Education Needs Culture Shift, Not Test Change

April 24, 2014

With the release of the revamped Smarter Balance Assessment test, I wonder if it is really as progressive as its proponents say it is.

Sure, the online exams and emphasis on critical thinking, staples of Common Core’s curriculum, are a welcome change from the unpractical tradition of rote memorization America has used to “teach” students of my generation. But while rote memorization, an archaic tactic that hasn’t been updated for decades, does not help people to become innovative or creative, I’m hesitant to call Common Core an improvement.

My issue is this: the federal government, state governments, and local administrations are trying to correct a symptom rather than the root of the problem.

Culturally, we rely on test scores to assign value to the aggregate “intelligence” of our nation’s youth. We are bombarded constantly by hysterical report after hysterical report detailing how America is falling lower on the ladder in relation to other countries like Finland and Japan.

We, the students, are told that we have little shot at a “successful” future if we don’t earn high marks, complete core curriculum, or ace various tests. We are told that a good education levels the playing field, but preparation opportunities like tutoring and SAT classes, are sold as commodities to the highest bidder, leaving the less privileged behind.

The principles of education in our country have been corrupted, and education professionals have been unfairly characterized.

It’s important the government, local and federal, recognizes there is a problem, but this new plan is attempting to cure a symptom without fighting the disease.

The Smarter Balance exam is merely an extension of the dysfunction that exists in the educational conversation. While it looks flashy and new, the test is simply another way to perpetuate the status quo.

Therein lies the parasite that is sapping America’s ingenuity: education has ceased to be inspiring. People learn better when they are passionate and interested in what they are learning, but this is not the fault of teachers or students or any one particular group.

The problem is our culture, and the way we view education.

In higher “ranking” countries, education is a prized advantage, and educators are viewed as being among the most important members of society.

Teachers in Finland, for example, are valued far more than their American colleagues. Finnish teachers are recruited from the highest performing college graduates, and teaching positions require Masters’ degrees and intense personality testing, according to the Stanford University Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

In Finland, the education profession is a highly respected career with an energetic and supportive system that works with administrators and government to ensure a high level of quality.

In America, we seldom afford such respect to educators. Battles over district leadership and teachers’ unions are commonplace, and young teachers can be hilariously underprepared when they are thrown into tough schools with inadequate training. The Teacher for America program, for instance, places the very least experienced teachers in the most dire educational settings.  Teaching as a career is undervalued and constantly undermined by backward policies and dismal funding.

We, as a culture, place too much emphasis on personal achievement, buying into misunderstood ideals about independence and self-reliance.  Our national values make it easy to dismiss the vital role public education plays in supporting the intellectual growth of its citizens.  American mythos celebrates those who claw their way out of the muck, but fails to address the need for changing the system that created the muck in the first place.

Our system of education is broken, yet our cultural values distract us from recognizing how to fix it.

Perhaps what we need to do is to take a look at the fundamental way our schools are run.

A 2013 Forbes article, titled “How Should We Rebuild the US Education System?”, asked for ideas from three professionals: education activist Sam Chaltain, 18-year old activist and author Nikhil Goyal, and former teacher Rahila Simzar.

Through these types of discussions, it becomes apparent that the system of public education needs to be torn down and restructured.

We can begin with the logistics and legal basis of education. In America, we standardize two things: tests and curriculum. When we look again at Finland, we see that they standardize two different things: funding for schools and training for teachers, according to Chaltain.

Finnish schools do not worry about trying to out-compete others to secure funding, and Finnish teachers are the ones that must be qualified to teach instead of students being penalized for having poor teachers.

There needs to be dialogue and support for underachieving teachers, and actions taken against ineffective educators that refuse to change. Teacher tenure, of course, is always a hot topic of conversation.

Eradicating misguided programs like Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind will point education in a more personal direction. Students need to be the focus, not scores and money.

Then, we have to begin to change our culture. “Schools largely resemble prisons,” Goyal says in the Forbes article. “Children are cut from society and social media is banned.”

We seek to make everyone fit into the same mold of success without stopping to encourage individuals to pursue their passions.

One of the biggest complaints about school from Pre-K to Senior year is that it fails to prepare students for real life: there’s no real world relevance. Letting schools set curriculum based on solving practical, local problems would be an improvement. We should be trying to stimulate every person’s inherent sense of curiosity and allow them to apply it to the practical challenges of their individual situations, not trying to push people to meet a universal standard.

Finally, let every member of a community take responsibility for a student’s education. Every single moment of life is a learning experience, whether someone can learn about something they love or discover something they hate. Allow the idea of a “mistake” to be taken as a net positive, instead of something worth punishing. Stop selling the idea that achievement equals perfection, and that success equals kicking peers down the ladder so an individual can ascend in their place.

Let the desire to learn speak for itself.

There is no such thing as a troubled student, there is no such thing as a jaded teenager. We have just failed to provoke in them the desire to continue growing.

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