Tuesday, May 11, 2010

For the Sake of Our Society, for the Sake of Our Kids: It's Time to End Standardized and High-Stakes Testing

I've heard from a lot of people (most of whom responded directly on Facebook) regarding my family's recent experiences with public school evaluations and standardized tests. In addition, I've been reading piles of books about homeschooling, peppered with narratives of families who chose to homeschool after the evaluation and standardized teaching culture affected their kids in gut-wrenching ways from the loss of a smile, to anxiety-driven insomnia, to very young children forced to take Ritalin to be allowed in school.

The stories that have come out -- powerful, personal, some heartbreaking -- leave me wondering why on earth we put up with such a ridiculous, demoralizing, wasteful, and finally counter-productive system. There's only one answer, and I'm afraid it's unacceptable. We put up with it because we're too tired, too overworked, the top-heavy bureaucracy of the education system is just too immovably pigheaded, and so we give up and put our energies into the one thing that counts: navigating the system to ensure the mental and emotional and academic welfare of our own children, because that's the only place we have an impact.

Not that there's anything wrong with caring for our children first. But if we can't change a system we know is wrong, what kind of society are we leaving for them, in the end?

In a recent post on standardized tests (TEKS and TAAS), I mentioned the complaints of college professors that their students lack the ability to think independently: "These students, they moan, are always wanting to know 'what the teacher is looking for' in a paper. In other words, they’re so used to being taught to the test, that it comes naturally to them to write to the teacher."

That's aside from the worried, stressed-out reality many kids are living in, whether it's in response to high-stakes high school graduation testing or twice-weekly spelling drills to prepare 2nd graders for high-pressure standardized tests. The book Guerilla Learning (by Amy Silver and Grace Llewellyn) has an excellent chapter on the history of standardized tests, and how they have gained prominence in our schools. It has absolutely nothing to do with our children's education, and everything to do with bureaucracy's need to formulate colossal busywork rather than doing anything real to improve the quality of education. Numerous studies have shown that standardized testing is self-referential -- while test scores might improve, education and learning do not. And, as one mother friend said, "I don't think you can standardize results for a young child. They can do great one day and terrible the next purely based on whether or not they had a good nap or ate enough lunch."

The problem is, this busywork, and the industry that now makes millions off of it, is not only denying our kids real learning opportunities, but is actually causing them lasting harm.

What sort of humans are we creating, in the pursuit of this hyper-testing culture? Nervous young creatures driven by anxiety and unable to think for themselves or engage in imagination because they are so used to being judged by an arbitrary metric that they don’t know how to function without it. No proponents of standardized testing answer this question: What happens when the testing stops? What happens to the kids we’ve trained when we throw them into the world and suddenly say, “Now think and do for yourselves, even though we haven’t allowed to do so for 18 years, and you have no idea of what it means to succeed or fail without a test score returned to you”?

Where did we go so wrong?

Our society is never going to be competitive in math or engineering, or ingenuity or philosophy or literature or justice, or in fact anything at all if the way we measure success keeps being driven by standardized tests. Because, as anyone with an ounce of sense knows by this time, the reliance on tests means that the tests are all we teach. And what use are the tests in life? Absolutely none.

So if a lesson is in no way useful in real life, why is the school teaching it? Your tax dollars at work, spinning out reams of pointless paperwork designed to make your children nervous, fearful, and more prone to need anxiety medication as they grow. Is that what we want? A nation of anxious, sleep-deprived people who are unable to make decisions or solve problems without hanging on to a life raft of a standardized metric, without receiving a score that tells them whether they passed or failed?

If you want a nation of people who are dependent on the rest of the world for solving problems and inventing new technologies, that’s a surefire way to do it—not to mention a nation of people easily led by any dogma, no matter how ignorant or narrow-minded, that happens to strike a chord with them. Ignorance and anxiety, as history has taught us countless times, is an explosive mix. This is not how humanity makes progress.

In the case of students with special needs, the use of evaluations and tests seems counter-intuitive. Do the evaluations actually do much to identify those needs and how to meet them? It’s what the tests are supposedly designed for, but do they succeed?

As with any complex problem that needs solving, the answer is no. What the evaluations do is allow providers to apply easily identifiable labels to children without taking into account each child’s personality, quirks, tendencies, or, indeed, actual needs.

I realize this difficulty is hard to overcome. No one but the parent and perhaps future teachers truly has the time to get to know the child and work with who they are. They only have the time to work with a broad outline—those labels—of what this human might be.

While the system might for the most part do little harm and sometimes quite a bit of good, there are two reasons it is hopelessly flawed. One is that in some cases it can do harm. Think of the child who really doesn’t fit the mold, and is forced to, or children who are under the care of an incompetent or uncaring provider.

The second is that providers and parents could accomplish the same tasks without the use of evaluations. Any parent even mildly observant can tell the provider enough about their child to make the evaluation redundant (yes, there are crappy parents; I have yet to see any real evidence that standardized evaluations make up for that). And any provider worth their salt can easily discover all they need to know about how to begin working with a child within one or two sessions of observation and play.

If the purpose of these systems is to simply standardize people, they succeed, at the expense of humanity. If the intention is to help children become their best selves, how widely they miss the mark. How will they, and we, pay for that mistake in the future?

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Capacity for Genius: A Eureka Moment in All of Us

A couple months ago I was talking with a friend about Einstein, whose biography I read last fall (Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson). Actually, I was asking about general relativity, aspects of which I still have a lot of trouble grasping. (I do this to my physicist and mathematician friends, starting with my husband, in a futile hope that someone somewhere will suddenly hand me the key to fully comprehending the stuff in the way I wish I could, and which no amount of reading seems to do.)

We wandered onto the topic of genius. The friend contended that Einstein wasn't necessarily the genius he's always sold as, but simply happened to be the right person at the right time to make "his" discoveries. It's an argument with which I agree, especially as it's clear that many other scientists had already made similar discoveries (but hadn't quite connected the dots yet), or were verging on them.

This led on to the question of whether genius actually exists. And, again, I found myself agreeing with the friend's contention that there are no geniuses, only people who happen to be able to follow or take certain opportunities when they're fortuitously presented.

On further thought, however, I would argue that in fact everyone is a genius, or has the capacity for genius. Two writers have bolstered this personal conviction. First there was Arthur Koestler's book The Act of Creation, now sadly out of print, although you can easily find used copies. I originally picked this book up because I found his Sleepwalkers (about the lives and discoveries of Kepler and Galileo) to be a masterpiece, and thought this book would delve into the psychological activity behind the creativity in art, writing, etc. It was far more interesting than I anticipated, as it actually focused on the "ah-ha" or "eureka" moment of great scientific discoveries.

The Act of Creation is far too long and involved to go into detail here, but what I found interesting was Koestler's investigation into how the "eureka" moment, like that of Darwin's, is often preceded by years, sometimes decades, of research and hard work. In other words, it's not a matter of genius at all but simply a matter of pursuing a passion or interest in a dedicated fashion until one day the pieces seem to fall into a new pattern and you're looking, possibly, at an entirely new discovery or shift in paradigm. Which is essentially what happened with Einstein.

Koestler’s research would indicate that "genius" is actually a matter of having the time, ability, and drive to do or pursue something you're passionate about, with no promise of immediate results or of ever seeing a reward.

This viewpoint is still limited, however, as our accepted concept of genius focuses only on the accomplishments that get mentioned in the public sphere. And genius is so much more than simply academic or creative intelligence. I've met people who are geniuses at dealing with babies, who know instinctively how to handle the toddler tantrums of the terrible twos; people who know how to live at peace with their world, who can cobble a delectable meal from the most unlikely and sparse ingredients; people who can manage the tempers and caprices of a boardroom or political field to help a group of people reach a needed goal; people who seem to make gardens produce unbelievable bounty with the daily stroke of their hand; people who inspire others to do great things with their own lives. Geniuses in every possible aspect of life, not just in the achievements that win Nobel Prizes or Pulitzers or even those that solve the biggest problems facing the human population and the planet.

If genius is, as I think, a matter of doing what you're meant to be doing with your life, of following your passion, then we are all surrounded by geniuses every day; we just don't know it. And we all have the capacity to tap our own genius.

The other author was Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love), whose TED TV talk on "A different way to think about creativity” proposed going back to the Greek and Roman concept of genius being a sort of daemon or “other” who assists the writer or artist or musician in making their piece of work as good as it can possibly be.

(If you don’t watch the occasional TED talk, you should. The organization TED—Technology Entertainment Design—has the sole goal of presenting weekly talks on Ideas Worth Spreading, whether they’re innovative ways to accomplish social justice, new ways to think about creativity, or discussions about brain science.)

Gilbert’s talk was thoroughly enjoyable, aside from presenting a new and interesting idea. And if we took her advice and changed the way we think about artists—seeing their “genius” as some sort of separate entity that simply assists in their work—then there is no reason that the same concept can’t apply to everyone.

The problem is, of course, that very few people will ever have the means to allow their genius to work its magic. Most of us are daily, hourly, grindingly involved in activities that are designed, yes, to earn us a living or scrape us a scanty life, but also to keep us from ever listening to the genius-creature whispering in our ear. The vast spectrum of human experience up to this point doesn’t allow more than a tiny, lucky percentage of the population to even consider what it is they love to do, or expose us to ideas that might inspire us. And even those of us who listen to flashes of insight are constantly derailed by the seemingly constant demands of simple daily life.

None of this reality, however, changes the fact that we all have the capacity for genius. We can stifle it, deny it, run from it, strangle it, or fear it. But we can’t ever fully kill it.