Student Achievement and the American Education System

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“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.”
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“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.

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.”

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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.

I was sitting at one of the tables where children were talking. One twelve-year-old boy said, “I’m gonna make a battery. I’ve seen it done on YouTube. It’s easy. I can do it in one weekend.” Another boy said, “Yeah, that’s cool. But I wanna invent something. I’m gonna invent a cake you can eat on a stick, like a lollipop. It’ll be like the glove—funny and easy. I won’t need a lot of materials.” A third boy had been sitting quietly. When he spoke, his tone was slightly less certain, more speculative. “I wanna do something cool. I wonder if I could figure out how to do an experiment on animal behavior. I’ve always wanted to know whether crickets actually talk to each other when they make those noises.”

The first boy piped up with a note of friendly caution: “You don’t wanna do that, man. You’re crazy. Where you gonna get the crickets? What if it doesn’t work out?” The boy looked back at him, slightly embarrassed. “Yeah, you’re right. I know. I can just build a cricket house instead. I saw a show about it. I think I have all the materials in the garage.” In the space of two sentences the boy went from trying something interesting, ambitious, and worthwhile to a plan that assured him of moderate success. The teacher had, perhaps unwittingly, made it clear to the children that something clever and manageable was a better bet than something ambitious but uncertain and possibly unwieldy.

Children are discouraged, in ways both large and small, both subtle and obvious, from trying things at which they might fail: reading difficult books, studying a complex topic, or taking a course that might lower their GPA. Why would a student try any of these things when she’s been groomed to keep her eye on the prize of a good grade and the success to which it will lead?

The irony is that by encouraging children, however implicitly, to look for easy success, teachers and parents encourage what psychologist Carol Dweck calls “performance motivation.” Children lean toward the task that will allow them to shine rather than the task that will cause them to learn something new. Dweck explains that when children choose challenging tasks rather than easy ones, they are motivated by a desire for achievement (rather than shine, they prefer to get better at something or acquire new skills). So, in effect, when teachers encourage children to set their sights on a good grade, they are often indirectly encouraging children to shy away from the very challenges that will prove most educational.

Teachers’ Limitations

Children aren’t the only ones discouraged from pursuing interesting but uncertain avenues. Several years ago, a fourth-grade teacher came to me frustrated because her students seemed so reluctant to read except when they absolutely had to for a specific assignment. I asked the obvious first question: “What do they like to read?”

She looked taken aback. “What?” she said, staring at me.

“You know,” I said, “maybe the problem is they don’t have enough of the materials that really grab them. What grabs them?”

She looked uneasy. “I don’t know. I spend so much time trying to make sure they have the reading skills they need, I don’t really ask them what they’d like to read.”

I said, “Well, why don’t you spend a month letting them read whatever they want and see what happens? You won’t know whether that will work if you don’t try it.”

As I was speaking, her face began to light up, and I could see her thinking about how to make that happen. “I could give them time after lunch to read what they want. I guess I could bring in some magazines and old books from my house for them. I guess I could invite them each to bring a book from their house that another kid in the class might like.”

“Yeah,” I said, “that sounds great.”

Then a shadow fell over her face. “But a month is a long time.” I could sense the window in her mind closing. “Maybe instead I should just encourage them to read at night. Make it clear that even though they have to read what I assign during class time, they are totally free to choose their own books after school.” Experiment over, case closed. For a moment the teacher seemed eager to explore possibilities. But just as quickly she backed off, wary that such possibilities might get in the way of the mountain of very specific tasks and goals she felt she had to meet day in and day out. 

She’s not alone. Good, thoughtful teachers all across the country express a similar conflict: some of the innovations they’d love to try with their students just seem too risky. They know the usual methods aren’t working, but they dare not deviate from the long list of demands made of them by administrators and policy makers. Though flexibility and a spirit of experimentation are essential to good teaching practices, there is nothing in the current system that encourages teachers to try out new methods and every reason for them to stay cautiously within familiar boundaries.

Copyright © 2015 by Susan Engel. This excerpt originally appeared in TheEnd of the Rainbow: How Educating for Happiness (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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