By Nitai Deranja, co-founder of the Living Wisdom Schools
About fifty years ago, a small but dedicated group of people began to challenge America’s attitudes toward food production.
The prevailing view was that vegetables should be judged by their appearance—bigger and redder tomatoes were deemed more desirable. So American agriculture adopted chemical fertilizers and pesticides that would support growing great-looking tomatoes.
But a tiny fringe group, which gradually became known as the organic farming movement, pointed out that the real value of tomatoes lies not in their color but their taste and nutritional value, which were being sacrificed to improve their appearance.
It took a while, but people began to listen. A recent study1 revealed that seventy-five percent of Americans now buy at least some organic food.
Today we face a similar misconception about our children’s education. We all want our kids to succeed—no doubt. The problem is how we define “success.”
As with the misplaced emphasis on bigger, redder tomatoes, many people now assume that student success can be measured in numbers, using standardized tests.
These tests are mandated in almost all schools, and they exercise an enormous influence over our children’s future.
With such important consequences, it seems appropriate to ask what exactly these tests are measuring.
Below are some topics covered in one of the most widely used standardized tests for fifth through eleventh graders.2 As you scan the list, note the number of items you might be familiar with, and how important this information has been in your adult life. (These items are not taken from the more rigorous “advanced” level of the exam, but from the easier, “proficient” level.)
- The function of the esophagus
- The difference between a stereoscope and a laser light with holograph
- The reason fossils are found in sedimentary rocks
- The contributions of Hammurabi
- The differences between metals and nonmetals
- The form of energy released or absorbed in most chemical reactions
- The Schlieffen Plan
- The Tennis Court Oath.
- The Social Gospel movement
- The Reconstruction Finance Corporation
The point, of course, is not that the Schlieffen Plan, the Tennis Court Oath, and the Code of Hammurabi may not be useful in certain specialized fields. It’s that in using such relatively obscure data to measure the overall effectiveness of our schools, we’re making the same mistake people made in judging tomatoes—we’re focusing on superficial appearances at the expense of real substance, as measured by actual benefits to the individual child.
When we pressure teachers and administrators to make sure every student is exposed to the “right” facts, the end result is that creativity and enthusiasm are replaced with what’s been called “dead-ucation.”
In a recent New York Times article, a long-time teacher questioned the overwhelming emphasis on standardized testing today:
“This push on tests is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human. Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, you could be successful. Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SATs, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”3
A parent lamented her son’s experience of dead‑ucation:
“I saw the light in his eyes extinguishing…. These energetic, engaged, accomplished six-year-olds turned into 12-year-olds who ask, ‘Are we getting graded on this?’ or ‘Is this going to be on the test?’ That flame they had at age 6 didn’t burn out on its own, we smothered it.”4
And from an administrator at Peking University High School in Shanghai, one of the winners in the most recent worldwide standardized testing administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development:
“Test taking is damaging to students’ creativity, critical thinking skills and, in general, China’s ability to compete in the world. It can make students very narrow-minded. In the 21st century, China needs the creative types its education system isn’t producing.”5
The time has come to ask what an alternative, more “organic” approach to education might look like.
What if our schools shifted at least some of their focus from testing relatively useless facts to include the following measures:
- How to take initiative and exercise creativity
- How to concentrate
- How to cultivate a passion for lifelong learning
- How to be responsible
- How to live healthfully
- How to overcome negative moods
- How to respect different points of view
- How to discern the difference between right and wrong
- How to find peace and contentment within yourself
- How to know yourself and express your highest potential
How many of these items have proven useful to you in your adult life?
Which kind of knowledge would you deem more important for your child’s success?
Certainly, turning around the vast, hulking battleship of public education would appear to take enormous effort. But in the long run, it will probably not take much more time or energy than the switch from chemical-based food production to organic farming.
The traditional school subjects (“Readin’, Writin’, ’Rithmetic”) will always be the foundation of a well-grounded education, but our approach needs to incorporate these broader, more nutritive skills.
Much work has been done. We just need to share our resources and insights, and support each other as we make the needed changes.
The fruits of this movement will give our children a useful, enjoyable education, and a better guarantee of success.
- The Hartman Group Study, “Beyond Organic and Natural,” 2/22/2010.
- Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR), www.starsamplequestions.org
- “What if the Secret of Success Is Failure?” New York Times, 9/14/2011.
- “How Shanghai’s Students Stunned the World,” www.msnbc.msn.com, 11/2/2011.