“U.S. 15-year-olds made no significant progress on the Program for International Student Assessment, the results of which were released Tuesday. On a 1,000-point scale, students in 2018 earned on average 505 in reading, 478 in math, and 502 in science in 2018, statistically unchanged from when the tests were last given in 2015.” That’s how Sarah Sparks of Education Week reported the dismal findings from an important international test familiarly known as PISA, which measures reading, math, and science literacy among 15-year-olds, every three years.
This comes on the heels of even more disappointing results on our own national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). When I wrote about this recently in this space, I solicited reactions from Aristotle, Maria Montessori, and John Dewey.
However, given the PISA results and the harsh truth that NAEP scores have been disappointing for many years, it’s time to rename NAEP. Let’s call it the National Assessment of Educational Paralysis, because paralysis accurately describes what has been going on for more than two decades of “School Reform” under the test-centric policies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Unless and until we renounce these misguided “School Reform” policies developed under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, educational paralysis will continue, and millions of children will continue to be mis-educated and under-educated.
Right now, too many school districts over-test, which means their teachers under-teach. Too often their leaders impose curricula that restrict teachers’ ability to innovate. At the same time, these narrow curricula have curtailed or eliminated art, music, physical education, recess, drama, and even science. Today many districts judge teachers largely by student test scores, leading teachers to devote more and more class time to test-prep, not teaching and exploration of idea. This is what I and others label the ‘test-and-punish’ approach to education, instead of a far more desirable ‘assess to improve’ philosophy.
For many children, their school experience is akin to going out on the basketball court and spending the entire time practicing free throws. No games of H.O.R.S.E. No direct coaching. No 4-on-3 drills. No full scrimmages. Just free throws! Not exactly preparation for life. And that’s particularly disgraceful when today’s technology allows students in one school to work on projects with other kids anywhere in the world!
“School Reform” rewards performance on narrow tests, not thinking and exploration, and the results are perversely impressive. We have managed to teach our children how NOT to think, and today not even 14% of American 15-year-olds are able to distinguish between fact and opinion.
How tough is PISA? You decide. Here’s a sample PISA question, which I urge you to try to answer.
Here’s another example this one taken from the PISA test three years earlier:
Mount Fuji is a famous dormant volcano in Japan. The Gotemba walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometres (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 pm.
Toshi estimates that he can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometres per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times.
Using Toshi’s estimated speeds, what is the latest time he can begin his walk so that he can return by 8PM?
Note that ‘Fuji’ is not a multiple-choice question. To get the correct answer, students had to perform a number of calculations–I.E, they had to think! The correct answer (11 AM) was provided by 55 percent of the Shanghai 15-year-olds but by just 9 percent of the US students.
Folks, this is the inevitable product of public schools that treat most students as little more than scores on multiple-choice bubble tests. (By the way, many charter schools aren’t much better, because they too are driven by the goal of higher test scores.)
What will it take to overcome educational paralysis? A lot, frankly. Those supporting the failed ‘School Reform’ policies won’t go without a fight, because their recipe for success requires more of the same. Eli Broad is a prime example. The billionaire has just announced that Yale’s School of Management will take over his LA-based Broad Center, which has been turning out school district managers for 20 years. Howard Blume reported the story in the LA Times: “As described by Broad and center leaders, the mission was twofold: to attract and train talented leaders from outside education — including business executives and senior military officers — and to provide needed skills to career educators who rose through the ranks, often starting as teachers.”
Blume, a thorough reporter, does cite an opposing view: Education historian Diane Ravitch, a critic of Broad, said graduates of the center’s two-year training program “have a reputation for top-down management; they are data-driven, they don’t listen to stakeholders like parents and teachers, and they favor closing public schools and replacing them with charter schools.”
While we can cure “educational paralysis,” in this society money talks, and the big money is still firmly behind “School Reform.” That means that failed policies like high-stakes testing are likely to remain in place–unless we demand real change.
As I write in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education, it is long past time for us to abandon the sorting system that our public schools have become. We need to look at every child and ask “How is she smart?” And then we must insist that our schools build on each child’s interests and abilities so all children can develop their potential and acquire the basic skills of writing, working with numbers, critical thinking, public speaking, working with others, and so on.
Please post your reactions and suggestions below.