Tear Down the System

August 9, 2013

I haven’t written about education or education policy for a while. It’s not because I don’t have anything to say. Rather, I’ve been mulling.

I have seen an uptick recently in education stories talking about accountability, and I want to explain why accountability will never work.

Level One: All teachers. Indeed all people who are willing to pay attention at all are told that the primary goal is make students Life Long Learners. People who will continue to seek out knowledge and improve themselves free of outside motivators. Everyone agrees this is what education should be all about because people learn best when they are self-motivated.

Level Two: It is agreed upon that there are certain things kids should know and we should make sure to squeeze these in. As with level one, there tends to be general agreement here. It’s why pretty much the whole country has adopted the same set of standards.

Level Three: Someone up high notices that not all kids know the stuff they are supposed to know and goes looking for a solution. The solution is tests. This is where the word “accountability” usually shows up for the first time.

Level Four: Schools, realizing that much of their funding is tied to performance on these tests start paying a whole lot of attention to the stuff kids are supposed to know AND to how that’s going to be presented on the test. Suddenly, assessment is REALLY important.

Now, let me ask you a question: When has being told that there is going to be a test ever made you excited to learn about anything? If there is enough riding on it, it might make you scared. But excited? No. When that test is over you are out of there. Then imagine that was the only experience you ever had with learning. It was always about the test. Always about the assessment. Never a free leash. Never exploration.

Education has become divorced from everything that makes learning enjoyable. Too many places in our society have forgotten all about level one and how valuable it is. They’ve forgotten, that when we are at our best, teachers are little more than guides helping kids find their way as they explore. Keeping them from getting stuck for too long. Instead, we are supposed to ensure that they perform to a certain level on the state mandated tests which are also mandate by the federal government and tied to federal funds.

So what you end up with is a perfect correlation wherein the schools with the most privileged populations do the best and those with the least privileged do the worst. Learning isn’t fun at school, so unless someone else teaches you about it, you’ll never know it can be fun. And what kid wants to do things that aren’t fun.

Finnish children are not assessed or given homework until they are 13.  They are never given course grades like we do here. Imagine that. Doesn’t it sound like more fun? Go to school, try to figure something out. Don’t worry about your grade. Just worry about learning.

Many places in America have totally forgotten the point of education. It’s not about standards or memorization. It’s about learning to think for yourself. Sometimes, I want to take down individual policies or particular strategies, but this is really all it comes down to. We took all the joy out of learning. We made it a chore. No kid has ever wanted to do chores. Adults don’t want to either. Talk about teaching responsibility and whatnot all you want, but it needs to be fun and it needs to not be about the tests. They’re just kids.

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