Thursday, December 9, 2010

Remember: Not Everyone Prioritizes Achievement

The commentariat seems to agree on two things regarding American schools: that they're not good enough and that students need to be learning more.  Read a random blog or watch a random talk show and you'll likely see or hear something about more rigorous curricula, longer hours, longer school years, or some sort of argument that our students need to be pushed harder.

And you're twice as likely to see or hear these things after the results of an international assessment are released (e.g. the latest PISA results this week) and the U.S. again ranks behind a lot of countries.

But we in the education world can sometimes forget that there are other things that matter too.   It would be wise for those driving this commentary to remember that not everybody shares their priorities and keep in mind that many people in our country have no interest in spending more time in school.  I'd divide this constituency into three different groups:

1.) People who absolutely detest school and can't wait for the bell to ring.  Witness this cartoon comparing school to jail . . . with the only difference being that the disgusting food offered in jails is always free.  For kids who believe school is tantamount to jail or torture, it's unclear how exposing them to more misery will improve their lives.  In other words, it may be more important to find a type of schooling that they only hate a little bit than to simply pile on more.

2.) Families with students enrolled in elite, high-pressure schools (usually private or suburban).  Witness the number of parents excited by the new movie "Race to Nowhere" that chronicles the downside of such schools.  Indeed, the most obvious sign of the difference between classes when it comes to schooling may be the broad push for more rigorous schooling for low-income students while high-income parents increasingly worry about the amount of stress their children endure while running five clubs, taking 4 AP classes, and waking up early for SAT prep class on Saturday before going out to volunteer at the local animal shelter.

3.) Those whose priorities lie elsewhere -- e.g. sports.  Witness the saga of Urban Meyer, the University of Florida's highly successful football coach, who stepped down yesterday -- at the age of 46 -- because he wanted to spend more time with his family.  Did the press release say that he wanted to help them with their homework or volunteer in their classrooms?  No.  It said that "after spending more than two decades motivating and celebrating the young men I've been so proud to coach, I relish the opportunity to cheer for my three terrific kids as they compete in their own respective sports".  For other families it's music, art, drama, religion, or any of a million other activities that evoke more passion.

 There's some overlap, of course, between these groups.  But an awful lot of students/parents/families fall into at least one of these groups.  This certainly doesn't mean that we shouldn't examine longer days/years or such reforms to boost our national achievement levels.  But it does mean that we shouldn't assume that these types of changes would automatically be popular or successful.  And it illustrates some of the trade-offs of these types of reforms.

In a number of the highest scoring countries, many kids spend countless hours in "cram schools" after school and on weekends -- essentially doing test prep.  American kids, on the other hand, are more likely to go to football practice, piano lessons, or their part-time job after school.  There's no objective answer as to which practice is better, but time is finite and kids can't do everything.  And many, many parents would prefer that their kids choose from the latter list.

So, by all means, we should be examining ways in which we can boost our national achievement.  But boosting these test scores isn't the only thing that the citizens of our country care about.  As such, any reform designed to boost these scores will not automatically be accepted by all.  In short, a more productive discussion would weigh the costs and benefits of emphasizing different areas rather than simply assuming that everybody wants higher test scores at whatever cost.

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