I heard a story on NPR about Spain's struggles with their education system. The story lead-in segued from Europe's overall financial crisis to the particulars of Spain's difficulty in staging an economic recovery, primarily because they lacked the skilled workforce necessary to cultivate new industries. Critics say the education system is based almost entirely on rote learning and memorization, with almost no attention paid to reading comprehension or critical thinking. That critique is supported by the fact that Spanish students score the lowest among Western European countries for reading comprehension, mathematics, and science. The teachers say most parents expect the school system to drill their students with facts, just as they were drilled when they were in school. That lopsided notion was apparent when NPR interviewed a principal, who claimed that his school didn't require rote memorization, but then immediately showed off their students' ability by asking some kids on the playground to recite an 18th-century poem. "A very long poem," said the reporter. The principle, and another parent interviewed, thought the problem was that they just weren't doing enough study of classic Spanish literature, and that they needed to start the students earlier and work them harder.
I'm surprised and gratified that someone thought to look at how other countries were dealing with their education – I had not heard anything like this since the press noticed a study of what made Finnish students so successful. I suspect we can learn as much from a bad example as a good one. We might scoff at what seems like an obvious flaw in Spain's education system – "look, the test scores show it's not working, you're teaching the wrong thing" – but then again the reaction of American teachers and schools to critiques of their methods sound a lot like those of the Spanish teachers: "We're just not doing enough of what we're doing, we need more money, we need to start kids earlier."
I was also struck by the difference in perceptions of what a successful education should be. The average Spaniard evidently has a pretty crude notion of what it means to be educated: if an eight-year-old can recite rote knowledge, that must mean they learned something. That's what they grew up with, and by golly it's going to be good enough for their kids, too. I wonder if we have similar holes in our own cultural perception of education. I imagine that we're proudly holding up our SAT scores, while some Finnish teacher is shaking her head sadly and saying, "Yes, you taught them to read, but did you noticed you killed their joy for reading? You gave them the skills, but you never taught them how to work collaboratively in a group. How can you possibly call that education?" How ironic would it be, if we struggled to perfect our education system, and then discovered we were dead wrong about what education should be?
The great thing about NChLB is that it has brought the issue of accountability front and center. The bad thing about NChLB is that it defines accountability strictly in terms of standardized tests, and those tests are made by idiots--at least, the North Carolina EOC for Algebra II is made by idiots, and I think it's fairly representative. So yeah, I think we're defining success wrong.
I think there is plenty of room for standardized tests that test a student's real understanding of math and science, and even that would be a huge improvement. Harder, but still probably possible, would be testing a student's ability to analyze a text, write a clear business letter, or intelligently analyze current events in the light of history.
But how about the ability to work in a group; the ability to take initiative; the ability to follow through; the ability to be organized; the ability to be a leader; the ability to delay gratification; all the abilities that actually make people successful, in the workplace or in any other arena of life? School itself, I think, can be a wonderful place to work on these abilities, and they can be reflected in grades. But standardized tests, no matter how good, are the wrong instrument. This is why colleges have consistently found that high school GPA, no matter how unreliable, remains a better predictor of college success than SAT scores.
When you're designing a school--a private or charter school, say--you can really try to focus on those kinds of things. But what do you do if you're trying to design standards for a state or a country? I'm afraid that, framed that way, the problem is fundamentally intractable.