The U.S. has been a global superpower since World War II, and this status has defined us.  However education-wise, the U.S. has consistently lagged behind other countries on international tests such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  American fifteen-year-olds have ranked in the middle range of developed countries in reading and science, lagging in math. Results from the 2012 PISA test show that in math, twenty-nine countries had higher test scores than the U.S., while in science twenty-two countries did better, and in reading, nineteen countries.  The most disturbing fact is that American students do poorly in creative thinking and problem solving when it comes to applying math concepts to real life problems.

A fear of being “left behind” in the global economy, (due to  repercussions from such performance), led the Bush and Obama administrations to mandate federally-dictated education programs (No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top) that would focus on rigorous national testing and data collection within all 50 states as a strategy for improving students’ test scores.

Could it be that our leaders are more concerned about the U.S. being “left behind” than about our children being “left behind?”  Could it be that, out of fear of losing superpower status, a desperate attempt is being made to make American youth perform better on international tests in order to maintain our number one status in the world, especially since we’re lagging in education?

NCLB and RTTT would indeed attempt to engineer an education system based on the assumption that every child can make the academic grade and reach established academic benchmarks.  Factors such as lack of motivation, limited ability, social disadvantages, poverty, and limited or inequitable distribution of funding would not inform the policy.  These policies would put unrealistic expectations and goals on educators and students.

To me, this approach is dysfunctional—similar to that of over-solicitous parents who are frightened of losing control and influence over their children lest they become something other than what the parents want them to become.  Such an approach doesn’t allow children to make their own mistakes, carve their own destinies, or establish a level of autonomy.

In effect, this approach is anathema in a country that prides itself on being a republic that upholds freedom, individualism, and autonomy as its basic tenants.  These tenants require citizens who are critical, creative thinkers who can take responsibility for their own thoughts and actions, not citizens who have been submitted to a regimented education system with its focus on standardized tests and predetermined outcomes that all students must reach.

In fact, NCLB and RTTT changed the American government’s role in education.  The operation and oversight of public schools in the United States was typically the responsibility of states and local communities.  Throughout the nation’s history, the federal government was not expected to play a major role in regulating or directly financing schools.  These policies changed that idea.  The quality of education became solely dependent upon standardized test scores.  The rise and fall of test scores would be the variable for judging students, teachers, principals, and schools.  And sadly, Bush and Obama’s policies would also set the tone for a punitive approach to education.  Interestingly, the U.S. has demonstrated no significant improvement on international tests since 2003, despite all the testing and data collecting.

Could we be approaching education from the wrong angle? It is absurd to expect all states to follow a national policy when the U.S. is such a diverse country.  We need to give control of education back to individual states, allowing them to develop programs that suit the geographical, societal, and cultural makeup of each state.  U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lois Brandeis once stated that the 50 states are the “laboratories of democracy.”  We need to heed his wisdom. The Every Students Succeed Act, which does give more control to states, is a step in the right direction.

Nations such as Finland and South Korea are top scorers on the Program for International Assessment.  They have eliminated the testing schedules used decades ago when these nations were ranked much lower.  Finland excels in the world in innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity, and its government rejects testing as a means for getting students to do well in school. We could learn a lot from Finland’s highly successful education system by:

  • Giving states control of their education programs.
  • Developing a broad national curriculum which allows states to adapt standards to suit state/school cultures.
  • Valuing teachers’ professionalism by giving them autonomy, yet support.
  • Encouraging teachers to develop teaching methods to match their own learning theories and to craft pedagogical environments to meet their students’ needs.
  • Allowing teachers to collectively develop curriculum and diagnostic assessment.
  • Maintaining schools as “centers of learning and caring” rather than worrying about frequent testing, competition with other schools, performance standards imposed by administrators and policy makers, and our world ranking.
  • Linking education to creative development of economic competitiveness along with social cohesion and inclusiveness.
  • Disallowing standardized tests except for a national exam which everyone takes at the end of high school.
  • Periodically tracking national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.
  • Encouraging cooperation rather than competition between schools and between teachers.

 Why does education have to be a “race to the top?”  We need to look to countries whose education systems are different from ours and whose students are thriving.  What is it that they are doing differently?  Does fear drive their education systems?  Are they primarily concerned with carving out or maintaining political and economic power and status in the world, or do they have a genuine concern in educating their youth for a posterity that has not only economic but intrinsic value for all concerned?

I discuss this issue further in a book I’ve written called “Taking Back Our Classrooms” which you can purchase at the following links: