Problems with Standards-Based Education

Alfie KohnThe following video is well worth spending some time watching. It is a lecture by Alfie Kohn about the pernicious effects of “tougher standards” in the education “reform” movement. Before I get to the substance, though, I want to say something about the style. A common thing in media is to have a passionate conservative paired up with a mild-mannered moderate. This is thought to be balance. What’s more, it is often claimed that “liberals” are all mild-mannered. It isn’t that. It is that they refuse to put actual liberals on. Kohn is extremely passionate. But he’s exactly the kind of person who isn’t much allowed on mainstream television because his ideas are supposedly outside the mainstream. Of course, the same media outlets are only too happy to bring Cliven Bundy and Ted Nugent on their shows.

There are a lot of interesting things in the talk, but I just want to mention three. He provided a thought experiment. Imagine that all the students in a state passed a standardized test. Would this cause the governor to applaud the teachers and students and claim that the system was working? No. It would freak out everyone. They would just say that the test was too easy and they would make a harder test. The point is that tests may be quantitative, but they are not accurate. They are created so that a certain number of students fail. Thus: the students are graded on a curve, which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

Another interesting thing is a fundamental problem with western thought: we measure what we can measure. So we’ve set up tests to measure what is easiest to test, not what is most important. For example, he noted that the tests will look at how many times a student used a comma correctly rather than looking at how many interesting ideas that student wrote about. In his essay I talked about earlier, he wrote, “Low-quality instruction can be assessed with low-quality tests, including homegrown quizzes and standardized exams designed to measure (with faux objectivity) the number of facts and skills crammed into short-term memory.” Again we come back to this issue of utility. To the modern business, workers are cogs; they want workers to be interchangeable. So it is important that all students know some list of facts rather than have the ability to think.

I’ve seen this for decades in the the high tech industry. At this point most programming languages are built on c++. But this doesn’t stop developers from creating yet another c++ language that has special features for doing this or that. Yet companies always want to hire people with skills in that particular new language rather than experienced programmers who can probably become experts in the language in the week it takes for an application to be processed. In short: American business is stupid, so it isn’t surprising that it wants our kids to be stupid too.

Finally, he ends the lecture by talking about what tests are really all about: inequality. Students from rich families do better on tests than students from poor families. He says that simply by knowing the percentage of students who get free lunches, he can predict their test scores with “chilling” accuracy. So in the end, tests are not about helping students—much less those struggling. They are about ossifying the status quo—allowing income inequality to freeze into place.

Check out the video. It’s about 45 minutes long and it provides a good introduction to what is wrong with our test-based education system.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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