondered for quite some time why it is that when people see that their institutions are leaving them behind, the idea that comes first into their heads is, not to abandon or reform the institution, but to change themselves to keep up with it?