Practical Wisdom and Why Education is Doomed!

Our children are being systematically turned into automatons that pass tests. That is, if their teachers think they have a chance of passing the test this time around, otherwise they’re left to ferment in the classroom. I don’t usually write about a book until I’ve finished it and then I do a Reading List entry first. I received an advance copy of Barry Schwartz’s and Kenneth Sharpe’s Practical Wisdom just before Christmas and it’s been making me crazy! You can watch the TED video now, the book is coming out this month. It’s bad enough that “Scientific Management” - the systems factories used to modernize at the turn of the 20th century - has eroded our corporations and the practices of law and medicine, but it’s completely unacceptable that it’s been eroding our public schools since the mid 80’s. 

The words, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE! from the Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network, don’t come close to expressing my outrage. Chapter 9. Right by Rote: Overstandardization and the Rise of the Canny Outlaw, talks about the effects that standardized test scores and hence, standardized teaching, is having on our students. Low performing schools in the state of New York and other states are forced to teach all courses via standardized teaching materials that leave no room whatsoever for teachers to be creative and help with individual student needs. The much needed ability for teachers to think on their feet and create solutions as they go is actively being discouraged in most public school systems. Courses are scripted to the word by the day!

Worse, starting in 2003 publishers like McGraw-Hill, the company that designed and sells Open Court a scripted literacy curriculum used in California and other states, has trainers and consultants that interrupt lessons and chastise teachers in front of students for not following scripts. In Texas a consultant with a goal of raising test scores came in and told the faculty of Beck Elementary School:

The consultant then handed out green, yellow and red highlighters. 

“Take out your classes’ latest benchmark scores, and divide your students into three groups. Color the “safe cases,” or kids who will definitely pass, green. Now, here’s the most important part: Identify the kids who are “suitable cases for treatment.” Those are the ones who can pass with a little extra help. Color them yellow. Then, color the kids who have no chance of passing this year and the kids that don’t count, the “hopeless cases” - Red. You should focus your attention on the yellow kids. They’ll give you the biggest return on your investment.”

No child left behind my ass! More like, every child doomed to mediocrity. Who’s bright idea was it to let the people selling the materials make the tests and evaluate their usage and outcomes? I was in tears as I read this. It’s why I’m sitting here writing now. I had to blow off some steam. This reads like a bad movie to me. The 1990 movie Pump up the Volume had a plot like this but the principal was expelling the poor performers, not ignoring them.

I graduated from high school in 1982, there were good teachers and bad ones, better and worse schools but education was more accessible, certainly there was lots of room for improvement. I hated my grade school experiences, it was its own special kind of hell. That’s what’s it’s like for someone who doesn’t fit neatly into square holes, but I did receive an education. Since I don’t have kids and haven’t been in classrooms much, I had no idea what was going on in them. Some of my friend’s home school their kids, now I know why! It’s hard to believe that things have gotten worse since I was in school.

If we continue to judge the success of educating our children and their teachers on numbers alone, we will continue to doom future generations and inevitably our entire country to mediocrity at best. Numbers can and will be gamed to the advantage of the few and the detriment of the many.