Op-Ed: American Education — Wrong Questions, Wrong Answers

The ultimate goal of education: helping students learn how to be, how to do, and how to know

In the past decade, we have seen a growing litany of assertions proclaiming the belief that the system of American public education injures and/or ill-equips massive numbers of children. It is this belief that has spawned a Race to the Top to standardized curricula for our students and evaluation systems for our educators. It is this belief that has led us to accept that large-scale, centrally designed and state-administered assessments will prod educators ands students alike to do the work required for students to score at the “desired” levels on both national and international assessments.

What if the beliefs that are driving the current reform efforts are not supported by fact? What if, in fact, the majority of American students are not underperforming their international peers? What if the “fixes” designed to remake the American school system are not and, worse, cannot be successful in dealing with the issues facing our educators, our students, and our communities? What if they, in fact, are more likely to destroy the very qualities of our system that the “high-performing “ countries are seeking to emulate and the very qualities our children need to be successful in a rapidly changing and unpredictable future?

This is not a call for resistance to change. It is a suggestion that calls us to reject superficial questioning and the accompanying simplistic solutions.

Since 1989, with the release of the NCTM standards, American education has been increasingly driven by the adherence to two widely accepted, but largely unchallenged, tenets. First, the American education system is a failure and continues to fail massive numbers of American children. Second, there is a need to standardize the content to which American students should be exposed and the progress toward the attainment of these standards should be measured by state administered, large-scale assessments.

These beliefs have dominated the direction of education reform efforts, federal and state policy decisions, and the efforts of local schools and districts. These beliefs have, in recent years, become the accepted “fact” of our education system. Today, both nationally and in states throughout the country, reform of public education, critiques of schools and teachers, the need for yet another round of more rigorous standards and assessments dominate the news and political discourse.

On one very important level, such attention is justified. We have not lived up to our own expectations. We live in one of the very few countries in the world that has committed to both equity and excellence in the education of children. The achievement of this goals remains elusive, nowhere more so than for the poorest of our nation. While success in this goal remains a challenge, the definition of excellence has changed dramatically. Concurrent with “raising the performance bar,” rising poverty levels have increased the demand for excellence among the very populations for whom these higher standards represent the greater challenge, making the attainment of such excellence even more elusive.

Increasingly, thoughtful, highly respected educators and policy analysts are questioning the very basis of what has become the driving force in our schools and in the lives of our children. These voices come from a variety of experiences: life-long educators, national policy developers, conservative and liberal political analysts, students of national and international educational policies and practices, and so forth. They share one critical observation. We may have looked at the American education experience from too narrow a perspective. We may have asked the wrong questions and, with the best of intentions, arrived at the wrong answers.

What if the standards as they have evolved do not reflect what our students need to know and be able to do? What if the large-scale assessments do not provide an accurate picture of student learning? What if the data readily available to educators, parents, policymakers, and politicians were actually used to assess the accuracy of the “beliefs” driving the current reform efforts? What are the key factors in the success of the many “model” schools throughout the country? Are these factors part of an intentional process to provide the experiences our students need? If not, why not?

This is not intended to be an attack on the notion of high standards. As Sir Ken Robinson, in his TED Talk on Changing Paradigms of Education, has noted, “Who would possibly argue for lower standards?” Rather, it is intended to serve as a call to look beyond the shallow and simplistic responses of the current reform agenda. It is a call to examine whether or not there are other, more informative questions we should be asking and seeking to answer.

We are a system in need of change. Some might argue that the need is more for transformation than for reform. There is a need for change in many ways and at many levels. This need lies in the recognition that, in spite our successes and the commitment of the vast majority of the nation’s educators, our system has not changed as quickly as the world our students are entering.

It is our hope that these questions will lead us to a more thoughtful exchange of ideas, as well as a more thoughtful analysis of the needs of our students and the design of the kinds of experiences that are most likely to engage them in the ultimate goal of education: learning how to be, how to do, and how to know.