Student Achievement and the American Education System

As schools continue to measure student achievement by measuring marketable skills for monetary success, they have let some activities that lead to healthful child development fall to the wayside.

| February 2015

  • Student Achievement
    “When schools are held accountable only for the accomplishments most obviously linked to future earnings, they sacrifice many of the experiences that are most important for optimal development but which are not lucrative.”
    Photo by Fotolia/Monkey Business
  • The End of the Rainbow
    “The End of the Rainbow” by Susan Engel will be the beginning of a new, more vibrant public conversation about what the future of American education should look like.
    Cover courtesy The New Press

  • Student Achievement
  • The End of the Rainbow

What happens when you begin to teach youths for the sole purpose of test performance and neglect skills that are not measurable? In The End of the Rainbow, Susan Engel asks what would happen if we changed the implicit goal of education and imagines how different things would be if we made happiness, rather than money, the graduation prize. This excerpt, which discusses the importance of recess, the arts and student encouragement in school systems, is from Chapter 2, “How Money Impoverishes Education.”

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

The Benefits of Recess

Not long ago a mother called me, beside herself with frustration. It seems that her fourth-grade son was midway through several days of standardized tests mandated by the state. She had carefully read the notes the school had sent home, urging parents to make sure their children had plenty of sleep and a good breakfast on the days of the tests. Already her hackles were up. Why were sleep and breakfast more important on the days her son would be tested than on the days when he was supposed to be learning things? The answer, I think, is obvious. The school is more worried about how it is doing than how the children are doing. But then she offered the real capper: when the little boy got home from school he seemed restless, which surprised her. It had been the first sunny, warm day in about five months, and she had assumed the children would have had lots of fun on the playground during their two scheduled recess periods. But no. Her son explained that they hadn’t been allowed outside. The teachers were worried that the kids might tell each other information that would affect their test performance. So these little nine- and tenyear- olds were kept inside on a beautiful day and given no time to run around or play, because it might cause trouble with the tests.

As schools scramble to ensure that children acquire measurable, marketable skills, they’ve turned their backs on one of the most important findings from the last hundred years of research in developmental psychology: that children need to play, and that play is essential to their future well-being.

In 2012 the school district in Syracuse, New York, chose to eliminate recess in order to make more time for children to learn “essential” academic skills. At the time Syracuse’s student achievement, measured by statewide tests, was among the lowest in New York State. Chief academic officer Laura Kelley said, “If they are going to opt to do recess, they are going to be taking time from ELA [English language arts] and math, and that’s a choice I hope every teacher considers very carefully.” She went on to explain to the reporter that instruction is more important than spending time on recess. And though there is a lively debate among scientists about the precise impact of various kinds of play on children’s development, there is not much debate about the benefits of recess. Children behave better, experience (and exhibit) less stress, and enjoy better health when they have generous amounts of free time. In addition, a large body of research suggests that when children engage in various kinds of play they have opportunities to develop key intellectual abilities: the ability to take someone else’s perspective, the ability to think about old problems in new ways, the ability to construct narratives, and the ability to negotiate with others, to name just a few. Once again, the unrelenting focus on using school as a means to creating employable adults has cost children dearly. A similar trend can be seen in the exclusion of art programs in schools. When schools are held accountable only for the accomplishments most obviously linked to future earnings, they sacrifice many of the experiences that are most important for optimal development but which are not lucrative.

What Student Achievement Should Mean to the American Education System

The relentless focus on the bottom line has damaged schools in one other very important way: the carrot of money and the stick of unemployment discourage administrators, teachers, and children from taking risks. Last year I sat in on a sixth-grade science class in a suburb about forty-five minutes outside of New York City. The teacher was explaining to the children that the spring science fair was coming up and that it was time for them to figure out what their science projects would be. He began by telling them about some of the projects from the previous year. He pointed to one of the best, which was sitting on a shelf in the classroom. It was a glove with little lightbulbs on the tip of each finger. The label said it was a new kind of flashlight. The teacher explained that they too could invent something that would solve a problem (for instance, how to light your way in the night and still have two free hands, like the glove with lightbulbs). He pointed out that the glove was neatly made, clever, and useful. He told them exactly how much time they could spend on the project, and how they might budget their time to greatest effect. He explained the rubric the teachers would use to grade the projects. Then he suggested they get into small groups and begin figuring out what they wanted their projects to be.

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