Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

The Reigning Paradigm in Public Education: Part 2

Note: This article is a continuation of the discussion in Part 1.


n Part 1, we examined the assumptions inherent in the "Academic Achievement" paradigm that currently drives public education. In his book, The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice, author Thomas Armstrong points out that "…some readers may be asking 'What's wrong with that? Don't we want our students to work hard, learn a lot, get good grades, and make something of themselves in life?'" Armstrong's answer is "Of course we do. The problem is that limiting the dialogue to grades, test scores, and scientifically based research leaves a good deal of education behind.…the excessive concentration on developing uniform standards…and raising test scores has several negative consequences that are creating more harm to students and teachers than benefits."(1)

Here are some of the consequences that Armstrong points out:

Negative Consequence #1: A focus on academic achievement and its accompanying obsession with grades and assessments results in a neglect of areas of the curriculum that are part of a well-rounded education students need in order to experience success (on their own terms) and fulfillment in life.

Business management expert Tom Peters is often quoted as saying, "What gets measured, gets done." In education, that is translated into "What get tested, gets taught." Many students will ultimately choose to make their living in what are considered vocations rather than professions. Others may choose the arts or other creative ventures. But because the tests focus on core academic subjects, such as reading, writing, math, and science, these "less academic" parts of the curriculum are neglected, or increasingly omitted altogether.

This is not to say that the core subjects are unimportant, or that they aren't needed in nearly every walk of life, but why must we focus on them in isolation? Allowing learners to choose the subjects of the books they read…from art to zoology, or Cat in the Hat to Diary of a Wimpy Kid would result in the same exposure to language and reading, but would increase motivation because it is something the learner is interested in doing! Why not encourage them to write about what interests them, and to practice their math in any "real-world" context from sports to Scrabble to fund-raising rather than completing 10 context-free problems in a math book?

The most troubling shift in the commitment to reading and math, and away from the arts, vocational education, and even social studies appears in schools with the highest minority population. Rather than tempting students with possibilities that might pique their interest and give them a reason to want to read or learn math, their curriculum is stripped to the bare bones, which is of little interest to adults, and even less to young learners.

Negative Consequence #2: The mandated focus on quantitative data eliminates many positive instructional interventions.

Many instructional approaches that may result in students developing positive attitudes, life skills, or an understanding of complex concepts are not reflected in achievement test results. In fact, most of the questions on standardized tests don't even require higher level cognitive skills. They only require students to recall or recognize a memorized fact. Higher levels of thinking, such as synthesis and evaluation, are neglected because they don't generate a single correct answer. And yet these are the types of thinking that are most needed in understanding and solving complex issues in today's world. Since personalized approaches don't influence test scores, they are neither encouraged, nor funded.

Negative Consequence #3: The focus on academic achievement transfers control of the curriculum away from educators in the classroom and toward organizations that set the standards and write the exams. In essence, it encourages and esentially forces teaching to the test.

Because achievement tests have become the sole or primary measure of student and schools effectiveness (not to mention teacher effectiveness), instruction is narrowed to content that has been externally defined as "essential knowledge" by a distant group of so-called subject-matter "experts" and/or to what some test-prep company has decided to include. Teachers who once had the freedom to address content in ways that best suited the students must now eliminate any activity that doesn't directly address test content. Previous activities that supported learning for its own sake are derailed for lack of time. Teachers no longer have the luxury of answering a student's question that is "off the subject." These moments were once recognized as among the most effective "teachable moments," but they are now replaced by memorizing testable facts. The content of every lesson must be connected to what's on the test. Schools even employ test prep consultants to help teachers boost test scores. In effect, schools have become test-prep centers rather than place of learning.

Negative Consequence #4: The focus on grades and test scores has led to an increase in student cheating, plagiarism, manipulation of test results by teachers and administrators, and even the use of illegal substances as performance aids.

Examples of each of these abuses can be easily found using internet searches.(2)

Negative Consequence #5: The current high-stakes test environment produces harmful levels of stress in teachers and students.

While a small amount of stress is often helpful, the pressure on students from Kindergarten on to "achieve" has led to a plethora of stress-related symptoms, such as sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, headaches, irritability, and aggressiveness. In their desire to see their children "succeed," parents may even add to the stress. Again, an internet search will yield many examples of the effects of stress on younger and younger students, as well as disturbing statistics about the increase in suicides among students in high-pressure schools.

There is compelling research about the negative effects of stress on the executive functions of the brain.(3) Yet this research is not only ignored, but met with calls for more rigor and "raising the bar" yet again.

Teachers are equally affected. Not only do expectations and demands keep increasing, but teachers who care deeply about their students see what is happening to them and there is very little they can do about it. The rate of teacher burnout is rising rapidly, not only because of the stress, but because the role of teachers has been increasingly marginalized even as they are blamed for "failing schools." Yet they are simply carrying out the failed policies of educational policy makers! Why is the validity of these policies never questioned?

Negative Consequence #6: The focus on academic achievement increases the chances that students will be retained from year to year and will drop out before graduation.

A 2005 "Arizona State University study of the high-stakes pressures associated with the NCLB Act concluded that increases in testing pressures are not associated with improved academic achievement, but are associated with increased retention and dropout rates."(4)

Many of these consequences were a direct results of the No Child Left Behind Act,  followed by Race to the Top, and now a new piece of legislation—the Every Student Succeeds Act. Yet, despite the admitted damage done by NCLB, and despite the increase in the so-called "achievement gap" that NCLB claimed to want to close, the rhetoric, and therefore, the paradigm remains unchanged.

What is the correlation between high-stakes test scores and the imposition of standards? Based on research, the only direct correlation with student scores on standardized tests is the socioeconomic status of the family.

Affluence Gap

In fact, in a recent study(5), researchers were able to accurately predict the percentage of middle school students who would score "proficient" in state-mandated standardized tests using only three factors:

The researchers suggest that, not only do the tests not assess what they claim, but that schools may be getting punished or rewarded for factors over which they had little or no control!

This is not because poor children are inherently less capable than children of wealthier parents. Research begun in the 1980s and 1990s, and continuing today, clearly demonstrates that exposure to "enriched environments" increases both the size of the brain and the number of connections between the neurons in the brain. Enriched environments are those in which a child has a broad exposure to stimuli including social interaction with people of all ages, the opportunity to play in a variety of natural settings, books, music, art, and the wealth of experience that the world has to offer.

The simple fact is that, the higher the income of a family, the greater the range of experiences to which their children are likely to be exposed. These enriched environments increase the development of the brain in direct proportion to the quality of those environments. Research has shown that "lower-income students tend to suffer from more stress in early childhood, have more limited access to enriching educational resources, and received less exposure to spoken language and vocabulary early in life." Together, these factors lead to changes in brain structure, cognitive skills, and not surprisingly, lower "academic" achievement.(6)

The researchers found that the higher-income students had thicker brain cortex in areas associated with visual perception and knowledge accumulation. They also found differences in the thickness of parts of the cortex responsible for vision and storing knowledge. The differences in cortical thickness correlated directly with differences in both test scores and family income.

These findings corroborate similar findings by a team of investigators from nine different universities who identified a correlative link between family income and a child's brain structure.(7) In effect, many children of poverty are as mentally undernourished as they are often physically undernourished. Does it make sense to demand that these children lift the same academic weight as their better nourished counterparts? Does it make sense to label them failures because they can't lift that weight? It is clear that the so-called "achievement gap" is, in reality, an opportunity gap. Pouring billions of dollars into standards and testing does nothing to address this problem!

These differences are not irreversible. Research has also shown that exposure to enriched environments can increase neuronal connections regardless of age. The current push to fund early childhood education could be a promising step forward if it entailed providing the missing opportunities to children from pre-birth on. But again, the academic achievement rhetoric is rearing its ugly head—promising "high-quality" teaching to "align" early childhood programs to K-3 standards. Unless parents take the time to inform themselves on these issues, children will be the victims—yet again.

When President George W. Bush announced his No Child Left Behind program, promising that not a single child would be overlooked, he took the name of the program from a slogan used by the Children's Defense Fund. The fund used the slogan "as a rallying cry for its campaign to reduce the number of children living in poverty."(8) What a sad irony…

Ignoring the influence of poverty will not make it miraculously disappear. Those who claim that "poverty is no excuse" are ignoring the very research that they claim must drive all educational decisions. There are answers, but they will not be found in the current paradigm that conveniently ignores the most glaring social issues in our country. In the next article, we'll explore an alternate paradigm on which to build an education system—a paradigm based on human development.

  1. Armstrong, Thomas. The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice, ASCD 2006, p. 23
  2. cf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2690227/
  3. cf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4814494/
  4. Armstrong, p. 29
  5. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19404476.2016.1252304
  6. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201504/why-do-rich-kids-have-higher-standardized-test-scores
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ravitch, Diane. 2011. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. Basic Books. N.Y. p. 93

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