In case you had not heard, the American educational system no longer dominates the world. Even if it is questionable why it should dominate the world, there is a constant buzz in the United States about why we are no longer top of the class. Issues including the George W Bush era reform, No Child Left Behind, test scores, charter schools, voucher programs, and bad teachers fill the public square. Sitting aloft in an ivory tower, with five children under nine years of age at home, I have a singular perspective on this subject. As a professor, I see the output of our educational systems. As a parent, I wonder what will become of my children.
My primary job as a professor is to train students to think like a scientist by applying the rigors of the scientific method. One of the complications of the scientific method is that we often cannot directly measure the variable we are interested in. For example, I might be interested in studying how a cancer therapy works. Because of ethical and practical issues, we might pursue our biological questions using mice. In our reductionist approach, we sometimes lose track of the larger question, how well does a tumor in a mouse really relate to a human tumor? Are we studying mouse or human cancer?
Similarly, there is no direct way of comparing schools’ effectiveness. So, we use standardized tests to rate schools. The logic goes that if our children (the drug) do well in the test (the mouse) then they will do well in life (humans). The assumption is that schooling is responsible for success. Yet, we must ask, how well does success in a test relate to success in life, and are or should schools be responsible for that success?
Please take 60 seconds to turn away from this page and ponder the following question: “When my children are twenty-five, fifty, or seventy-five, what do I hope for them?” List as many thoughts as you can. This question gets at the unquantifiable entity of success. Society measures success with dollar signs. But is that success? Sure, if that’s what is important to you, but let me suggest three alternatives.
First, my children will be successful if they have a life-long love of learning. Around the time that I was finishing my undergraduate degree, my dad and I were driving around town. We were discussing graduation and I commented that I couldn’t wait to be done because I hated school. He slammed on the breaks and gave me a tongue-lashing. “You never stop learning!” For some reason I never fully understood this idea until that moment. If you do not have a basic curiosity about the way the world works, about history, politics, something, your brain will turn to mush just as your body will turn to mush if you don’t exercise.
Unfortunately, many students have all of their curiosity drained out of them by teachers who fail to make a subject come alive. I cannot even begin to count the number of people I have talked to who think that science and math are boring because they had teachers who could not relate calculus to something that resonated with their lives. What they probably had were teachers that went to school to be teachers, instead of scientists and mathematicians who wanted to teach about the world around them. My own children have stopped thinking that I am weird when I ask them, on a weekend, if they learned anything new today and comment that we should strive to learn something new every day.
Second, my children will be successful if they can think critically. As one who trains future scientists, I see the human output of our K-12 and undergraduate educational systems. We teach students facts. For a cell to divide it must do X, Y, Z, and a hundred other things. This fact-based knowledge is critical so we can speak the same language, but students are left with the impression that we know everything there is to know about cell division, which is absurd. A few years ago I mentored an undergraduate on an independent research project in my laboratory. At the outset she asked, “What is the result that we should get?” I laughed. “How should I know? No one has ever done this experiment!” She was dumbfounded. This is an increasingly problematic issue even among of people training to earn a PhD, which is a degree awarded for the ability to think independently and make novel contributions to science.
Many of my colleagues bemoan the fact that we train technicians instead of thinking scientists. Something happens between the time that a curious three-year old figures out how to fix a broken banana with peanut butter and toothpicks and a twenty-three year old that cannot integrate disparate subjects to tell you how a social networking site might be an interesting model to study the interactions between genes. Instead our students are trained to fit their answer into one of four options on a multiple-choice test.
Third, and most importantly, my children will be successful if they are moral individuals. Even the most secular of schools can teach morals. Unfortunately, our schools have raced to the lowest common denominator with the sentiment that a child is welcome as they are. No they are not! Children and adults should be disabused of the notion that they are ever done with the task of developing their moral character. Through a virtue-based education our schools can teach this lesson. The basic, or cardinal virtues – fortitude, justice, prudence, and temperance – are so universal in their appeal that they were developed by the Greek pagans without input from religious thinkers. No doubt a child’s home life is critical to character formation, but I contend that, considering our children spend so much time in school, it is the primary location where these values can be instilled.
These three ideas are not outside the mainstream of what every parent wants for their child. One problem with the test-based assessment of school quality is that teachers “teach to the test”. As a parent, I would love it if my children were taught to a test-based standard on the three ideas that I have outlined. In fact they are – they are homeschooled. Clearly, homeschooling is not an option for most people, so what is the alternative?
There are a growing number of after-school programs that take an approach that is comparable to the three ideas outlined above. In Brooklyn there is the South Bronx Education Foundation educational program that focuses upon developing a child’s personal character. Intercity kids are learning classical logic to judge their peers as they debate both sides of controversial issues; they are reading and discussing articles from The Economist and doing internships across New York City; and they are having weekly meetings with a mentor to discuss their goals, whether they eat meals with their parents, and how much time they spend watching TV, doing homework, and going to museums. Do these kids do well on standardized tests? Who cares? My goal and that of the South Bronx Education Foundation isn’t to raise children, but to raise adults.
Alas, people do care and require that purse strings be attached to some metric to hold schools accountable. So why not ask parents what those metrics should be? Here is a suggestion. Ten years after graduation let’s interview people and have them discuss ideas such as the following:
* How many books have you read in the last year?
* How many hours of TV do you watch a week?
* Talk about your favorite hobby
* Describe a problem you have faced recently and how you solved it
* Are you married? Do you have children?
* Where do you see yourself in ten years?
These questions are far more interesting that bubbles filled in on a standardized test – these do not have correct or incorrect answers! A person who hasn’t read a book, or has read 1,000 books in the last year, probably does not have a good sense of what is going on in the world around them; like the one who will talk your ear off about their hobby, they need to learn that there is an unexplored world around them to be conquered. A person who solves problems using various data can discover that a life-long love of learning and the skills to ask the right questions will give them the artillery to do anything. A person who is already divorced or has children outside of marriage or who cannot form stable relationships with others probably needs to acquire several of the cardinal virtues.
Ever the realist, I doubt that such a revolution in education will happen anytime soon. Yet, if we don’t step back and ask the question – How do we measure what we expect from our schools? – we risk our success as measured through the eyes of our largest responsibility, our children.
Pat Schloss and his family live on Five Kids Farm in Dexter, Michigan. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Michigan.