This piece was originally published in 2015, but as we head into the 2016 season of state testing, our children and their teachers are under tremendous pressure to focus more on test scores than actual learning. At every opportunity, tell anyone who will listen that our schools, our kids and our future deserve better.
Regular readers of this blog know that I have not lived what people would call a “standard” life. That said, I’m going to show you that there is no such thing.
Over the last several years, the issues of standardized testing and common core curriculum in our schools have risen to the top of the public conversation.
On one side of the argument is the desire to measure both student achievement and teacher performance. Politicians love this because it gives them data to support declarations of “look what I did” when numbers are up, and conversely “look what you did” (directed at teachers & administrators) when numbers are down.
In theory, this is just fine, but in practice, it falls apart just as soon as we recognize that students are not equal to shares in a publicly traded company. In the stock market, one share of a company is equal to any other share in that same company. This could not be further from the truth when looking at students in a school.
Students in a school are like snowflakes, all made up of the same basic material and created through the same process, but every one is unique, different and possesses complementary characteristics when compared to the others nearby.
Certainly there are some basic things that we’d like every student to know and understand, but instead of encouraging the system to recognize, develop and recognize each student’s unique gifts, we are hurtling in the opposite direction.
Think of it like this. Our system of roads and traffic rules are necessary for people to safely get around. It isn’t perfect, but over the last century, the number of injuries and deaths compared to miles driven had been reduced to its theoretical minimum. This foundational structure is absolutely necessary, and our educational system used to stop there, leaving the remainder of the decisions to the proverbial “boots on the ground,” and by that I mean the local teachers, administrators and school boards.
Let’s say both my neighbor and I have to pick up our respective mothers-in-law from the airport. I may want to drive a BMW on local roads while my neighbor is happier in his Ford on the highway. As long as we both follow the posted speed limits and stop when the traffic signals are red, we will both get the job done.
What is happening now is the equivalent of every driver on the road being told what kind of car to drive, how to drive it, and what routes to take to every destination. That is simply going too far.
I’ve had two separate, but related experiences that illustrate this point rather nicely.
One Sunday afternoon, my next-door neighbor knocked on my door and asked if I would be willing to help him with something. He had broken the drive belt on his riding lawnmower and he needed help putting on the replacement.
My neighbor is a successful lawyer. He and his wife raised two boys in their tidy suburban home. By all external measures, he is exactly what our educational system should be producing. He is however, not at all handy.
I grabbed the tools that I thought I might need and
headed over to his garage.
We got the mower up on ramps and I crawled underneath to see what we were dealing with. Since the old belt had broken, I could not readily see how the new one went on, so I asked if he had the owner’s manual. He promptly produced the manual from a well-labeled file, just as you might expect a lawyer to do.
We worked our way through the marginally instructive belt changing procedure documented in the manual, each step dropping more grass clippings into my eyes, nose, mouth, and ears.
We got to a step that required the removal of an access panel held on by a Phillips head screw. I began to extricate myself from my position on the floor to go get a screwdriver when he said, “Oh I have one of those, I’ll get it.”
As he walked away, I looked at the screw in question and said “I need a #2 Phillips to get that screw out without stripping it.”
He received this information and disappeared into the house. Thirty seconds later he returned with a handful of screwdrivers saying, “I don’t know what a #2 Phillips looks like, but this is what I have.”
Here is a guy, who by all accounts is a totally successful and contributing member of society, but he had no idea that Phillips screws came in different sizes. Of course this is something with which I am very familiar because using the wrong bit will destroy a screw rather quickly.
Does this make him deficient and me brilliant? Far from it, read on.
The very next day I played in a charity golf tournament. Now, to say I am a golfer is an insult to the game of golf, but I do own a full set of golf clubs, golf shoes and a very nice umbrella that says “Taylor Made.”
Like most charity tournaments, this was a “best ball” or “scramble” format. My foursome was made up of me, a coworker and two guys from the company that programs our website.
If our group was a chain, I was by far the weakest link.
I had not been on a golf course for a couple of years and I guess the technology has made some significant advances in that time. As we went from shot to shot, each of the other guys pulled out their phones and using a combination of apps and GPS were able to determine the exact distance between where our collective ball lay and the hole.
Once the distance was known, a lively and data-driven discussion followed about which club was the best choice for the circumstances.
Of course I know that there is a relationship between each club and the distance each should carry the ball, but I have never been able to get my head around it, especially at the level of detail that the rest of my group could. Maybe it’s because I don’t really care, but more likely it has to do with the fact that I’m simply not wired that way.
My process for club selection has always been about the same as the technique I used for selecting a cantaloupe in the grocery store.
I look over my options, pick up a few and eventually just grab one that “looks good.”
As I witnessed one scientific debate after another over clubs, distance and prevailing winds; I came to understand how my neighbor the lawyer must have felt as I asked for the #2 Phillips head screwdriver. I was surrounded by people who had a skill set and passion for something that just wasn’t me – and that was okay.
Centuries of statistical analysis has shown us; among the things we can measure, human beings are probably the least structured, the least predictable and most diverse. It is this understanding that should be driving how we look at education, not the cookie-cutter, spreadsheet-laden quagmire in which we are currently bogged down.
Many will agree that the placement of money in the stock market is tantamount to gambling. Surely the average investor has more control than a blue-haired grandma mindlessly punching the “max bet” button on an Atlantic City slot machine, but when it comes to education, the variables are much more complex and the stakes immeasurably greater than a Wall Street gambit.
If our leaders want their legacy to include “all the good they did” for education, then they should do what truly smart people do – trust the experts and get the hell out of the way.
The world needs Phillips screwdriver and golf club experts, in the same measure as it needs the thousands of other skills I haven’t mentioned. In all my years of applying for jobs and hiring people, I have yet to come across “standardized test taking” as a skill that has any value. Zero, zilch, nada.
Every minute we ask our teachers to spend teaching students to take one of these tests is a minute wasted.
We can all attest to the fact that there are already not enough hours in the day, why then would we waste time the way we are?
They say you should never gamble with more than you’re willing to lose. From where I’m sitting, bureaucrats at the state and federal level are going “all-in” with our kids, and that is something up with which I will not put. Neither should you.
Copyright © 2016 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.