Before a successful decision can be made in any field, one must first define success and defend the criteria for the evaluation of that success. The seemingly obvious task of education is to prepare a young person for a successful adulthood. This, of course, begs the question what is successful adulthood? Psychologists, philosophers and economists may disagree on the topic of successful adulthood but, for practical purposes, let’s define it as a happy, productive individual who leads a life of purpose and meaning. What that looks like, exactly, is up to the individual.
It should be the educator’s and/or educational system’s task to prepare a young person for a successful adulthood by moving them towards that ultimate goal with the greatest level of efficiency, to maximize the quality of their investment of time and energy, and to flexibly nurture choice and diversity, dependent on the individual’s interests and aptitudes. Our current system does neither.
WHY THE CURRENT SYSTEM IS FAILING
Any educational historian will tell you that the American Education System was created to relay information, teach left-brain thinking skills (prized by Anglo Saxons due to their history of farming, domestication of animals and, consequently, ownership) and to indoctrinate young people into loving their new nation. The residual effect of these goals is manifested in the daily pledge, the inequitable focus on, and sensationalism of, American history and the inequitable focus on “the three Rs,” (reading, writing, arithmetic)… the irony begins. Teachers lectured because books were not readily available, a tradition that has LONG outgrown its justification.
In the late 1700s, during the Industrial Revolution, the system was revised to prepare young people to enter into the workforce as either a factory workers or soldiers. Consequently, the day was divided into separate subjects (by bells/whistles), with little regard for the integration or cross-pollination of knowledge and ideas, with an emphasis on obedience over decision-making and free thought. This, perhaps, was well suited for the needs of a newly industrialized nation facing military conflict that would directly impact the majority of its citizens but that, simply, is not reflective of America’s modern needs.
Not only does this system fall short of meeting today’s needs, it represents a horrendous deficit of preparing young people for the future. Why, then, has the system not grown to change with the times? I’m getting to that.
WHY THE SYSTEM HASN’T GROWN TO CHANGE WITH THE TIMES
It is probable that the majority of educators get into the field because they enjoyed their time in school, usually because they excelled. Even though they have a passion towards teaching and learning (albeit narrowly defined) and, typically, a strong commitment to young people’s success, they struggle to conceive or embrace alternatives to a system that they value and love. They typically fit the personality profile of law-abiding, law-upholding, tradition-loving, earnest, responsible citizens. They seldom question authority and are troubled, angered and/or threatened when their authority is questioned. Ironically, their heroes and the subjects of their lessons did just that… but I digress.
Administrators, typically (and understandably) advance from that pool. Consequently, they will have a similar fondness for the system and respect for hierarchical authority. I acknowledge that this is painting with a broad brush and there are, of course, exceptions to this stereotype (probably your favorite teacher). I’ll further say that this is not a criticism of the quality of such a person, these are hardworking, task-oriented, responsible, strong, caring individuals… they just aren’t, typically, agents of change. So, who gives administrators their marching orders? The school board attempts to control the budget and assure the quality of educational programs but major decisions happen at the state and federal levels. Building and district administrators have frustratingly little autonomy because they are attempting to balance the diverse needs of their demographic with the completely homogenized, standardized state and federal requirements. But shouldn’t state officials be motivated to change education with the times? No.
The state doesn’t want to give up control to allow for autonomy, bureaucrats have little regard for efficiency because it eliminates their need and politicians and lobbyists do what is in their party’s or own financial best interest, respectively. Enter standardized testing.
THE ROLE OF STANDARDIZED TESTING
Standardized testing does a few things very well. It creates an abundance of objective data, it creates a uniformed inventory of knowledge, skills and measurement, it gives the student the impression that there is one correct answer for every problem and it gives the public a sense of educational accountability and transparency. Fairly irrelevant to what we’ve already defined success to be.
Standardized testing also effectively creates a great deal of anxiety and stress, judges the success of a student, school and district based on their “performance” on a few particular days. It suggests that exploration, experimentation and failure are enemies of success, as opposed to compliments of success. It measures left-brain functionality while completely ignoring right-brain functions. It discourages divergent thinking. It implies that reading and writing are infinitely more important than speaking and listening when it comes to effective language use. It insinuates that mathematical thinking is number specific, finite, precise and exclusively expressible by a base ten system. It implies that knowledge and understanding is subject-specific and independent of other subjects. It implies that memorizing and regurgitating facts and processes is more important than creating a tangible product or alternative solutions. It prizes independent problem solving over collaboration. It virtually outlaws the use of technology. It causes teachers, parents and administrators to look at a sheet of numbers when discussing a young person instead of actually speaking to the young person. Should I go on?
Now, recognize the fact that EVERY decision is working backwards from a definition of success that is tied to success on those tests. The quality of the school, teachers, administrators, district and even property value are tied to that measurement system. This is not an over exaggeration. “Data-based instruction” simply means looking at test data to improve test scores. Sound like a recipe for disaster? Of course.
FAQ (Answered from Within the Current System)
Q: I live in a working class area and I think fine motor skills, visual/spacial intelligence and kinesthetic awareness may be more important to my son. What can be done?
A: Nothing, he will not be considered successful unless he can exhibit verbal and math skills. If he wants to live a life of a laborer, he’ll have to think of himself as a second-class citizen.
Q: My daughter loves art and wants to be an artist, what are you doing to nurture that?
A: Cutting the art program because it’s not easy to test art objectively.
Q: My son is a great musician, it’s in his blood… he’s really passionate about it. He really dislikes math though. What can we do to help him?
A: We can give him more math so he improves his standardized test scores. If that doesn’t work, we’ll have to take him out of music all together. That will make him successful.
Q: Wait, why are you forcing my son into advanced math?
A: Because last year, the kids in advanced math did better on the state assessment test… so we’re going to put more kids in advanced math.
Q: But that’s not a causal relationship, there’s an independent variable (the math aptitude of the children). How can you make decisions about math and not understand that?
A: What you just said isn’t math, you didn’t use numbers.
Q: My daughter has test anxiety.
A: Too bad.
Q: My son hates school.
A: His scores are fine, we don’t see a big problem.
Q: My daughter loves herself and enjoys life.
A: Her test scores are low, we’ll need to intervene to make her successful.
Q: Can I, as a parent, see the test?
A: No, the test cannot be seen, photographed, held, carried or even looked at by anyone except a certified test administrator.
Q: How do you become a test administrator?
A: You take a standardized certification test to become a teacher of a particular subject. Then you take a standardized test regarding administering a standardized test.
Q: My daughter has trouble focusing/concentrating in class because the subject matter doesn’t interest her.
A: Medicate her.
Q: My son has too much energy to sit still for eight hours.
A: Medicate him so he has less energy.
Q: Mr. So and So changed my daughter’s life, she adored his class and loves his subject now.
A: His students’ test results were lower than his colleagues, he is an ineffective teacher.
Q: Why aren’t students allowed to use smart devices in school? They have access to them all day long and they can be a great tool and resource if you teach them how to effectively use them.
A: You certainly can’t use them on standardized tests, so that’s not a priority.
Q: Why can’t they use smart devices or laptops on tests? They’ll be using those types of devices (and better) to solve problems for the rest of their lives.
A: If we don’t force them to memorize things, how will we be able to use standardized tests?
Q: Why did you cover up all of the posters in your room?
A: It’s necessary to do so during standardized testing. This better prepares students to succeed in an environment were they will have no access to information, similar to life prior to the 1980s.
That’s all pretty unsound reasoning if you ask me. So why don’t schools stop using standardized testing to measure the “success” of students? Well, state funding is tied to the results. If the students don’t reach AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), the state will withhold funding. If a failing school has less resources, then what happens? It’s hard to imagine that less money will improve the situation at all so, inevitably, the school will be expected to do better with less, close or succumb to privatization. Interestingly, AYP increases every year, making it increasingly more difficult to reach. Furthermore, teachers’ evaluations and salaries will eventually be tied to reaching AYP on standardized tests. You think test driven decision-making is prevalent now? It will only get worse. It’s likely that the pressure will increase until students, teachers and administrators leave public school, suffer significant emotional and/or physical distress or become tremendously bitter, cynical and miserable. This, inevitably, will happen to the ones who care the most first. Couple that with a recent all-out attack on educators’ benefits, pay, bargaining rights and integrity, all of which has happened within the last three years (because the economy was prime for such an attack), and who will be left? What caliber of person will enter into the field of education? Once all of the bright, high quality, passionate teachers have been demoralized, broken and replaced with a decreasing caliber of professionals, public schools will be unbearable.
Now, at that point everyone will consider private schools to be superior. They aren’t tied to state funding so they’re able to make decisions about education that they think are best for students and the community, independent of the endless standardized testing data loop. Then, conservative Republican politicians will propose voucher systems and/or the privatization of the entire public school system… and people will optimistically embrace that. Why conservative Republican candidates? Because the private sector funds their campaigns and the public sector funds their opponents. The same reason that Democrats rally behind environmental issues that result in private sector regulations, but I digress. That’s right, legislators, politicians and lobbyists are willing to sacrifice generations of children AND the people who have devoted their lives to them for private capital gain. Pardon my cynicism but, welcome to Capitalism 101… you’re late.
State and federal officials are also willing to perpetuate a system that disenfranchises and oppresses minorities, in the name of political correctness, and then have the nerve to complain when they rely on government funding. Am I saying that minorities can’t be successful in school? No, I’m saying that minorities can’t be successful in our current public school system.
BRIDGING THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP
Real multiculturalism is a system that, not only acknowledges and accepts the diverse cultural traditions, practices and priorities of its subgroups but, embraces the unique aptitudes, skills and interests of each group. It is a mistake to measure the “success” or “progress” of one group of people using the definitions and criteria of another.
Like most institutions, the American education system was created by the controlling majority. Consequently, the system overemphasizes the importance of skill sets, principles and priorities inherit to, and prized by, that majority… namely left brain specific functions such as reading, writing and arithmetic. Worse yet, the dominant measurement devices, high-stakes standardized tests, require additional L-mode analytical skills to demonstrate mastery. As mentioned, Anglo Saxons flourished in Europe due, largely, to farming and their domestication of animals. For thousands of years, analytical skills (inductive and deductive reasoning) fostered this success and these skills were evolutionarily confirmed. It also created the concept of ownership because people were investing time and energy into the land and animals. These analytical skills parlayed themselves into the sophisticated creation and utilization of complex tools (machinery, advanced transportation, irrigation etc.). They were also more motivated to develop weaponry due to their need to protect their possessions.
People developing on other continents, such as North America and Africa were developing different skills, due to their roles as hunters and/or gatherers. They, presumably, excelled at skills that complimented their habitats such as keen senses, cunning, gross and fine motor skills, strength, speed and rhythm. They were not, however, equally motivated to utilize analytical skills, develop concepts of ownership, nor means to aggressively protect property. Consequently, they were easily defeated, with technological force (superior arms), subjugated, displaced and/or enslaved. Sure times have changed for the better but African Americans and Indigenous Americans will continue to fall short of the narrow, outdated, Anglican definition of success.
An interesting parallel is that of women in sports. The popular opinion is that men are better athletes than women. That’s because men were in charge for most of history and created sports that emphasize strength, speed and singular focus (one ball/puck etc.)… qualities that, as hunters/warriors, they happened to excel at. On the other hand, women have a higher pain tolerance and lower center of gravity (both related to childbirth). Consequently, they’re MUCH better at the balance beam. Men can’t even participate in that event. Women also typically have keener senses and an affinity for peripheral vision, due to their historical role(s) as child-rearers and gatherers. Imagine what sports would look like if women created the majority of them. Men would be considered inferior athletes. The reality is, inherent differences exist.
Bridging the achievement gap is not just a matter of multicultural professional staff awareness/sensitivity training. If it were, African American students, living in predominantly African American communities, with predominately African American teachers would be doing significantly better. “Data” suggests that this is not the case.
It may be possible to close the current achievement gap within the current framework but that doesn’t mean it’s worth spending the resources, energy and funding to do so. Why hammer square pegs into round holes, especially when there are so many square holes? Also, how does that make the square pegs feel about their inherent shape, a shape that has as much intrinsic value as other shapes. Perhaps I’m overextending the metaphor. Einstein famously said, “Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
A slew of recent race-related lawsuits have plagued our district and many others, this is another unnecessary drain on resources. Ironically, firms that champion themselves as a civil rights advocates have taken (and intended to take) a significant percentage of money awarded to the plaintiff(s). Their actions do far more to polarize the community than unify it. Not to mention that if a case can be made that a private school placement is more appropriate for a minority student, it’s inevitably due to the fact that private schools don’t operate under the narrow definition of success imposed on the public schools by the state (via high-stakes standardized testing). They really should be suing the state, not individual districts, schools and/or educators. Passing the buck may be unsavory but you can hardly blame a bullet for a homicide.
ADD and ADHD
It’s not just minority students that are being hurt. Consider the phenomenon of ADD (attention deficit disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder). There certainly is a deficit between the needs, interests and sensibilities of today’s youth and a 200 year old system but why in the world would one think the problem is with the young person? They are the recent product of millions of years of evolution (or a creator, if you insist)… the system was created by a handful of Anglicans in the 1700s. Most Americans wouldn’t use a travel book that was more than two years old. If a play was so boring that audience members walked out, the director would try to improve the play, not the audience members. If a dog chews the furniture because of an overabundance of energy, the owner resolves to give the dog more opportunities to run… yet, if a young person doesn’t fit within the current education system, parents are inclined to fill them with medicine. Why, because the system worked for our great great great grandparents? With energy to spare, rapid, divergent thought patterns and an utter intolerance for things deemed to be irrelevant, it seems today’s ADD/ADHD population is better suited for today’s world than the typical model student. It’s no wonder the percentage of diagnoses soars towards the east coast, the pace of life is faster but the schools are exactly the same as they are everywhere else in the US. The system should bend to meet the needs of students diagnosed with ADD/ADHD rather than the other way around.
BETTER FOR EVERYONE
OK, so perhaps rethinking our definition of success and creating a school system that encourages and embraces twenty first century skills would benefit racial minorities and individuals with varying levels of focus, but what about the “average” kid? Good question.
Let’s examine recent educational history. George W. Bush initiated No Child Left Behind. That tied funding to state achievement tests, predominately in arithmetic and reading. Now, they aren’t necessarily bad skills to have but has anyone really built a compelling case as to how they may be connected to happiness, productivity, purpose and meaning? Has anyone even tried? I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard anyone ask the question. For generations we’ve tied our nation’s hopes and dreams to a set of skills that were most relevant before the invention of the printing press, fountain pen, calculator and computer. That’s hardly a model promoting progress.
Obama seems to have shifted the attention towards science, math and technology. A small step in the right direction but that’s only because we hope to economically compete with Asian countries. The reality is, we’ll never compete with Asian countries when it comes to manufacturing. Their population is too great and the cost of living too low. Where we can outshine other countries is in the realm of divergent thinking. That’s right, American ingenuity. That’s what made this country great in the first place. Imagine, it’s a country dominated by the bloodlines of the rest of the world’s most courageous thinkers. Most families left their native countries and immigrated here with little more than courage, ambition and unquenchable idealism. We still continue to dominate the world of invention patents, by a long shot.
It’s imperative to end the segregation of subjects. Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome and the Renaissance are the three times in history where and when humankind made the most significant progress. The desegregation of knowledge was a characteristic of all three cultures. That’s also a common thread among all of history’s greatest minds. Consider our own beloved Ben Franklin, for instance. The reality is, no real world problem has ever been successfully solved using math, art, science, language skills, history, health etc. exclusively. It’s virtually impossible to even frame the simplest of problems entirely within the realm of one discipline? Deciding how to fold a new sweater relies on a cursory, arguably innate, understanding of aesthetics, history, science and math.
We must embrace the fact that objective facts, while tidier to evaluate on standardized assessments, are not as important nor paramount as issues and ideas that lend themselves to subjectivity. There simply is not one correct answer to any problem, especially life’s most important, engaging and challenging. Humans differ from one another, situations differ from one another, the criteria for success is ambiguous. In fact, the more abstract and complex the concept, the more intrinsically compelling human beings find the topic to be. Would you feel more compelled to spend an afternoon comparing “apples” to “apples” or “love” to “selflessness?”
A system that does not evolve in a world that does is not only doomed, it impedes the natural evolutionary process of its inhabitants. Over the centuries, world religions have adopted the break instead of bend approach… and they inevitably break. There’s a reason why the word “mythology” meant “story” in ancient times but now means “false story” in modern times. Will the word “education” someday be a synonym for “fruitless waste of time?” It is absolutely imperative to examine, assess and adjust the education system based on the anticipated needs of tomorrow, not the tradition of yesterday. In fact, no other field demands more foresight.
One only needs to trust intuition, who is the preferable employee, colleague or boss; someone with superior math, reading skills and/or science knowledge (which by the way, has become the history of science in our current system, instead of the practice of the scientific method) or someone with universally applicable skills like creativity, ingenuity, critical thinking, logic, leadership, charisma and the ability to synthesize knowledge. If the answer isn’t clear, I’ll give you a hint… one of the individuals is immediately replaceable by a typical mobile phone.