Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Essence of Education

Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, one of the topics of last night's dinner table conversation.

Last night, Will and I had an interesting conversation about the Jacksonian era, the protective tariff, John C. Calhoun, and the nullification crisis. Will's in Mr. Thornton's AP American History class at Northfield High School, and although his grade is not up to his usual standards, he comes home full of enthusiasm for the subject. If he can come home from school and make interesting conversation about the presidency of Andrew Jackson, I'm not concerned about his grade.

Early in his presidency, George W. Bush declared that "testing is the essence of education." In my experience, which includes teaching at all levels from kindergarten to graduate school, the essence of education is learning—and learning happens not through repeated testing, but through the dynamic relationship between an engaging teacher, an engaged student, and an interesting subject. But the signature piece of education legislation from the Bush Presidency, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), mandates repeated testing as the primary focus of an American public school education. In tenth grade, Will will be subjected to 365 minutes of testing—over six hours—between the PLAN, MCA and MAP tests. The six hours spent on the actual tests doesn't include the countless hours spent in test preparation.

In Britain, the state-supported educational system is entirely test-driven. Students Will's age (10th grade in Britain is called "Year 11") take a set of graduation tests called GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education). The tests are the culmination of three years of test preparation. After passing the GCSEs, students may, at age 16, leave school, or continue on to take more advanced "A-level" tests in preparation for university.

Both Will and Peter returned from England behind their American classmates in math. Instead of spending the year preparing for more advanced levels of mathematics, like calculus, they spent the year repeatedly drilling the basic skills covered on the graduation test. The English system was not geared toward creating mathematicians, it was geared toward producing a passing grade on the GCSE. There's a big difference. It's hard to generate a life-long passion for a complex subject when a single basic skills test is viewed as the goal line.

As a parent, I would rather have my son come home and engage me in a conversation about Jacksonian democracy than bring home a top score on a standardized test. Not surprisingly, though, the student who does the former usually also does the latter. Engagement is the best test preparation. But in the end, I want Will to think of standardized tests—including the 365 minutes of testing this year—as minor irritations in a lifetime of passion for learning.


Jim H. said...

Hear, hear, Mr. Hardy! How did we allow petty politicians to sieze control of the classroom? Thornton's AP history class is a terrific example of the kinds of exciting, impassioned learning that can happen in spite of the blunt trauma of standardized tests. Somehow, we turned a legitimate concern about the quality of education (at least compared to our most feared global ecomomic competitors) into a hyperbolic political excersize that has hurt far more than helped.

And what was the nullification thing all about, anyway? I guess I should look that up (or ask our daughter, who took Wold's AP history class).

Greg said...

I completely agree! I have two boys in Maryland schools and I've seen the stress testing places on both pupils & teachers. I'm also not convinced mush is retained post-test.

Nice blog you've got. I found it wnile reading a comment you left on Jim H's. I'll be back.

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