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.