Schooling as we have known it for the past couple of centuries or more has never been a great means of education. It relies on coercion. It is premised on the misguided assumption that everyone can and should learn the same things, in the same way, at the same time in their development. It undermines people’s intrinsic curiosity, dulls the natural desire to understand one’s world, and turns learning into drudgery. But schooling was not as bad, decades ago, as it is today.
I have, in other writings (e.g. here), contrasted schooling in the 1950s, when I was in elementary school, with schooling today. The biggest advantage of schooling then is there was less of it. The school year then (in the U.S.) was 5 weeks shorter, on average, than it is today (here). The school day was, on average, a half hour shorter, and that day, in elementary school, commonly included an hour of recess and a full hour break for lunch, which for most of us was an additional recess. Moreover, when the final bell rang in the afternoon, the school day was over. There was rarely if ever homework in elementary school and usually much less homework in secondary school than there is today.
So, we had lots of time for self-education, which came most often through play, exploration, hobbies, chores, and part-time jobs in the real world in which we were growing up. Moreover, the school lessons themselves tended to be more varied, more creative, and more aligned with the real-world interests and needs of kids than is true today. That’s because teachers had lots of autonomy in the classroom and most teachers—though certainly not all—were smart, caring people who could see the real needs and interests of the children in their classroom and adjusted the lessons accordingly.
“A Nation at Risk”
What happened to change all that? There are many factors, but the biggest was the growing interest of the federal government in education, which led to increased standardization and decreased flexibility.
During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, policy makers in the United States began to fear that we were falling behind the Soviets in math and science and that this was putting our nation at risk. This turned out to be a false fear; we weren’t falling behind, but it had a powerful effect on thinking about schooling. We began to think of schooling as an essential part of our national defense, and this became motive for federal officials to want control over it.
The fear was not just about national defense in the narrow sense of weapon building, but in the larger sense of economic power. Other countries, especially some in Asia, seemed to be gaining on us, and officials feared we might lose our economic as well as military dominance. Other countries were gaining, the story went, because their schooling system was more demanding than ours, so they were producing better scientists and technologists and more people willing to commit themselves to hard work.
All this culminated, in 1983, in publication of a report, in the form of a book entitled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, produced by the United States National Commission on Excellence in Education, at the behest of President Ronald Reagan and U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel Bell. The report, as expected from the outset, was highly critical of the quality of teaching and learning in the nation’s schools. The report’s primary author, James Harvey, wrote of a “rising tide of mediocrity [in schools] that threatened our very future as a nation and a people.” To remedy the problem, the report recommended, among other changes, greater standardization across schools, with more required classes, especially in mathematics, science, and English.
One result was that many states, which were already providing some of the funding for public schools, began to exert more control over schools. To get the funds, local school districts had to meet certain state-imposed “standards.” The belief spread that local school boards and individual teachers could not be trusted. More centralized control was needed. And then, the federal government stepped in, with an act of Congress that, for the first time, gave the federal government some direct control over school curricula.
No Child Left Behind
In 2002, with bipartisan support and strong urging from President George W. Bush, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act. The law stipulated that, to receive federal funds newly available to supplement state and local school funding, states would have to meet certain requirements. The most significant of these was that each state would need to administer regular standardized exams—the same exams for every school—and that schools and teachers would be judged deficient if scores on the exams did not improve from year to year or if an insufficient number of students achieved a score regarded as “proficient.”
Prior to NCLB, teachers might have varying means of assessing students’ progress. They might consider the differing personalities, interests, and natural talents of their students in their evaluations. But now, all students were to be measured in the same way, and all teachers were to be measured by how well their students scored on those measures.
This, of course, meant that teachers would begin teaching to the test, that subjects not tested would be dropped or minimized, that creative activities irrelevant to the test would be dropped, that recesses would be reduced or dropped, that homework related to test preparation would increase, and that many of the best teachers of the past would quit because their experience, wisdom, and judgments were no longer respected. All of this has indeed been happening ever since 2002. (For an example of how this has affected teaching in the lower grades, see here.) In 2015, under President Obama, Congress replaced NCLB with the Every Student Succeeds law, which modified and liberalized somewhat the requirements to states, making the goals more realistic, but did not change the requirement for standardized testing as the means of evaluating students, teachers, and schools.
Role of the PISA Tests in the Decline of Education
It is no coincidence that NCLB was passed just two years after the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) had initiated its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). This was a set of tests, focused on mathematics, science, and reading, administered to 15-year-olds in all countries that chose to participate. The tests have been administered every three years, beginning in 2000, and with each administration more countries have signed up.
When the results are published at the end of each three-year cycle, some countries experience “PISA shock,” because of their low scores relative to other countries, which leads to calls for more rigor and standardization in their schools. For example, when results announced in 2010 showed China (more specifically, certain industrialized parts of China) to be on top and the US far behind, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan called it a “wake-up call,” and the hue and cry went out that we should reform our educational system to emulate China and other high-scoring East Asian countries (Zhao, 2012, p 20). What was not acknowledged was the crippling effect Chinese schooling was having on children’s creativity, sociability, and mental health.
It is noteworthy that two of the leading critics of standardized testing in the United States are Yong Zhao, who grew up in China and is now a professor of education at the University of Kansas, and Kyung Hee Kim, who grew up in South Korea and is now a professor at William and Mary School of Education. Both have written extensively about the crippling effects of East Asian schools with their focus on preparing students for high-stakes tests and have provided warnings against attempts to emulate them in the United States.
Zhao (2009, 2012, 2014) has argued with much evidence, for example, that the high rate of inventiveness and creativity in the United States, compared to the low rate in China, is a result of the relative looseness of US schooling, which allows individuality to shine through, compared to the rigidity and over-control of Chinese schools. I reviewed some of Zhao’s thoughts and evidence in a previous post. I turn now to some thoughts and evidence presented by Kim in a relatively recent academic article (Kim, 2021).
Kim’s Conclusions Regarding Consequences of Test-Centric Schooling
The PISA scores that attract most attention are those for science, math, and reading. But the tests also include some items aimed at assessing creativity and students’ interest in learning and items for teachers that ask about their teaching methods. In her 2021 article, Kim describes some analyses she made based in part on data from the 2015 PISA tests. You can look to the article for the details, but here are three of her main conclusions:
1. The data revealed strong negative correlations, across countries, between scores on the subject-matter tests and scores on interest in learning and indices of creativity. For example, Kim found that countries that scored highest on the science test tended to score lowest on interest in learning science (r = -.50) and on a composite index of creativity and self-motivation (r = -.90). No surprise, if you drive students to “learn” for the sake of scoring high on a test, you drive out any true interest they might have had in the subject and any tendency to think creatively about that subject, in ways that might challenge the authorities who created the lessons and the test.
2. In the U.S., new teachers (those with relatively few years of teaching) were significantly less likely to report using creative methods in the classroom or soliciting and discussing students’ ideas than were those who had been teaching for more years. Kim suggests that new teachers are more amenable to the test-centric modes of teaching than are those who have been in the system for a longer time. This, in her opinion, bodes poorly for the future of American education.
3. Over time, as schooling has become increasingly test-centric, scores on standard assessments of creativity have been declining in the United States (see also here for earlier data on this). At a time when creativity and innovation are especially needed for economic success, our school system has moved in a direction of suppressing rather than augmenting those abilities.
So, here’s a conclusion quite the opposite of that which has promoted standardized testing and the narrowing of educational focus in our schools. If we as a nation want to remain an economic powerhouse, the leader in innovation, we need to move toward more flexibility and more opportunities for self-direction for students and teachers in our schools, not less.
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Zhao, Y. (2012), World class learners: Educating creative and entrepreneurial Students.
Zhao, Y. (2009), Catching up or leading the way: America education in the age of globalization.
Zhao, Y. (2014). Who's afraid of the big bad dragon.
Kim, K. H.(2021). Creativity crisis update: America follows Asia in pursuing high test scores over learning. Roeper Review, 43 (1), 21-41