Monday, November 4, 2013

NCLB Politics—Part III

           Because NCLB was a political act, not an act of academic necessity, it helps to understand its reason for being. And that, I believe, boils down to gold medal envy.
     Remember when the Soviet Bloc countries dominated the Olympics and the U.S. bemoaned its also-ran status in the medal count standings? Sure, U.S. apologists would justifiably complain about unlevel playing fields, hand-selected athletes trained since youth at professional-style facilities, performance enhancing drugs, biased judging, and the like. Yet the U.S. couldn't help but envy and admire the strength, agility, speed, finesse, adroitness, and beauty of their enemies' superior athletes.
     The same has been true for decades with international standardized test score rankings, where the U.S. usually finishes somewhere near the middle or lower half among developed countries, and yet ranks near the top in dollars spent per student, meaning, we are getting poor returns for our dollars. The inescapable conclusion has been: Something's got to change! How do the more successful (Asian & European countries, especially) do it? Why not adopt some of their practices in our schools?
     In business school, students learn the importance of measuring what's desired to be changed. Basic human nature obsesses over whatever is being measure—whether reducing costs, increasing sales, or increasing market share. The unintended consequence, however, can be over-emphasis on measured results and disregard of the means by which they are obtained, perhaps resulting in poorer customer service, ethical violations, lowered morale, or, in extreme cases, lying, cheating, or fraud in order to “hit” targeted expectations or goals.
     NCLB could be a business school's case study of the law of unintended consequences, though all could easily have been foreseen. My children and the children of friends and relatives (all bright students) have hated studying Everyday Math and Wordly Wise (see my prior essays NCLB Politics & NCLB Politics—Part II) ad nauseum in endless preparation for their four-times-a-year standardized tests (highest score only counts). Subjects that have been proven very beneficial for both mind and body have been cut (in funding and hours) such as P.E., art, band, cursive writing, home economics, choir, cooking, automechanics, shop, etc.--all useful, life-long skills and fun besides. The concept of developing well-rounded, independent, and creative thinkers seems to have taken a back seat to producing stunted standardized test taking conformists to both their and our country's detriment. (E.g. the childhood obesity rate continues to balloon, yet schools have become sit-and-shut-up-style cram institutes, concerned about promoting healthy and active lifestyles more in word than in deed.)
     Certain mainland school districts have been found guilty of widespread cheating on standardized tests whereby teachers prompted students during tests to change erroneous answers, posted answers on exam room walls, and held “parties” to correct erroneous answers. And as the old adage says, for every one caught, a hundred gets away.
     Among middle and high school students (including achievers at all levels), over seventy percent admit to cheating on class tests and/or term papers. It's safe to bet this cheating carries over to all-important standardized tests as well.
     Such blatant, brazen cheating raises the question of just how fair a comparative measure standardized test scores really are. China graduates hundreds of thousands of engineers every year, but most are considered unhireable (by U.S. Companies) because of underqualification (, suggesting schooling of inferior quality. Likewise, when foreign countries report superior average standardized test scores, can they be relied on? If cheating happens occasionally in America, how much more so might it be happening in other countries where the politics of international competitive academia compels best-of-the-best type standings?
     Rather than stuffing students' heads full of boring memorize-and-forget knowledge—as if childrens' minds were lab beakers that must be filled to arbitrarily designated levels by arbitrarily designated grades—then, educators should instead seek to instill a lifelong love of learning. My favorite teachers included Mrs. Lau, a fourth grade teacher that demonstrated her love of life, her students, and academia; Mr. Ishimoto, a middle school science teacher that showed the joy of scientific verification via reference books (he calculated for me that the distance to the moon and back is far less than a google plex subatomic particles line up in a row; he didn't accept my assumption that a big hissing propane torch burns hotter than a puny, unimpressive alcohol lamp—he looked up the fuels' burning temperatures); and Mr. Hilliard, my A.P. English teacher in high school who pushed me to expand the limits of my comprehension (and love) of literature. For the paltry time I spend with each of them, they taught me to grow my mind for the sheer joy of it, which I have done unreservedly (for the most part) to this day.
     Students who view learning as waste-of-time drudgery will be far less likely to acquire a lifelong love of learning. Unfortunately, teaching to the test epitomized waste-of-time drudgery.

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