Last night's speech sent me racing back to the 1980s where the rhetoric around education was much the same as we heard this week in the State of the Union. I remember the 1980s. I had a Cabbage Patch Kid. Remember Cabbage Patch Kids? In 1983, there was such a demand for them around Christmas time that parents were making the evening news for having fistfights in stores over the remaining few dolls on the shelves. These were soft-bodied dolls with plastic heads, and the thing that made these dolls so wildly popular, was that in order to be mass-produced, computers generated millions of subtle differences among the dolls. No two dolls had the same face, clothes, or coloring. It is incredibly ironic that the Cabbage Patch craze occurred the same year the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. The current mandates in education, coupled with the recent Sputnik rhetoric, sound like greater, not lesser amounts of standardized testing. Our race to win the future sounds disturbingly old fashioned.
I recall clearly how the Cabbage Patch Kids mania revealed children's mass craving for individuality while A Nation at Risk scathingly condemned the state of education in the United States. The first paragraph, reprinted below, gives insight into the report's contents and sounds much like what we are now hearing from our leaders:
Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.
One of many false assumptions the report helped promulgate is that heightened competition between students in classrooms would translate into a nation that is able to compete in a global economy. After declaring that America has lost its competitive edge, the document goes on to say, "Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them."
Unfortunately, the report spells out a means for schools and students to achieve renewed greatness that has nothing to do with identifying their talents or developing their strengths. A Nation at Risk was a weakness-based document, one that has instilled fear and anxiety in the American people, thus doing more harm than good. Races cause anxiety. Pressure to win didn't make a difference to children then, nor will it today.
Despite the lack of data or evidence proving that America was actually falling behind in the world economy, the A Nation at Risk nevertheless zeroed in on comparisons to achievement scores in other nations and declining test scores in the United States. 1983 or 2011?
The commission's conclusions seemed right to many Americans, because Americans are obsessed with comparisons. We measure everything because if we measure it, we can compare it and if we compare it we can win.
A Nation at Risk made many recommendations that were aimed at helping America become a nation of "winners" again. Sound familiar?
Not one of the recommendations of 1983 has lasted as federal policy except the call for mass standardized achievement tests. This standardized testing mandate reemerged on January 8, 2002, as the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act called No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Although the President alluded to Race to the Top being the answer to the problems in NCLB, Race to the Top,( at least in is first pass) is a score driven, test driven reward system informed by the same weakness and fear-based paradigm as A Nation at Risk. In most states, reading and math test scores are the sole determinant of a student's progress.
This approach is damaging to children in that they are coached to pass a test rather than to learn a rich curriculum that would prepare them for life in the twenty-first century. Testing in early grades interferes with instructional time that should be spent on teaching reading, writing, and problem solving. This crucial time cannot be regained. It is the time when children's brains are most receptive to learning new concepts -- the time when they learn how to learn.
How many of us actually believe that any standardized tests can accurately reflect a child's intelligence and competence? Or that one metric is capable of classifying all children? Such assumptions defy almost everything we have come to understand about how children develop. Teachers and parents know this. When they have a chance to step back and reflect on their children, few will accept that any test score can define their child.
Apparently, American children in the year 1983 were on to something. Children craved Cabbage Patch dolls. They craved them precisely because each one of them was unique. The children of the eighties deeply and intuitively valued individuality. So do today's children. Unfortunately, the call out is once again: sharpen the competition, narrow the definition of success, and map out an educational road upon which all children become travelers. Individuality, a founding tenet of our country, went a long way for the sale of Cabbage Patch Kids. In fact, Cabbage Patch Kids traveled to the moon and back, they accompanied the U.S. to the Olympics. They were a powerful symbol of true victory. Had our education system responded to the same desire, today our schools might be places that value teaching creative thinking and problem-solving skills over racing and winning on comparisons and inadequate scoring systems.
Individuality by definition resists standardization. If the educational system is ever to truly embrace the unquestionable rewards of individualized instruction -- innovation, creativity, well-being, collaboration, health (those words were missing in the recent speech). We must devise new methods for measuring achievement.