"Ask an impertinent question, and you're on your way to a pertinent answer." —Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man
As of October 2015, my goal for this blog is to ask 101 impertinent questions.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Another Kaputnik Moment?

President Obama has called for another Sputnik moment to revitalize our education system and make America competitive once again. I began my career as an English teacher in 1965 and over the course of that career saw how the approach to education reform set in motion by our original Sputnik moment contributed to the decline in academic achievement. I would even argue that the last fifty years that were set in motion by that first Sputnik moment caused the decline. For the sake of our children and our nation, we must not allow history to repeat itself.

The most damaging legacy from that first Sputnik moment has been the elimination of the arts and the denigration of the humanities. The most fundamental problem among students today is the inability to read. Reading is fundamental to learning at all levels and in all fields of study. Reading is fundamental to all learning. Reading is a skill. But reading well is an art that requires imagination, perspective, and a point of view. All of these qualities are enhanced through the study of the arts and humanities. The same can be said for critical thinking. Yet, today in many schools, thirty thousand years of what it means to be human have been reduced to an occasional elective. How can young people assimilate and order information without some framework of understanding that helps them ascribe meaning and perspective to what they're learning?

Studies now show that student performance declines as children get older. This isn't surprising when when we consider that over the last twenty-five years we've tried to solve the problems in our schools, not by expanding the imagination and perspective of our students but by subjecting them to an increasingly standardized curriculum that is geared to nothing more than raising test scores.

The history of testing is a study in irrationality:

Testing was used to assess student progress.
When test scores didn't improve, teachers were encouraged to teach students how to test.
When test scores still didn't improve, teachers were encouraged to teach to the test.
When test scores still failed to improve, teachers were instructed to drill students like little soldiers for the test.

The obsession with testing is not a valid teaching methodology, but rather a mentality of competition instigated by ambitious leaders. As history and great literature show us, hubris of a life defined by ambition is doomed to failure. Right after the first Sputnik moment, America rushed to launch its own satellite into space. So sure that our rocket would succeed, officials broadcast the launch world-wide. The rocket blew up, and our satellite got no farther than the surrounding weeds. Newscasters dubbed our failed satellite Kaputnik. By driving children to study math and science without the balance of the arts and humanities, we make them instruments of competition defined by ambitious leaders. Only, it's the children who are falling among the weeds.