Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Back in the spring and summer of 2009 I wrote a two-part blog entitled The Law of Unintended Consequences. Part One dug up some famous old kiddy-lit that distorted the truth or lied outright in an ironic effort to foist high moral values upon the youth of America. And Part Two explained how a valiant stab at fostering racial and gender equality resulted in lots of children's books that turned everyone into model citizens—everyone, that is, except for white males. Well, The Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again. Or does it? Maybe we can overcome a negative consequence if we keep our eyes open.

So what hath America wrought this time around? Here comes Part Three.

First—the back-story: In the year 2000, the 30 industrialized countries who run the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) decided to administer a series of tests in reading, math, and science designed to rank student academic achievement around the world. Called PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) it’s administered to 15-year-old students every three years and it’s supposed to determine how well the students from 57 different countries can apply their knowledge of reading, math, and science to real-life situations. Though all three subjects are covered, a different discipline is featured in depth each time the test is given.

Approximately 400,000 students from 30 member countries and 27 partner countries took the two hour science-oriented test in 2006, including 5,600 students from the United States. The results were absolutely devastating for our students; they ranked 22nd in the world in science. In math they performed even worse, landing in 27th place. There was a reading portion too, but scores for U.S. students were tossed out because the tests had been printed incorrectly.

Our panicked educators, politicians, and lawmakers rightfully feared that we could no longer compete with the rest of the world in the global economy or educate the doctors, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers of the future unless we raised the bar of American education. So off they went, setting out on a well-intentioned quest to raise student test scores.

But what has been the unintended consequence? There are still some outstanding schools in America, but in this very short time and in far too many places, teachers are being required to drum rote facts and rote facts alone into their student’s pointy little heads. Just the facts, Ma’am...teach to the tests! Often there’s little or no time or stimulus money left to foster creative thinking, interdisciplinary studies, or solid skills in art, music, or dance. Libraries with their delicious trove of books are being sliced out of the budget and some very boring, disjointed, inaccurate online textbooks are rapidly taking their place. Time for free play during recess and for physical education are being reduced. How can kids learn by sitting still for hours on end and memorizing lists of facts on a computer? And how much fun can it be for a good creative teacher to be tied so tightly to those tests?

So let’s not let our infamous American love of humor and of thought-provoking subject matter and of creativity fade away in the classroom. There are good programs and good books available to get kids excited about art or sports, for example. Let’s enhance the joy of learning by promoting such projects instead of allowing the fun to dissipate. Music and books and athletics and art and culture are the very things that must be saved because they help make all the hard-core subjects on those tests fun and exciting and real and ever so much easier to learn. They include too many of the most vital elements of our culture. And they have helped to make us the greatest inventors and most innovative thinkers and biggest trend setters in the world.


Linda Zajac said...

I have wondered (but never looked into) how the U.S. was ranked worldwide. Thanks for the backstory. Amazing the changes since then.

Vicki Cobb said...

Here! Here! Roz. With the explosion of access to information on the web, it amazes me that recall of information is still the measurement of academic standing. I'm sure there's a study somewhere that demonstrates we remember facts in context. Education needs to produce people who know how to learn what they don't yet know.

Jim Murphy said...

Great article, Roz. And sadly, teaching to the test probably isn't going to help the kids who don't memorize well (but who are just as smart and talented and passionate about various subjects and interest as the other kids). It amounts to teaching to a certain type of learning ability really.

Jan Greenberg said...

Roz, Having taught in Arts Education programs and written books for young readers about thye arts, I have been folllowing the demise of music and art classes in many public schools around the country. Thank you for the historical background that I can integrate into talks I have been giving at conferences about the need to inspire and educate our children in the arts.

rebeccahirsch said...

I couldn't agree more. How disappointing that high test scores have, for now, become the overarching goal for many schools. Meanwhile so much else is sacrificed —the joy of discovery, a child's own interests, the chance for kids to read great books, and the arts. Surely the pendulum will swing back someday, away from all these tests, tests, tests. But when?

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thanks for the support, everyone. Maybe somebody will start to get the message. And Jim is absolutely right to allude to different styles of learning. Given today's setup, what's a talented artist or a gifted athlete or a hands-on learner to do?

MsJessicaReeves said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MsJessicaReeves said...

I'd love to say that teaching test prep, test tricks, and test aptitude is not all I am asked to do, but that is incorrect. Most meetings and staff development are tied to testing tricks or strategies...it is beyond frustrating.

I have found that I can branch out some, though, and as long as I am flexible with my lesson-planning, I am able to work around the curriculum. It is sad that I have to do that.


Georgi said...

Speaking as a librarian who has worked and lived in a school district which has reduced and then voted down school budgets, I don't think we have to worry about athletics being sacrificed. School districts eliminate librarians,art and music programs,and after school clubs like chess easily; but when athletic programs are touched, parental uproar is so great they are either kept in the school budget or parents form fund raising groups to pay for them. Parents and school boards need to recognize the value of instructing the whole child, not just the part on the playing field or the part that memorizes well.

Wendie O said...

Excellent post , Roz.
I just hope you aren't simply speaking to the choir.
I hope your facts can be spread far and wide!
-Wendie o