Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

The Reigning Paradigm in Public Education: Part 1


e've briefly reviewed the historical purposes of compulsory education, specifically in the United States. We've seen that the purpose of education has typically included enculturation, as well as creating ethical, knowledgeable citizens who, it is assumed, will contribute to society. In democracies, people have been educated to achieve an informed electorate. Since the Industrial Revolution, the stated purpose of education in the U.S. has focused more on "producing" citizens who will contribute to the economy—as workers and consumers.

Once we have a purpose or goal, the next step is to choose the actions we will take to achieve that goal. So the next logical topic to discuss, at least in the United States, is the current structure and organization of public education—the mechanism by which students are expected to reach the stated goals. What is the reigning paradigm in American public education?

A paradigm is a framework of concepts, results, and procedures within which work in a field is structured. It's important to understand that paradigms are not found "out there." A paradigm is not a neat package of factual ideas that have been tested and found effective. On the contrary, a paradigm is a model or pattern of thinking based on the prevailing beliefs of the times. Perhaps the most often-used example of opposing paradigms is the geocentric (earth-centered) model of the universe and the heliocentric (sun-centered) model proposed by Copernicus and supported by Galileo.

Keep in mind that the geocentric model went largely unquestioned for some 1,500 years. People saw for themselves that the sun, moon, planets and stars appeared to move in circular paths around Earth. On the other hand, Earth remained fixed and unchanging. There was nothing seen to move Earth, and everything fell toward the earth. In addition, an Earth-centered universe was consistent with the theocentric (God-centered) worldview. Man was God's creation and man lived on Earth. Therefore, the Earth must be the most important body in the universe.

And then, in 1514, Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus noticed that not everything fit neatly in the "circular motion around Earth" theory. For example, the orbits of some planets were elliptical rather than circular. Copernicus was still unable to think outside the "geocentric box," so he proposed that everything except Earth revolved around the Sun…but that the Sun carried all the planets with it as it revolved around Earth. A tad clunky, but it didn't make too many waves with theologians, who were the ultimate authority on all things philosophical and scientific.(1)

In 1609, when Galileo built his first telescope and turned it toward the heavens, the geocentric theory (paradigm) began to disintegrate. It couldn't explain the phases of Venus and Mercury or why Jupiter's moons revolved around Jupiter…not Earth or the Sun. Galileo began supporting a heliocentric model…and quickly found that theology trumped science. He was labeled a heretic and lived out his life as a prisoner because he refused to submit and renounce his own experience. It wasn't until 1992 that the Vatican admitted that Galileo was right!(2) Keep in mind that the geocentric model had NEVER been correct, but this is the power of paradigm!

What does all that have to do with education? This section will deal with the current paradigm in public education. The majority of people don't even realize that it is only one of several educational models from which to choose. But because of "tradition," when you hear the words school, teach, and learn, images of traditional school buildings divided into classrooms pop into the head. The teacher stands at the head of the classroom and the learners (students) sit dutifully in rows while they perform "learner" appropriate tasks…listening, taking notes, read textbooks, completing worksheets, and now, more often than not, taking tests.

As you read about the assumptions that created these images, keep in mind that the picture is not set in stone…it is not necessarily "the way education must be." You may also feel that even questioning the validity of this paradigm is "heresy." In this era, it is the government that takes the place of the church as the ultimate arbiter of "the way things are…or should be." But just as the Church was wrong when it condemned Galileo, so the government and educational policy makers are not infallible. Let's hope it doesn't take 350 years for educational policy makers to acknowledge the damage done by the current paradigm.

Analyzing the Rhetoric

…what we do in our schools has nothing to do with what we know is effective pedagogy for children. Rather, what we do in our public schools is largely determined by social, political, economic, and cultural considerations. The best interests of children are too often left behind." ~David Elkind

The current paradigm of education is characterized by a set of key words and phrases. Conversations about education are filled with terms such as academic achievement, accountability, alignment to standards, high-stakes testing, the "achievement gap," high-stakes testing, mandates, grit, readiness, rigor, standards, and standardized testing.(3)

Assumption 1: Academic content and skills are the most important things to be learned.

At the heart of academic content are literature, science, and math. The accompanying skills are reading, writing, computational ability, problem solving, and critical thinking. Although at one time, only children of royalty and the wealthy received a liberal arts education, the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) mandated that these were the areas in which all students were to become proficient by 2014. 

At one time, the study of history, the social sciences, and foreign languages had equal standing as "academic subjects." However, as Common Core standards, which focus solely on Language Arts and Math, have spread, the focus on other subjects has been pushed into the background. Worse, subjects such as music, drama, art, physical education, vocational education, and health are seen as outside the realm of "academics" unless they can somehow be tied to academic achievement. In many schools, these programs have been all but dropped to make time for more "academic" test prep.

In other words, "It is more important to know the names of the 206 bones in a human being than it is to know how to take care of those bones in one's own personal life through proper diet and exercise."(4)

Assumption 2: Measurement of achievement—the acquisition of academic skills and content—occurs through grades and standardized testing.

In the current definition of academic achievement as acquisition of skills and content, the most highly valued measure of that achievement is a high score on a standardized test. Quantitative measurement gives you hard data—numbers you can use to show that a student has "mastered" the content and skills. Numbers are also a handy way to compare and label students. Those who get a standardized test score of 99% are definitely achievers, while those who score only 20% are clearly non-achievers (assuming the current paradigm is correct!)

Assumption 3: Academic achievement is best realized (and measured) in an environment that is rigorous, uniform, and required for all students.

Having all children engage in the same activities is admittedly efficient, creating less work for teachers, as well as making it much easier to "assess" the learning within the group. However, just because something is easier for adults doesn't make it valid, or an effective way to promote learning.

In fact, the assumption that trying to force all children of the same age to learn the same things, in the same ways, and at the same time is the most effective way to educate them flies in the face of long-standing research on the variability of human development—not to mention common sense. But more on that later.

Assumption 4: Academic achievement is primarily future-oriented.

Education policy makers want students to be "ready" for something that will take place in the future-college, jobs, and even "life." Students must be made "ready" for the challenges of the 21st century. Apparently, the lives they are currently living and challenges they are already facing in the 21st century are unimportant.

Assumption 5: Academic achievement is best measured by comparing students to one another—or to some mythical average or "standard."

Norm-referenced testing claims to compare the performance of students, schools, school districts, states, and even countries to some mythical (and non-existent) norm. Since this "norm" or "average" is determined by comparing performances to begin with, this is circular reasoning. The "norm" is the center of the Bell Curve. (The norm in many of today's high-stakes tests is wherever the test publishers want to set it. They don't set passing criteria until after they have the test scores.) Also see this article to understand why structuring tests around the "average" is statistically, and theoretically, invalid.

Would parents be so accepting if their children were grouped into achievers and non-achievers by comparing their height? One can certainly measure the height of enough children to figure out the average height at a given age. So if your child is taller than the average, s/he is an achiever. If shorter, the child is a non-achiever, AKA a failure. Would you accept that conclusion?

Height is a single numerical value that can be accurately measured at any point in time. Academic achievement is a complex and largely nebulous, concept influenced by a wide variety of factors. Yet it is now "measured" by a single value on a single test at a given age. And that single piece of data, determined by tests which fail to measure learning in any meaningful way, is used to determine the value of a child or a program or a school, and now, of teachers.

Many people are so indoctrinated in this assumption that they truly believe standardized tests are a valid measure of a child's learning. School test scores are published in the local newspapers and used to rank the "greatness" of schools. Comparisons of scores on International tests often evoke true panic over the "failure" of U.S. education. Can you describe your learning in a single number? Then why has that single number become the ultimate purpose of education?

Assumption 6: Academic achievement supporters claim validity based on scientifically-based research.

The No Child Left Behind Act defended its teaching strategies, standards, and assessments on "scientifically based research data". This ostensibly referred to "the statistical results obtained by qualified researchers with PhD, EdD, or MD degrees published in peer-reviewed educational, psychological, and scientific journals."(5) If the authors of NCLB had gone out looking for the latest research breakthroughs on authentic learning, this might have been an admirable goal. Instead, they first decided what they wanted to do and then went in search of studies that supported those aims.

NCLB went on to state that only quantitative research could be used to judge the quality or effectiveness of programs. Yet even the authors' understanding of quantitative research and statistics must itself be called into question. NCLB stated that, by 2014, every child must test at grade level in reading and math. Grade level is the average of student performance levels in a given content or skill area. Yet NCLB demanded that every student meet or exceed that level. In other words, every student had to be at or above average. Perhaps a course in statistics might have helped.

NCLB specifically forbade the use of any "soft" (qualitative) research. The only measures they allow are those that generate numerical data. This despite the well-known benefits of qualitative research.

"[Qualitative research] provides information about the "human" side of an issue—that is, the often contradictory behaviors, beliefs, opinions, emotions, and relationships of individuals. Qualitative methods are also effective in identifying intangible factors, such as social norms, socioeconomic status, gender roles, ethnicity, and religion, whose role in the research issue may not be readily apparent. When used along with quantitative methods, qualitative research can help us to interpret and better understand the complex reality of a given situation and the implications of quantitative data."(6)

(Note: The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced NCLB in 2015, encourages the use of other types of assessment. Whether that will actually change the focus on standardized testing is yet to be determined at this date.)

Assumption 7: Academic achievement takes place in a top-down environment in which individuals with greater political power imposed programs, procedures, and policy on individuals with less power.

The people who decided that academic achievement was the gold standard for the education of all students were individuals with political power—presidents, governors, legislators, and CEOs of large corporation. Using rhetoric filled with the terms previously listed, they forced a dialogue focusing on academic achievement on everyone from superintendents and principals, to teachers and students. One result is that when a teacher introduces a new concept, the only question students think to ask is "Will this be on the test?"

Assumption 8: The most important indicators of academic achievement are grades, test scores, and ultimately, money.

Academic achievement was influential in the acquisition of money and power for many of these decision makers. They got good grades in high school, got a top score on the SAT, were accepted into a prestigious college, graduated and entered an equally prestigious law school, business school, or other postgraduate institution; and then stepped into the best paying positions in society—lawyer, doctor, business executive, etc. That is their definition of success, so they assume that it is what everyone should want. And if some children didn't have what it took to measure up, that wasn't so bad either. Those children would be systematically labeled as failures so they would be content doing the manual labor needed to keep society functioning.

Parents have been led to believe that academic achievement was the only way their children could "succeed." Many of them are now so brainwashed into that belief that they no longer ask themselves whether this is how they define success for themselves—whether it is what they want for their children—or what the children want for themselves.

(Note: Teachers are also victimized by the academic achievement paradigm. There are many teachers who do not agree with these assumptions. They focus to the full extent of their ability on what is in the best interest of each student. But the current system mandates an environment that is the antithesis of what they might create if they were still making the decisions that have now been handed over to non-educators.)

In the next article, we'll take a look at the negative consequences of the Academic Achievement paradigm.

  1. http://science.jrank.org/pages/2999/Geocentric-Theory.html
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/31/world/after-350-years-vatican-says-galileo-was-right-it-moves.html
  3. Thanks in large measure to Thomas Armstrong's book The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice, ASCD 2006, pages 32-33
  4. Ibid., p. 11
  5. Ibid., p. 14
  6. http://www.ccs.neu.edu/course/is4800sp12/resources/qualmethods.pdf

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