In the 1980s there was great concern over the state of education in this country. On international standardized tests our students were not performing to the same level as other countries. The simplistic look at the data was that we were underperforming. Examining with more complexity reveals however, that while our students weren’t as qualified on these exams, our education system was producing more creative, innovative students. Another factor not examined at the time was the validity of what the test was asking.
The result was that we embarked on two-pronged approach for improving education in the United States. One strategy was to promote school choice. This was done through open enrollment, development of charter schools, and some attempts at allowing vouchers to funnel public dollars to private schools. The thinking was that competition is good for innovation and, in the case of charter schools, smaller, more focused schools with a particular curricular or social niche would be a breeding ground for innovative ideas that would then filter back to the rest of the schools. Nice idea, and to some degree that has occurred.
The other strategy was to implement standardized testing. And if you are going to have standardized tests you have to have a standardized curriculum. This brought about standards in education. Setting a standard isn’t a bad thing. Setting high expectations is a good thing. Nobody would advocate for less rigor in education. However, as the system evolved, it grew into a high-stakes testing machine in which the money followed the achievement on the tests. The primary focus of the testing, especially in elementary school is on the basic skills of math and literacy. Of course the basic skills are important, but because of the testing, the primary purpose of education in the U.S. has become about achievement of the basic skills of math and literacy—not creative and critical thinking. Other subjects, such as music, visual art, and PE have been reduced greatly. What many do not know however, is that because of this focus, many elementary schools teach very little science and social studies as well. In some elementary schools, these two subjects are entirely absent. This is not hyperbole. This is actually happening. If all we teach are the basic skills, then the end result will be a population that is only proficient at the basic skills. This is the unintended consequence of an education system driven by basic skills tests. Unfortunately these two strategies compete against one another.
What then is the solution? Well, one solution might be to add more tests so that we test all those other subjects as well. If testing math and literacy increased instruction time of these basic skills then testing the other areas will increase instruction in those areas too. Unfortunately, I don’t think feeding the standardized testing beast is the answer. It might lead to basic proficiency in those other areas, but standardized tests and a standardized curriculum will never lead to innovative teaching and education. If everything is standardized, then from where might creative, new ideas emerge? There is no room for innovation in a standardized process. I’ve never had a creative meal at McDonalds. But I always knew what I was going to get. Nor will a standardized curriculum ever develop a creative, innovative, problem-solving next generation.
Here’s a simple answer. Remove the strategy of relying on standards and standardized testing to improve education and leave in place the other strategy of school choice. If you removed the impediment to innovation and constraints on schools, I believe there would be an explosion of creativity in the next 20 years in education. Driven by the passion of local teachers and parents, schools could truly differentiate to meet the needs of local communities. Maybe schools would implement curriculum in which the basic skills should be learned while exploring the other subjects instead supplanting them. The passion for innovation is there, gasping for air under a pile of standardized tests. If this was the climate of public schools, I also believe more creative individuals would be drawn to public school teaching.
And then let the market decide. That was the original intent of school choice. The schools that are meeting the needs of students and the community will survive and those that aren’t should be phased out with dignity, allowing educators and parents to learn as much as we can from the innovations attempted. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, as a parent, you had multiple choices for where to send your child, so you could find the choice that best matched their learning and social needs? Instead, we are on a speeding train through a long tunnel. And at the other end is an education system in which all schools meet the exact same standards using the exact same testing—which at best will produce an entire population of students who think in the exact same way—minimally.
Plus removing the standards and the testing would save a hell of a lot of money.