Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Guest post: Authoritarian Education Styles and American Competitiveness

Justin Birch has been reading this blog and asked if he could write the following guest post, which seemed right up this blog’s alley. He tells me that he wanted to be a high school teacher, and then a college professor, before encountering the difficulties of graduate school and professional academia. Now, as a writer and editor, he works to promote the quality and availability of undergraduate education in America.

[UPDATE: In July 2012, onlineschools.org asked me to remove the link to onlineschools.org from this post, on the grounds that “We believe this link may have been compensated by a marketer and no longer want them pointing to the site.” See this post.]

UPDATE 9/26/12:  I'm going to go ahead and remove the link to onlineschools.org, even though the site never adequately answered my questions about why the link should be removed.  Again, see this post.]

Americans are known for their competitive spirit. Whether the conversation is politics or sports, arguments can quickly grow heated. What happens when we turn that competitive nature to our education system?

It has long been a topic of conversation that changes need to be made in the education system in order for our students to compete on the international stage. Much attention recently has been devoted to the promise of charter schools or online colleges to outperform public institutions. However, it’s helpful to know what’s being compared. The perception reflected by rhetoric about other countries’ education systems is that they churn out perfect little soldiers, able to recite documents and perform complex mathematical functions by rote, but incapable of creativity and free thinking. Although this perception is quite inaccurate, it continues to be propagated by news media and creeps into the consciousness of our educational leaders, influencing their decisions on how best to compete with other countries.

The prime example of the influence of this thinking in action is the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that schools must perform according to certain national standards in order to receive funding. Should student scores not reach a minimum acceptable mark, the school is designated “failing” and faces sanction. Progress is only measured in one way, however: standardized testing. The most common criticism of standardized testing is that the only thing it can effectively measure is students’ ability to take standardized tests.

What skills are required to take a standardized test? The ability to follow instructions, memorize isolated facts, and then regurgitate information on demand. By the same token, what does standardized testing fail to measure? Creativity, imagination, emotional intelligence, innovation — all the values that have traditionally been measures of American success.

Professor Yong Zhao of Michigan State University has studied the problem of standardized testing and expressed concern that by forcing our kids to conform to measurable standards through testing of only readily quantifiable subjects (math, science, and reading) Americans are tossing away the very talents that have always given the United States a competitive edge in the world.

The other problem that surfaces when so much emphasis is placed on the results of testing and numbers is that someone will always find a way to game the system. In 2011, a scandal rocked the Atlanta public school system when it was discovered teachers and principals had actually been altering tests taken by students to make it appear test scores were better than they actually were. Who does this benefit?

What kind of future America are we creating with our heavy emphasis on standardized testing? Do we really want a workforce only excellent at obeying instructions and short-term memorization? Do we want cheating and lying to be the only effective way to get ahead? Or do we want creative workers adept and deeper learning who can think around corners and come up with innovative solutions to problems?

To make matters worse, not only are we putting all our eggs in the basket of quantifiable education results, we aren’t even doing it well. The reality is that when it comes to quantifiable test scores we are consistently outperformed by countries like Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. However, once again we aren’t truly comparing apples to apples. Students in other countries may begin formal education at different ages, and other factors may lead to the differences in test scores.

In our efforts to create a more authoritarian framework in our schools and thanks to our competitive nature we find ourselves whipping our students to produce better numbers and teaching to the tests, or altering the numbers when they don’t suit us. Students and teachers are sacrificing their innate drive to learning in order to score higher in arbitrary measures of success. If we wish to truly remain competitive in the global market, we must harness the creativity and talents that embody American spirit and teach to those, even if they aren’t so easily quantified.

1 comment:

Doris said...

Great post, Justin. Could you tell us more about your work on undergraduate education? I'm curious about how that connects to the topics you address here. Thanks!