“Accountability” came crashing down on public education in the 1980s with the “Nation at Risk” report which claimed the United States was losing its edge to other countries as evidenced by our rankings on standardized tests. Since that time, teachers have been under increasing pressure to improve those test scores, at the expense of other curricular options. As U.S. students have continued to lag in the test race; school boards, state officials, and the federal government have ratcheted up the stakes, leading to today’s teacher evaluations based on test scores, federal money being distributed to schools which adopt nationally (as opposed to locally) developed standards, and school districts being rated as unsatisfactory if a single sub-category of students fails to make “adequate yearly progress” on standardized tests. This emphasis on the trivial facts necessary to excel on mandated exams can only lead to students less and less prepared to face the challenges of the future.
Employers/business leaders love this new direction since they are regularly consulted on what schools should be teaching, allowing them more input on national standards and testing. The employer-based curriculum stresses skills that make for “good” employees: conformity, obedience, and objective knowledge. When you’re flipping burgers or stuck in some Dilbert-esque cubicle, nobody really wants you to do anything but what you’re told, quietly with the same results every time. Original, questioning, opinionated people won’t fit the molds the corporate world thinks it wants; why would Walmart want difficult people like that? As schools get shoved further toward the employer-based curriculum, we risk losing the much more important edge which has led to America’s success over the last century—creativity.
One problem with creativity, of course, is that it can’t be measured easily, especially not by a multiple-choice test. If you could interview a student on why she selected wrong answer B over the correct choice C, you might discover that the reasoning behind her pick would demonstrate significantly more insightful thinking than the supposedly right answer. Although wrong on the standardized test, that off-kilter analysis might signify someone capable of novel, workable ideas which might help improve or even solve any of the myriad of problems confronting the world. Climate change, non-polluting energy sources, hunger, Congressional gridlock, prejudice, infra-structure repair, devastating weather disasters, health-care web sites, detecting and preventing terrorism, the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, and dozens of other confounding issues show no signs of abating. We need innovative, envelope-pushing, insightful minds seeking approaches that haven’t occurred to anyone else yet. Yet our schools get pressured more each year to control and repress any teacher who would do anything other than cram standardized test preparation into our children. Mandated curricula and governmental edicts crowd out interesting-but-different ideas and approaches teachers might like to try. And the message we are giving our children is that anything unusual or different should be shunned and ignored.
Is it any wonder that kids have to seek their innovative champions in other areas? With all the conforming, rigid classes they have to endure, Miley Cyrus with her all-out attack on her Disney-fied alter ego, Hannah Montana, seems heroic to them. When our everyday role models seem timid and controlled, our kids look to other sources for their heroes. Unfortunately for our future, these “heroes” haven’t really done anything except to become famous. The outdated model for leadership was based on a person’s actually doing something of merit. Whether it was political, athletic, or religious; yesterday’s people of note had accomplished worthwhile things which led to public attention. In today’s world, unfortunately, nobody of substance seems to be able to get anything done. With a vacuum of noteworthy public figures—and we just lost another icon in Nelson Mandela—our young people are driven to value meaningless acts like not wearing underwear in public, tongue gymnastics, or twerking on televised awards shows. Miley’s singing ability—which some would argue is significant–has taken a back seat to her lighting a joint onstage or swinging around naked on a wrecking ball. Contrast that to the attention-grabbing antics of John Lennon, who was just as shocking in his day, but used his celebrity to lobby for world peace.
To move our country forward, we need to focus on those with ideas and ideals: Malala Yousafzai and Stephen Hawking over Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. Looking beyond the mundane world of facts and drills, schools should be helping students to think for themselves, not boring them with constant standardized test preparation. What has proved successful and beneficial for our country, as well as being the envy of the rest of the world, is the creativity fostered by our colleges and entrepreneurs. Sadly, more and more of our innovators need some kind of learning disability which leads them to reject traditional schools in order to free themselves from public education’s shackles to move into less traveled areas. A disproportionate number of creative leaders in many fields “suffer” from dyslexia which caused them major difficulties in school. Rather than giving in to their problems, these people were forced to look at things differently than those more talented in conventional learning methods (things most useful for standardized tests), resulting in the innovative discipline necessary to excel and lead.
We would be better served, however, if our educational bureaucracy recognized the mind-numbing dead-end the employer-based curriculum is and began encouraging more divergent thinking. It has become clear China will never advance beyond its current role as the world’s factory unless it can help its citizenry learn to question and to create, rather than the obedient, compliant dullness its government has demanded. U.S. schools should not emulate the drill and rote memorization of many countries which do well on standardized tests, instead making sure all students learn they have the potential to do great things if only they will work hard to chase their dreams. If national standards largely created by bureaucrats only lead to monotonous standardization, America’s decline will accelerate as the sparks of inspiration which have led to our past success are extinguished in classrooms across the country.