Disclaimer: Henry’s views are not necessarily those of EB Media’s.
I grew up in a period of fierce debate over the United States’ public education systems. The failures that were No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and its successor Race to the Top (RT) gave me ample time to ponder the problems with education while my teachers taught us how to fill in test bubbles. So what went wrong?
In the 1990’s, out of a fear of globalization, politicians frantically looked for some way to quickly boost the apparent education level of US students. To do this, many states implemented Outcome-Based Education (OEB), which were a set of policies that focused on setting standards for students to meet in the form of tests. These state policies evolved into the national one in 2001 and are still used to this day.
The problem with OEB is that it ignores the fundamental problems of what schools should teach and how they should teach it in favor of a poorly thought-out incentive scheme. The theory is, if you incentivize states and school districts with money and students with grades for high test performance, all parties would work harder to earn their rewards and in the process students would learn what they needed to be successful. Unfortunately, it fell prey to the Cobra Effect, a problem in economics where an incentive scheme works counter to the intended goal.
To see why this happens, just think about what everyone’s incentives are. States, which create the tests under NCLB and RT, earn funding based on their students’ test scores, regardless of the contents or difficulty of the test. So they have 2 options to get their funding: Teach students better or make the tests easier. Teaching the students better is complicated and costs money, while making the tests easier is essentially free. If you could get your salary without working for it, wouldn’t you do it?
The schools and teachers have the same incentives as the states: Get high test scores. While they can’t change the test, they can set the curriculum to teach students how to do well on the test, even if this doesn’t give them a useful understanding on the material itself. While lessons about how to fill out multiple choice tests are the most egregious examples of this, teaching to the test takes on more subtle forms which may have an even greater impact on the learning process. Teachers may spend extra time teaching students how to memorize various facts, formulas, or essay structures that appear on tests rather than explaining the concepts of the subjects. This improves the students’ scores in exchange for them forgetting those facts immediately after the test.
Then of course there are the students. Students are different from every other group in that whereas every other group has the intended goal of educating the students, and the grades just act as an incentive, for students grades are the goal. With rare exceptions, students only care that they get a good enough grade to get into college and get a job. This pursuit rarely leads them to see out knowledge. Instead they cheat, they cram, or they waste class time to ask the teacher to make the test easier or to curve the test. As much as I would like to criticize students for this, I can’t. The school system has set up an incentive scheme in which this kind of behavior is 100% rational. A smart student who spends extra time researching an interesting topic isn’t rewarded by the system and is even punished for the time wasted that could have been spent on homework or memorizing passages from Shakespeare. So of course students will act this way, it’s in their best interests.
The problem is too fundamental to fix on this shallow of a level. While things like better standards, teachers, and technology are
important, none of them matter if the underlying issue isn’t resolved. Schools need to change the way students are taught so that the lessons both interest them and convey a deeper understanding of the subject.
For example, math and science aren’t about formulas and rules. They are about using consistent logic and reasoning to describe the world and solve problems. Instead of writing a formula and theorem on the board for students to copy down, a math teacher could propose a question for students to solve which would lead them to reason out the proof of the formula the old teacher would have just written out for them.
In my opinion, the best course of action would be to have the Department of Education partner with “edutainers,” people like Neil de Grasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Steve Levitt, and the creators of some amazing channels on YouTube who have made it their job to educate the masses in creative and interesting ways. These people clearly understand what makes people get excited about learning, after all, many of their creations attract the voluntary viewership of millions of people yearning to get an experience that the modern public education system has deprived them of. If the Department of Education could collaborate with them to create a curriculum guide for teachers, more students would pay attention in class and they would actually learn something useful. This may be one of the most important steps we could take to salvage the US public education system.
Henry is a part time contributor to EB Media. He studies economics and public affairs at CUNY Baruch College in the Macaulay Honors Program.