You know the one I mean. Famously attributed to Albert Einstein, but also Ben Franklin and Rita Mae Brown (go figure), it defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Thanks in large part to No Child Left Behind, educators all over the country are caught in a vicious loop. As the test score requirements to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) spiral ever higher, teachers have less and less discretion over how to spend precious classroom hours. School has become an endless series of repetitive “drill-and-kill” exercises to prepare students to take standardized tests.
Teachers’ salaries, school autonomy, and community esteem all hinge now on how well students do on those tests — and don’t forget that the impossible target of 100% proficiency for ALL students looms in 2014. That means in three more years, ALL schools will fail to meet the targets. Then what?
Meanwhile, in the face of solid scientific research to the contrary, schools are racing to handicap students even further by taking away such essentials as physical education, arts classes, and even recess. Misguided, panicked principals and superintendents are taking away every opportunity for students to engage in higher-level thinking and real-world problem-solving in favor of practicing for standardized tests.
In most of what passes for public “debate” on the issue, the assumption that such tests give us valuable information about student learning is rarely challenged. This begs two questions: What do these tests measure? What do they show us about teaching and learning?
Knowing that the Finns or the Japanese score higher on standardized tests than US students do sends legislators into a tizzy, but does it really signify anything important? What these tests measure is information, knowledge, facts. In a century and a world in which just about any fact we need is literally at our fingertips through the Internet, having a storehouse of knowledge in each learner’s brain is far less important than the learner’s skill at making sense of all that information.
What we learn through the creative process, from looking at things from many different angles, and from unstructured play is far more important than the random facts we memorize. Why? Because the discovery process is open-ended and leads to new solutions to evolving problems. The memorization and rote regurgitation of facts only leads to the sort of rigid, canonical thinking that drags down civilizations due to their inability to change.
Many dedicated and forward-thinking educators are ahead of this curve. They are doing their best to try to shape teaching and learning in a way that is sustainable and that connects education to solutions to the challenge of our long-term survival as a species. The problem is how to operate in an environment that is increasingly hostile to teachers and students alike. Yes, there are bad teachers (and bad legislators and bad doctors and bad financiers), but the overwhelming percentage of teachers is in education because they are called to a vocation, not to cash a paycheck.
When politicians point the finger at teachers and unions, they avoid having to actually confront the problem and figure out a solution. And not only have they so far failed to confront the problem, they have misidentified it. The central issue is that we need to junk our old-fashioned, factory-model education system. We need to replace it with one that is based on awareness of pattern, relationship of humans and environment, and an understanding of how we learn best.
How do we initiate such an endeavor with a population that is the product of the inadequate and downright harmful system we seek to replace? That is indeed the question. All I know is, we have to try. Anything else would truly be insane.