Getting where we intend to go involves taking the correct first steps or making the proper adjustments along the way. Sometimes we head in a particular direction and realize too far down the path that we are going the wrong way. This is happening right now in education. Currently, multiple educational trains are running simultaneously, and most are hoping to arrive at the same general destination – success.
Success has many definitions, but for purposes of this discussion, we will define success as ‘desired outcomes’. As parents, most of us hope our children will learn what they need to learn in order to do what they hope to do in life. So we send them off to school to begin the journey to his or her best possible future. Thus, our educational train station has several trains taking different routes to arrive at destination success. Almost all of these trains include the college doorstep as the gateway to the brightest futures. On the platform, we find independent trains, public trains, college preparatory trains, alternative trains, traditional trains and progressive trains. When the whistle blows, each train sets out on predetermined tracks to the much desired land of opportunity called higher education.
Recent publications such as Most Likely to Succeed (Wagner & Dintersmith) and Creative Schools (Sir Ken Robinson) point out clearly that the problem we face today is not about the destination (college or future success), the passengers (our children) the engineers and conductors (the educators and families) or the trains themselves (our schools). Our trains are doing what they were designed to do, riding on the tracks on which they were built to travel. Instead, the problem rests with our actual infrastructure.
Automobiles and highways disrupted the train travel industry in the same way that education is being disrupted today. The real problem in education rests with one obstacle on the collective tracks that is actually derailing the whole journey: the college admission process (not college itself). The college admission process has forced strange changes in education over the last decades, and none of those changes have yielded positive results.
Simply stated, since the early 1980s, more students have looked to enroll in college (great news). Colleges have enjoyed the benefit of rising tuitions and rising applications (seemingly great news). The new normal for students and families is that they are expected to go to, and pay for, college (potentially bad news if this becomes too expensive). With this amazing increase in the number of college attendees, our society and our industries should be booming, right? Opportunity should exist all around. If not, where have we gone wrong?
The truth is that opportunity does exist all around and we haven’t gone too far down the wrong path. This could be an amazing time to be a student and an educator if we regroup, remove obstacles on our current tracks, and perhaps, even blaze new trails. This requires courage and the ability to see that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. The default emperor here is the college admission process and the standardized testing industry.
Quality education and college attendance remains vital to our society’s success. The process of getting in the college door should not deprive students of the very skills they will need to thrive once enrolled and graduated. Similarly, the process should not deprive parents and teachers of our very purpose. Quality education involves assessments not capable of being standardized. As noted in Most Likely to Succeed:
“Every child in America is at risk. Student after student in school after school, spend their school hours bored, covering irrelevant material, doing mindless tasks, taking far too many ill-conceived standardized tests, and having the creativity and innovation schooled out of them.” (p.58)
The testing industry has indirectly derailed what was once fantastic about our schools.
Every day I see preschool families who want their children to be given more academic work and less time on the playground because they believe it will help prepare them for long term success. The evidence is clear that it will not. Young children’s brains and bodies benefit most from the natural things they were designed to do at this age – creative play, outdoor exploration and discovery. Research shows that making our preschools ‘more academic ‘ produces long term harm. Instead, there has been a decline in gross and fine motor skills, attentiveness, creativity, general well being and academic accomplishment in children. We can thank the testing emperor for this result because parents and schools have gotten the message to board the wrong train, or to board it too soon for fear of being left behind.
This trend has become magnified in K-12 education where the quest for the untarnished, straight “A” record has parents and schools forgetting the golden rules of parenting and teaching. The culture of anxiety has prompted unhealthy behaviors such as cheating, grade inflation, lessened accountability, finger pointing and wrongful criticism. School leaders field fearful questions regarding curriculum choices, acceleration plans, grades earned and homework loads, not because the research shows it is warranted, but because of the role of the emperor.
Today’s elementary school parents fear that “Cs” on the report card now mean “C’s” on the transcript later, which, in turn, means fewer college opportunities. This fear has prompted parents to take ownership of the learning process at a very young age. Nervous parents place pressure on their children, and their children’s teachers, for “A’s”. As a result, children are divested from this high stakes process. They become passive, reporting that, “my mom didn’t put my homework in my backpack”, rather than owning any sense of accountability for the work, and ultimately, the grade. Somewhere along the line ‘the grade’ has become synonymous with ‘the value’ of the human child rather than a separate measurement for the quality of the work produced. The “A” child has become a symbol of good parenting, not a reflection of true learning. By creating the expectation that only A’s are valued, we rob schools of meaningful tools to guide student progress. –Educating Millenials in the Anxiety Era: Getting Real November 2014
Our educational trains are speeding rapidly on the the tracks, curving at the will of the emperor sitting smack dab between where we are and where we want to be. If we have identified the emperor as the testing industry and the clerical need for colleges to process the rising number of applicants, what can we do about it? We must clear the way for a worthwhile educational journey and safe passage to future opportunities.
To do this we must emphasize the true purpose of an education and take steps to either get obstacles off the predetermined track or blaze a new trail all together. To remove the obstacle, our naked emperor, we could do three things.
- Identify the culprit – publicly acknowledge that the threads that have been spun have not created suitable attire for anyone, much less our future generations. Standardized testing and memorization of mountains of content knowledge are not the tickets to long term success. The testing industry and politicians have been spinning that yarn for too long. Our job is to state this in books, documentaries, blogs, parent teacher conferences, community meetings, task forces, backyard barbecues and grocery stores. Doing so will increase awareness and accountability.
- Adjust the track – work around the obstacle by separating the college admission/testing process from the entirety of the educational experience. As long as the naked emperor remains a necessary evil to getting in the college door, design systems fair to students and families in the meantime. Preschool playground time must not be sacrificed for SAT and ACT vocabulary practice. Test prep can remain test prep at the high school level, but advanced science courses should be more about real science experiences rather than memorization.
- Blaze a New Trail- Be the new Henry Ford, Amelia Earhart,or Steve Jobs. If the trains or the tracks are not the best route, build new ones. Parents can partner with teachers, schools can partner with colleges and colleges can partner with industry. We can all get in this together to shake off the structures that no longer serve us. The freedom to rethink is powerful thing. It is time to remember that we’ve always had the power to boldly go where no man has gone before. We simply need the courage to speak up, stand up and get moving.