Removing Joy of Learning from Public Schools

June 21, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared in The Richmond Times‐​Dispatch on June 21, 2011.

Because of the failing economy, American public‐​school budgets are being cut and teachers are being laid off. The result is the alarming loss of classes in civics, U.S. history and the arts. The curriculum is aggressively engaged in a rigid emphasis on standardized tests in reading, math and certain other areas.

Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s Department of Education secretary, promises even more such tests (“A not‐​so‐​modest proposal,” the Washington Post, April 11). And in New York City, where I live, self‐​titled “Education Mayor” Michael Bloomberg will use 10 percent of the $256 million Race to the Top money it won in Obama’s much‐​touted special‐​education reform funds to establish “16 new standardized exams in the third through 12th grades” (New York Times, May 23).

However, as I have reported, in several cities and even a few school systems, some teachers are learning — as one of them wrote in a June 3 letter in the New York Times — that far too many public schools are “sucking the joy and life out of learning and school by viewing education solely through the narrow lens of tests, tests and more tests.”

In the Washington Post’s valuable regular guide for parents, “The Answer Sheet” (April 26), there is this blunt response to the test‐​intoxicated education reform establishment:

“The traditional emphasis on learners storing information in their heads no longer makes much sense. The young need to learn to process and to apply information.”

They especially need to get the confidence and satisfaction of being able to think critically, and, in doing so, become lifelong learners.

Otherwise, as Albert Einstein once said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

Here comes the Washington Post’s Marion Brady — a veteran educator and columnist who has clearly learned how to think critically — with “A not‐​so‐​modest proposal” (April 11) that can liberate public‐​school students from having their curiosity and love of learning numbed by standardized tests.

In this proposal, Brady says: “We’re told that governments at all levels — federal, state and local — are worse than broke, and that the services they provide, including education, must be cut.”

However, Brady adds, “There’s one multibillion‐​dollar cost of educating that’s not scheduled to be cut — high‐​stakes standardized testing.”

Providing hard‐​edged credibility to this proposal to flunk standardized mass‐​testing is a report that should be made available to all parents of public‐​school students: “Panel Finds Few Learning Benefits in High‐​Stakes Exams” (Education Week, June 8). The source of this vital discovery is a committee of the National Academies’ National Research Council, composed — as Education Week reports — of “a who’s who of national experts in education, law, economics and social science.”

This committee “undertook a nearly decade‐​long study of test‐​based incentive systems … While the panel says it supports evaluating educational systems and holding them accountable,” it was discovered that this fixation on standardized testing of students collectively — not individually — has “had little or no effect on actual student learning, and in some cases has run counter to their intended purposes.” Wow!

Not only parents, but also the nation’s governors, mayors, school boards and principals, should read and circulate this report, including this fateful passage:

“In fact, the report found that, rather than leading to higher academic achievement, high school exit exams have decreased graduation rates nationwide by an average of about 2 percentage points.”

The keyword is “decreased.” And dig this: “The study found a growing heap of evidence that schools and districts have tinkered with how and when students take exit exams as well as other high‐​stakes tests in order to boost scores on paper for students who do not know the material — or to prevent those students from taking the tests at all.”

I have reported on schools where students with English‐​language learning difficulties and other special needs are precluded and hindered from taking these high‐​stakes tests, which are increasingly used to “evaluate” teachers deserving of more pay or dismissal for their alleged ability to actually prepare students for fruitful lives beyond school. The tests can be rigged.

What’s the alternative? One, among others that go much deeper than mass‐​testing, was reported by Winnie Hu of the New York Times (March 1, 2010): “This year, all 428 sixth‐​graders at (public) Linwood Middle School in North Brunswick, N.J., are charting their own academic path with personalized student‐​learning plans — electronic portfolios containing information about their learning styles, interests, skills, career goals and extracurricular activities.” That’s the very start of lifelong learning for each student!

“These new learning plans will follow each sixth‐​grader through high school and are intended to help the students assess their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as provide their parents and teachers with a more complete profile beyond grades and test scores.”

Now that, at last, makes sense! But the media spent enormous resources on U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner’s sexually explicit digital escapades and none on this crucial awakening to real‐​life education reform.

No wonder we elect so many public officials uneducated in who we are as constitutionally self‐​governing Americans! Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were not flattened by standardized tests.

About the Author