Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Complicated Success of American Education

Why are 77% of Americans happy with their local public school and yet only 19% of people rate the overall public school system with high marks (Gallup poll, 2012)?  Why have public schools been blamed for any number of shortfallings such as USSR's launch of Sputnik in the 50's, the failure of the auto industry in the 80's, or the proclaimed idea that we are putting our nation in a national security issue in the present time?  How are our scores so consistently low on international tests and yet we still have the strongest economy in the world?

We are so regularly told how bad our schools are that we don't believe our own eyes.  We look at our local schools and say, "If only the rest of America could do it like we do."  At the same time, across the country, others are saying the exact same thing about their schools. The Huffington Post recently had a blog by Steven Singer that pointed out that Napoleon's short stature is a commonly accepted fact. Unless you look at actual facts. The problem is, Napoleon was taller than the average man during his life. So why do we believe that he was short?  When something is repeated often enough, it becomes our perceived truth. Remember the "Summer of the Shark?" In 2001, I heard so many reports of shark attacks that I began to get scared to get in the water and I live in Nebraska. Shark attacks were reported daily. The only problem, shark attacks were actually lower during the summer of 2001 than they were during 2000.

Other countries study our public schools system. They note the independence, innovation, adaptability, and creativity of our students. While others are studying our schools, our federal government was putting out a report called "Nation at Risk" in 1983. This claimed that we were at danger because of our poor performing public schools. Yet, here we are 34 years later with the strongest economy in the world. Why? How can this be?  The product of our education system is the students who graduate and become adults in our nation. Public schools do an outstanding job of preparing an educated society.  As Yong Zhao writes, "Innovative people cannot come from schools that force students to memorize correct answers on standardized tests or reward students who excel at regurgitating spoon-fed knowledge."

There is plenty to be concerned about with public education. Continuing to focus on improvement is completely appropriate and needed. The measures we choose must be carefully selected. Standardized assessments have a place but do not tell the full story. Creativity and adaptability are not easily assessed in standardized assessments. These tests can help us find our shortcomings and strengths and can be useful for discussions of next steps for our children inspecific academic content areas. However, single data points are rarely good ways to make decisions. A school system that promotes equity of opportunities, creativity and innovation along with high academic standards will produce greater long term results than the short term wins of rote memorization for the purpose of high test scores. If you look solely at the results of standardized assessments, you will come up with very different solutions than you will if you find a way to place value on creativity.
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