When They Look Back 50 Years From Now …

Hindsight is 20-20: During the past decade, concerns that our Industrial-Age-Education model has been failing have risen to a crescendo.  Back in the day, the proliferation of technology that could quickly mass-produce uniform items created a cultural shift that shaped the educational experience for generations of American students. The urge to efficiently create millions of “products” by applying a standardized approach was irresistible!

More recently, we have recognized that human beings – especially in a diverse, free society – really don’t respond predictably to a one-size-fits-all approach, and public education has evolved remarkably to take into account individual strengths, interests, desires, and limitations.  Teachers in classrooms have been “customizing” the educational experience for students in many ways all along – legally-enforced ways (as in Special Education for students with disabilities), and quiet, heroically persistent ways (as in the hours of extra time, attention, love, and inspiration).

My guess is that fifty years from now, sociologists will talk about the days when we all bought in on the Digital-Age-Education model. The proliferation of technology that can quickly process, sort, mine, and colorfully depict data points, they’ll say, created a cultural shift that shaped the educational experience for generations of American students … The urge to measure outcomes, and to sort and compare them, was irresistible! The allure is understandable – it’s so efficient; it tells us how we are doing; we can see who is best and who is worst …

But in our rush to make use of wonderful digital capabilities, they will say, we had to make quick choices about what to measure, and when to measure. So we chose to measure what was easiest to measure – at least that would provide some data to input into the systems, at least that would satisfy the seekers of accountability.  And I bet they’ll say that over the decades, we recognized that the test scores of human beings – especially in a diverse and free society – didn’t make very predictable products either.  What’s more, we may discover that we placed too much emphasis on what was easiest to measure, infusing it with artificial importance – and that it was to the detriment of some of the truly important stuff.

What is truly important to measure? Ask a parent what he wants most of all for his child.   Ask an employer what qualities are most important to success in her company. Ask philosophers and philanthropists, artists, entrepreneurs, and innovators what attributes are most important to successful, fulfilled participation in our democracy, our country, and our world. The answers are not likely to be congruent with the data points we presently pursue.

Also, ask a teacher from one of the countries who regularly “outscore” us on international standardized tests why they visit American public schools to see how creativity, individuality, entrepreneurialism, innovation are fostered.  The things we do best in our schools keep miraculously surviving our efforts to homogenize, standardize, and create measurable products! And that’s pretty cool!

Here is a final thought – our education system is pretty amazing!  We need to always, always improve, because this work is next to sacred – and, so far, we are not reaching every child – but we are already doing some phenomenal things!

Huge economic engines are fueled whenever public opinion wanes.  Failing schools in the headlines means big payouts to consultants, software developers, textbook companies, testing companies … Pressure from powerful groups and individuals who stand to gain much has created an unhealthily competitive “culture of accountability” that rests its case on measures that are not necessarily valid or even truly important. Common Core standards are almost impossibly high – developmentally inappropriate, in many cases, in fact – AND THEY SHOULD BE! We should set our standards way, WAY up there.  But high standards are only good for the input end of education! High standards are how we know what to teach, and formative assessments help us to know how kids are doing and how to adjust our instruction to move them along the continuum toward the VERY high standards.  Very high standards, however, when applied to individual human beings with infinite variable life and learning factors, will often translate out to lower standardized test scores. Great for the consultants, the publishers, the testing companies – but a damn shame for kids, teachers, and school leaders.

2 responses

  1. Pender, Once again ,your insight and philosophy on education make infinite sense and assure me that education is alive and well with people like you and your staff at the Real School carrying out the mission of dignity and pride in the gift we share of guiding young people in their development. Thanks and keep leading the pack !

    1. Thanks Beth! I am lucky to do this work – and SO lucky to be doing it with such phenomenal colleagues~

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