Saturday, January 14, 2006

Reasons why U.S. Should Stay Away from an Exam Meritocracy

In my last post I mentioned it would not be in the best interests of the U.S. to continue on this path of making our public education system entirely focused on test results. First there was the No Child Left Behind law that ultimately judges a school or district by looking almost solely on test results. A new merit pay system being adopted by the Houston school district continues with this test craze and will allow teachers to receive bonuses based solely on increased test scores. Everything about these types of trends in education continues to push the U.S. towards a mroe European and Asian style education system, where test results determine the paths of students, usually at an early age. I absolutely think the U.S. is headed down the wrong road for its public schools if we continue to adopt this sort of imported system, as I argued some time ago in an earlier post.

In last week's Newsweek (Jan. 9, 2006; page 37), Fareed Zakaria examined a question in education that is related to the push for constant testing. It is well known that many Asian countries, in particular, score higher than American students in international science and math exams. But the question becomes: If American kids test much worse, why do they do much better in the real world? Singapore, for instance, has been at the very top in test scores in math and science for a number of years, but when is the last time one of those former high school testing phenoms won a Nobel Prize, or developed a miracle drug, or changed the world with a new technological advancement? Why are American workers the most productive in the world? Why do Americans continue to win the Nobel Prizes, attain top patents, and why do we have one of the highest living standards in the world with the most diverse population and culture in human history? Why are we the only remaining superpower (at least for the moment)? None of this would be true if our education system wasn't doing something right, particularly for our top students.

Zakaria interviewed Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore's minister of education, to get his opinion. The minister said, "We both have meritocracies. Yours (the U.S.) is a talent meritocracy, ours is exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well - lke creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are areas where Singapore (and I believe many other Asian nations are thinking this words) must learn from America." I'll say. These are all aspects of education that a test, test, test system kills. In our public schools, students have a chance to take on electives and find themselves and their interests and strengths along the way. Extracurricular programs in all areas allow students to explore their interests further. More often we see schools with expanded community service opportunities, which my students have told me countless times give them an expanded perspective of what real life is like outside the protected walls of school. And more importantly, a student's educational future is not determined prior to high school as it is in any other nations, based on test scores taken in elementary and middle schools. It is true that a number of individuals peak a bit later and have opportunities to still attend college and work their way into something of interest. I would personally like to see more of this for students, as I am a supporter of Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (or competencies, in my opinion), and individuals need exposure to many different subjects presented in multiple ways to learn how they best learn and where they have some talent to further develop. We allow, to at least some degree, some amount of freedom for our students to pursue higher learning skills not only in core subjects, but the arts, athletics, public service, and so on. That hidden variable, creativity, is something we cannot kill off for students because that drives innovation in all areas of society later in an individuals needs to be allowed to develop and grow at relatively early ages in order to be productive later in life. Classrooms and schools that focus on test preparation and results means precious time for the creative and developmental aspects of a student is taken away.

Another interesting point brought about in Zakaria's article is that American universities are unrivaled globally, and getting better in many cases. International students have flocked here for college and graduate school in order to obtain an American education, and many have remained, all to our benefit. The U.S. has a public-private partnership that is unmatched in the world, with billions of dollars coming in from the federal government as well as private foundations and industry partnerships. In addition, public and private schools compete for top talent and this raises the standards in many areas of study across the board. I could not agree more; talk about a complicated network structure!

I know from personal experience Singapore is serious about trying to change their system to some degree to begin to mimic aspects of the American education system. Last spring I was asked to meet with a group of educators from one of Singapore's top science and math high schools. They were here observing both successful high school and university programs, and I met with them at Northwestern University. They picked my brain about how to get beyond student memorization of facts and more into developing creative solutions and higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills, which are much more important in the long run than memorizing a few facts (that can be easily forgotten after a test). It is one thing to remember a solution to a particular type of problem and repeat the solution on a test, and something entirely different to truly learn an important principle or concept, and then having your brain take it and use it to create a new/original idea, discover a new principle, or expand on someone else's idea.

Part of the process is to get kids thinking about how the material applies to their lives, and allowing them to discuss that and put it into their own words. The guests from Singapore had not really thought that something like this should be a priority. Zakaria's article brought this back into my mind because he mentions that a friend of his from Singapore recently moved back from America and put his kids into one of the top Singapore high schools. He described the difference, that "In American schools, when my son would speak up, he was applauded and encouraged. In Singapore, he is seen as being pushy and weird." This is a vital observation and feature of our schools, and we should continue to pursue and push for it. Our children must continue to be encouraged to think and contribute, and not just sit there and memorize test strategies and facts that are gong to be on the next standardized test.

Of course, there are failing schools in America by any standards, and those schools tend to be in inner-city, poor (and minority) areas. We must do better, because there are too many students who are not allowed to make it out of their high school and find their true talents and potential. That is another issue that is tremendously complicated to address and make real progress, but the answer still does not rest solely on how well they ultimately do on a particular test.


mark said...

Nice post Von. Very nice.

The Asian educational system punishes failure and rewards accuracy, making the creative answer born from synthesis prohibitively risky for students, in terms of maximizing personal gratification.

Now, historically, when China was at its zenith, the Confucian model was not so rigid. Examinations based on classic texts were ultimately interpretive exercises - later they became rote formulas to be regurgitated as the empire declined under the late Ming and Q'ing.

vonny said...

Thanks, Mark. I like the way you put it, as rewarding accuracy but punishing failure. Failure and creativity go hand-in-hand, for when one is looking to solve or do something new, mistakes are nearly unavoidable and must be learned from.

Daral said...

While I can't speak much about the asian education system, I can say that it has been my experience that the asians at my university are, as a whole, capable of working freakishly large amounts of time (like 5-10 hours a day, every day). I know some non-asians like that, too, but the vast majority are asians. This is probably also a result of the asian education system.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting post. I am from Singapore. Many have been looking to Singapore as a country with a very good education system. But if you read my blog, Singapore Educational Consultants, you will find that I think the system is seriously flawed. I worry when I see the US trying to follow Singapore's lead while it should be the other way around. The examinations focus in Singapore schools is not as great as many foreign observers think it is.

brett said...

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