Are Our Schools Failing?

Our American school system is failing, right? You would think so, if you put much stock in international test scores on reading, math, and science. In the most recent set of tests, US children received mediocre scores. You would also think so, if you relied on President Obama’s latest state of the union address, in which it is made clear that he and his administration puts a lot of stock in said tests.

But as Yong Zhao and Diane Ravitch point out, the fact that US children aren’t acing international standardized tests isn’t an occasion for panic. Or rather, it’s kind of ridiculous to panic over our performance on those tests, since we’ve been performing about the same on them for the past 50 years. If, as the current administration suggests, there’s a relationship between performance on these tests and prosperity, then why didn’t our economy collapse decades ago? As Ravitch puts it, “there is no logical connection between international test scores and the success of our economy. Our scores have been poor to middling for 50 years, yet we have the greatest economy in the world.”

In other words, US performance on international tests is no cause for alarm. However, that’s not to say everything is fine with our schools. In fact, it’s possible that we are destroying the very things that made us the “greatest economy in the world” in our misguided attempts to raise test scores. Again, Ravitch:

Instead of promoting innovation, creativity and imagination, the current obsession with raising test scores discourages these things. Students are learning to pick the right answer and being penalized for thinking differently. Subjects that spark students’ imagination, like the arts, are being squeezed out of the school week. And some districts plan to develop standardized tests for all subjects, which are guaranteed to do damage to students’ ability to think creatively.

So, the deep, tragic irony is this: What makes America great is its innovation, creativity, and imagination, and yet, in the name of “keeping up” internationally, we’re moving to destroy these very qualities by endlessly testing and retesting our children.

In other words, we’re going the wrong way. With that in mind, here’s an illustrative story, recounted by Yong Zhao:

The king of the state of Wei intends to attack its neighboring state of Zhao. Upon hearing the news, Ji Liang, counselor to the king rushes to see him. “Your Majesty, on my way here, I met a man on a chariot pointed to the north,” Ji Liang tells the King, “and he told me that he was going to visit Chu.

“But Chu is in the south, why are you headed north?” I asked.

“Oh, no worry, my horses are very strong,” he told me.

“But you should be headed south,” I told him again.

“Not to worry, I have plenty of money,” he was not concerned.

“But still you are headed the wrong direction,” I pointed out yet again.

“I have hired a very skillful driver,” was this man’s reply.

“I worry, your majesty, that the better equipped this man was,” Ji Liang says to the King, “the farther away he would be from his destination.”  “You want to be a great king and win respect from all people,” Ji Liang concludes, “You can certainly rely on our strong nation and excellent army to invade Zhao and expand our territory. But I am afraid the more you use force, the farther away you will be from your wishes.”

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