What’s Important to Learn

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Should our children study what’s important to learn, or what’s easy to test? The answer seems obvious. Of course, they should study what’s important to learn. But that’s not the reality in most schools today. As I travel across America, I see the damage done by non-educators – legislators, mega-foundations, the College Board, college admissions offices – who prioritize having our kids study what’s easy for them to test, not what’s important for our children to learn.

Our states impose on schools a regimen of standard of learning tests. Go online and look at sample questions from these tests. They’re dreadful. With tiny budgets, states do bulk testing on the cheap. Replete with ill-formed or even nonsensical questions, these tests don’t get at any essential skillset or mindset. Yet we hold teachers and schools accountable to their students’ scores. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Doubling down on the damage, states impose obsolete requirements for earning a high-school diploma. For instance, most U.S. kids have to pass algebra, or even Algebra II, to get their degree. Yet few adults – certainly not legislators — use algebra in their daily lives. When I ask audiences about their day-to-day use of algebra, a few point to basic ratios. But good luck trying to find an adult who defines functions, solves simultaneous equations, takes cube roots, or manipulates complex numbers in their daily lives. Yet this esoteric material blocks many from a high school diploma, gravely imperiling prospects in life. Why do we rely on such obsolete requirements? They’re easy to test, not important to learn.

As if the damage done by our states isn’t enough, look at what kids study to check off the boxes for a college application. They take AP courses that revolve around memorizing content in a curriculum that’s a mile wide and an inch deep. When I ask most kids what they learned in their AP course, they tell me, “I learned I never want to take another course on this subject again.” They prep for and take the SAT or ACT (and some states now use this as part of their test regimen), drilling on questions that are far closer to Sudoku or Crossword puzzles than meaningful assessments of important competencies.

The challenge for a testing organization isn’t posing questions that get at essential competencies. It’s grading the responses. For instance, we can readily pose challenges to students that gauge creative problem solving skills. But how do you grade responses cheaply, particularly with the objective of precisely ranking the performance of students across a state, or around the world? Facing cost pressures, these bulk tests inevitably devolve into low-level multiple-choice questions with single right answers. The stuff of our tests, but hardly the stuff of life.

None of this is a secret to our teachers. As I travel, I’m struck, again and again, by their daily anguish. Do I empower my students to study what’s important to learn, or teach to the tests our schools are held accountable to? Do I meet the needs of my kids, or the needs of the test-taking organizations? Imagine what school could be if we trusted teachers to help students take on meaningful challenges that help them develop distinctive, meaningful competencies. Sadly, that’s not today’s reality for most students and teachers in America’s schools.

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  • Paul Kennedy

    Thanks, Ted. Watching your presentation on C-Span made me realize how I miss the “cause!” I’m a retired English teacher/school psychologist. As a disabled, disillusioned Vietnam vet, I became a teacher to foster the love of independent learning and to encourage a healthy skepticism regarding the status quo. I found your analysis of our country’s ‘test driven,’ mismanaged school system to be surprisingly accurate. You get an ‘A’ for homework, Dude.. I though, “Damn, here’s a guy with a mission that I’d, literally follow into hell with an icicle.” I think many retired teachers feel the same. We don’t much (if any) pay! We don’t need recognition . . . someone with your analytical and management skills and your fervor will attract many retired volunteers.

    When it comes to encouraging kids to blaze their own ‘learning trail,’ I’m in! I may be 71 years old and walking with a cane, but I’ll do anything to get back into the game, Coach.

    Sincerely . . . Paul Kennedy

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