Using Achievement Scores to Support Myths and Build Fear

There was an interesting discussion in Yong Zhao’s book, Catching Up, or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization about how John F. Kennedy used the launching of Sputnik to suggest that a “Missile Gap” existed between the United States and Soviet Union, that the United States was behind. It turns out that the so called Missile Gap did exist, but it favored the United States. The myth of the gap became a truism in American culture, and it started us on a long path of using myths to feed the fear factor, and use this to satisfy political, economic or educational goals. In Kennedy’s case, it helped him get elected in 1960.

In today’s culture, politicians and especially business leaders, have perpetuated the myth that academic achievement in a few subjects is the most important outcome of schooling, and that indeed, there is a huge gap between the achievement of students in the United States and its counterparts in other industrialized nations. Furthermore, these same politicians and business leaders would have us believe that there is a serious decline in the supply of high-quality students from the beginning (the end of high school) to the end of the Science & Engineering “pipeline.” Both of these cases are myths—that U.S. students do not achieve at high levels, and that there is a serious shortage of high quality persons for science & engineering. They are perpetuated to fulfill the needs and desires of officials whose best interests are served by claiming such weaknesses in the American educational system (see Lowell & Salzman).

The Race to the Top Fund showcases these myths, and uses them to determine the criteria upon which proposals submitted by the states (one per stste) will be judged a winner and therefore eligible for some if the $4.3 billion.

Even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is providing 20 states a quarter of a million dollars in expertise and funds to prepare Race to the Top proposals due January 19th. It’s also been announced that those states that did not submit a proposal to judged in phase one will receive funds for June 1 submissions.

There is a lot of hysteria around the Race to the Top. For example in Georgia, a writer in the Atlanta Business Chronicle said “Georgia must win ‘Race to the Top”, and indeed again connected the economic well being of the state or nation, you take your pick, with the achievement scores of students in school. The problem is there is no clear evidence that student achievement scores are directly related to the nation’s or state’s economy—as much as the business community would have us believe.

Since 1983, when the Federal report “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” was published by the U.S Department of Education, these same business and political leaders have used the rationale that there are major economic “threats” to the United States because of the performance of American students compared to students in other countries. Although U.S. students perform at high levels on these international tests, business/political leaders focus in on countries that score higher than the U.S. in math, and then conclude that these countries pose a “threat” to the U.S. economy. These countries include Singapore, Latvia, Belgium. Threats? I don’t think so.

I am not suggesting that financial support in the form of grants from the Federal government should not be enacted. Quite the opposite. I am, however, arguing that the underlying principles upon which States will be funded in the Race to the Top Fund are flawed, and based on myths and feed on fear that America’s educational system is in a race with other nations, and that we should fear a few smaller countries scores on very narrow achievement test scores.

If we look at any indicator used by these same business and political leaders, American students have continued to show improving scores on SAT, ACT, NAEP and on international tests including TIMSS and PISA.

So what is going on? The desire of the power brokers is to control and manage education, and use a simplistic business model to regulate schooling,and assume that the fundamental purpose of schooling is to increase test scores in math and reading, and hold teachers and administrators accountable for these same test scores. This leads America toward a more deeply authoritarian approach to education, the antithesis of what education should be a democratic society. What is needed is a paradigm that would foster critical and creative thinking, innovation, and a focus on helping students learn how to learn. We need a broad curriculum not a narrow one.  We need a curriculum that values the arts just as much as the sciences—we need to go well beyond math and reading and engage our students in real problems that are set in their lived experience.  This is of course the paradigm of learning that I have been advocating on this website—-the humanistic science paradigm of learning.

I’ll explore these ideas in more detail in the days ahead. In the meantime, I invite comments on these ideas. Am I out of sync? What do you think?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University