Forced standardization through the educational system
A child moves a pencil across his notebook, writing and rewriting his name. He forms each letter as the hum of the middle school English class surrounds him. Next to him, a classmate flips through a Jane Austen novel, silently taking in each word as her neighbor traces his name.
For 40 minutes, five days per week, this scene repeated in front of Jane Healy, the teacher of the middle school class at the time.
“They said to me, ‘Just let him write his name. He’ll be fine,’” Healy said, now a retired educator, author and educational psychologist. “I thought, ‘How in heaven’s name am I going to manage to teach all these children?’ And in 40 minutes, five days a week, I really wanted to make a difference for these children and I found it was a very frustrating business.”
A child who could only write his name was expected to perform under the same structure as the child who was reading novels beyond her reading level. Healy, having experienced first hand this inequality in the United States public education system, decided to investigate the cause and effects of the problem. After finishing the school year teaching English in this middle school class, she left her position as a teacher and began her studies of educational psychology.
“I was always very interested in the able children who for some reason had a glitch, which we now call a learning disability,” she said. “I prefer the words ‘learning difference’… The way schools are structured does not really begin to meet everyone’s needs.”
The structure of the United States education system has been under a magnifying glass in recent years, with initiatives such as Common Core and No Child Left Behind drawing public and political criticism.
“The current education system is making kids sicker, not smarter,” said Vicki Abeles, director of the documentary Race to Nowhere: Transforming Education from the Ground Up.
As a mother, Abeles said she saw her own children lose their drive for learning as they grew up under a constant pressure to meet the standards of the regimented public school system. Discontent and puzzled with this observation, she set off to find out why her children were suffering rather than thriving in a learning setting. This sparked the production of her documentary.
“I started to talk to people across the country and realized that we had a silent epidemic,” she said. “I wanted to give a voice to the people closest to the education system.”
By recording the experiences of children and educators across the country, she uncovered a pattern of stress, sleep deprivation and cheating caused by an overemphasis on homework, resume building and testing in the mainstream school system, she said.
“I was struck by how widespread these issues were,” Abeles said. “They impacted everyone I came into contact with… I realized these issues weren’t confined to any one particular community.”
Standardized testing was one of the widespread issues Abeles noticed as she spoke with students, parents and educators. She noticed that people across the country were experiencing the same aversion to testing despite the absence of formal, national exam standards. The United States does not have a national examination system or a national curriculum, according to the Department of Education website.
However, according to the website, examination practice are largely uniform throughout the United States, even though their is not a national curriculum or testing system.
Students in grades three through eight take an average of 10 standardized district and state tests per academic year, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. These exams “are the result of the pressures of the competitive academic marketplace,” according to the Department of Education website.
Despite this effort to perform as a competitive player in the international academic landscape, the United States is falling behind other developed nations.
According to 2012 data compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment, the United States ranks 16 out of 37 countries for reading performance, 25 for math and 19 for science. This is consistently below the OECD average of 489 points out of 580 for girls and 499 for boys.
Finland, like many of its Nordic neighbors, is applauded for its progressive, learning-focused education system. The Finns rank first in the world for reading and fourth for performance in science.
While consistently outperforming their international classmates, Finnish students spend less time bubbling in answer sheets and bending over homework.
As education policy in the United States moves toward a more regimented system including centralized testing, the Finnish system is progressing in the opposite direction, according to Linda-Darling Hammond, faculty director at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.
“Over the past 40 years, Finland has shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around the very lean national standards,” she wrote in NEA Today Magazine, a publication of the National Education Association.
Finnish students sit down for one national examination during the entirety of their primary and secondary education, unlike many of its international counterparts, including the U.S., which place significant emphasis on standardized testing. This exam, the National Matriculation Examination, provides a basis for university admission, according to the Finnish National Board of Education.
Not only are students in Finland tested less, they also spend less time on homework than students in the United States. OECD found in 2014 that 15-year-olds in Finland spent 2.8 hours on homework per week, while children of the same age in the United States consistently spent 6.1 hours on a weekly basis. This higher portion of time spent on school work and the pressure associated with it may be causing an increase in mental health disorders, Abeles said.
“I think in short I would say that students across the country are being pushed to the brink of exhaustion,” she said. “[There is] a silent epidemic of burnout, anxiety and depression.”
Children in the United States are also experiencing more mental health problems than those in Europe with one in five children living in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year, according to to Center for Disease Control and Prevention data. In the European Union, however, one in eight children have a clinically diagnosed mental disorder, according to data from Child and Adolescent Mental Health in an Enlarged Europe (CAMHEE).
In addition to experiencing anxiety and depression under traditional learning rules, those outside of traditional constraints often find it difficult to meet teacher expectations, Healy said.
“If you take a brain that is neurologically immature, it might be brilliant,” she said. “If you lay on it academic demands that are wrong for it, and you make a big issue that this kid is a failure, and you make him feel like a failure, you already have a problem.”
This streamlined expectation can also have harmful effects later in life, Healy said.
“I have seen in my lifetime as a professional so many people who tragically have the most awful images of themselves as an adult having been a failure in kindergarten,” she said. “When you try to force everyone in the same box you lose an immense amount of potential.”
Before the United States can reverse these statistic, and the impacts of the high-pressure education system, education policy makers need to return to an emphasis on learning, Abeles said.
“All of our films and books call on everyone to redefine success away from a culture that is obsessed with busyness, competition and measurement, and instead shift that vision to develop students’ love of learning and make meaningful connections,” she said.
The problem is a result of how society in the United States has shaped the expectations of children, Abeles said.
“This is a cultural issue, and our culture influences what are in our schools,” she said.
In her newest documentary, Beyond Measure, Abeles profiles schools around the country that have returned to an emphasis on learning and are changing their teaching methods within the public education system.
“All of these people that we feature in the film are transforming their culture from the inside out,” she said. “They are not waiting for policies to change or college admission to change. They are moving away from an education system that promotes learning competition… and to something that is much more innovative and ultimately puts students and their learning at the center of their work.”
A district in Kentucky, one of the communities profiled in the film, for example, has established an inquiry-based learning system based on the learning styles of young students. This includes assessments involving research projects, science experiments and thesis-style papers, Abeles said.
Catering the educational experience to how children learn sets an example for other districts and can be done within state mandates, she said.
“High-stakes testing is a small obstacle in terms of creating innovations,” she said.
Children in the United States take two to three times more district exams as state exams, according to the Center for American Progress study. With state required examinations less of a factor in testing, reforms such as those mentioned in Beyond Measure may become possible at the local level.
“I think we need to trust in our students and our educators more and we need our school communities to develop the learning experience,” Abeles said.
In order to effectively work with student needs and learning abilities, educators and education policy makers need to gain an understanding of child development and psychology, Healy said.
“It needs to change in order to be confident with what we know about child development and what we know about the realities and practicalities of what we know about real children,” she said. “I am not convinced that bureaucrats understand these issues very well.”
Widespread misunderstanding of brain differences contributed to the marginalization of students from an early age. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, for example, is likely a misunderstood brain difference, Healy said. Approximately eleven percent of children in the United States ages 4 to 17 years old have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2011, according to statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Diagnosis levels have shown an upward trend in the past decade.
“[It is] probably some sort of brain difference that can be made worse by the environment,” Healy said. “A lot of very high energy, very successful, very creative people have shown symptoms in their lifetime of what we call ADHD.”
ADHD, according to Healy, has no clear diagnostic test and is often diagnosed when a child does not fit modern classroom expectations. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, to be diagnosed with ADHD a child may undergo a multi-step test, displaying symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. These symptoms are similar to anxiety, depression and certain learning disabilities, according to the CDC.
Implementing change at the classroom and district level in order to accommodate for these brain differences is in the hands of the educators. According to Ellen Mandinach, Educational Psychologist and Senior Research Scientist at WestED, teachers, when given the right tools for decision making, can have a direct role in crafting a system that is best suited for children.
Mandinach advocates for data-driven decision making based on qualitative information regarding a student’s attitude, level of motivation and engagement, health data and other factors to best accommodate individual learners.
“When people think data, they think tests and that’s not necessarily true,” she said. “What we are trying to appease the notion of is that data are only quantitative test results… It’s impacting in a great way because what it does is it brings it down to the level of a class of students, a group of students, [and] individual students to help more accurately identify what their learning weaknesses and their learning strengths may be to then customize instruction accordingly.”
Beyond the data, however, the human aspect of education needs to be addressed. A grassroots, district and classroom level movement can begin when educators and policy makers look beyond the statistics on paper and toward the development of the child brain, Healy said.
“Understanding the problem and realizing that it is a political problem as well as a human problem is probably the beginning of wisdom,” she said. “…The real question is how we teach kids to be wise? How do we teach kids to be human in the truest sense?”
The young boy in Healy’s classroom, writing his name as the other students work on their assignments, is a human with a different mind than that of the child next to him, flipping through the words of Jane Austen and Emily Brontë. While some students may find traditional educational systems beneficial, it is for those young minds that are outside of regimented confines that the problems must be addressed. Various perspectives of intellectual processing, alternative ways of thinking and individual learning methods must be accepted within the system that is already in place in order to make public, mainstream education accessible to everyone.
Emma Rizzo is a senior journalism major with a concentration in kickass narrative ledes. You can email her at [email protected].