Every two years, the U.S. education system goes through its own version of “Groundhog Day.” Our kids take the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, tests, and we get back a set of scores that just repeat the last cycle — mediocre scores with no improvement. We then get these results framed by top policymakers, with their all-too-predictable quotes: “While the results show a modest decline, we are in the process of transforming and modernizing our curriculum, and look forward to progress in coming years. Make no mistake, these scores continue to show a significant achievement gap between our affluent and low-income students, and we have work to do to close that gap. We are working to give all kids access to the rigorous courses they’ll need as we ensure that all of our students will benefit from an education that makes them college and career ready.” Or something like that.
On closer examination, we often have statistically-insignificant declines — this year, scores dropped by a point, or a whopping .2%. The popular press will then post bold-font headlines in bold font decrying the decline of our education system, our eroding position internationally, and our alarming failure to produce graduates who are college ready. Implicit in these stories about our declining test scores is the assumption that we need to double down on policies that rely on data, testing, and accountability, all tied to a century-old curriculum that is never called into question. And yet none of the narrative will question the value of “college ready,” even though surveys show that employers find that even our college graduates lack the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace. We won’t ask the question — if college graduates are poorly prepared, what is the value of college ready? And none of these stories will stop to question the relevance of an education paradigm that dates back to 1893, or why we think that we can make an obsolete model effective through more testing.
There’s a growing realization across our country that our education policies are abject failures. I know. I left home on September 13th, and have now been to 49 of our fifty states, many repeatedly. I’m meeting people and visiting schools, and gaining a real sense of what people in our schools and communities think about our education poliicies. Here’s what I find, in state after state. People are exhausted, exasperated, and angry with the current system, and have lost all confidence in policies and priorities pushed on them by bureaucrats who think the purpose of our schools is to provide Washington, D.C., with data. People are beginning to realize that the real failure in U.S. education isn’t a minuscule drop in a standardized test score, but our complete failure to equip our kids with the skills and character traits they urgently need in a world of innovation.
So let’s move beyond the tired pablum that flat test scores tell us much of anything about how well, or poorly, we’re preparing our kids for their futures. The test and accountability hawks have demonstrated no progress on the hollow measures they value, but have implemented policies that rob our kids of the very skills they need in a world of innovation, and demoralize the very teachers we need to engage and inspire our kids. Enough. Time to put them, and their policies, out to pasture, and begin empowering our teachers and students to create the learning experiences that will launch kids into lives of purpose.