With the semester over and summer quickly approaching, I sit here reflecting on the past school year. Thankfully, there were some shining moments for my two kids, my hundreds of students and the many schools I work with nationwide. But as a parent, professor and psychologist, I still have one main educational concern that still rises above all the rest. Can you guess what it is?
If you think it is test scores, you are only half right. We don’t need to be concerned about test scores, because we know where they are going. Despite the obsession with standardized testing in the USA, our test scores have been falling steadily for more than a decade. And rest assured, that with the adoption of the new Common Core Standards, test scores will continue to fall.
I cannot understand why we keep thinking that adopting new standards, new curriculum, and creating new standardized tests is the answer to academic success. We seem to take a slightly-modified version of this same approach every three to five years after failing to make what our lawmakers call Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). History and logic suggest that if we continue to take the same ineffective approach with higher expectations we will continue to get the same undesirable results. And if Vegas had odds on this prediction I would probably be willing to invest my 401k. My concern for our education and students is something much more personally imperative to kids than raising their test scores a few percentage points. Can you guess what it is?
My belief, and what decades of forgotten research documents for us, is that if we strategically focus on the social side of education, better academics will follow. This is why I believe we need to get back to inspiring tomorrow’s citizens to greatness; not academic proficiency. My concern and sincere hope is that we can find a way to redirect our education policy so educators can once again more seriously focus on the number one concern parents of all walks of life share.
That concern, my main concern, is insuring the physical safety, and social emotional wellbeing (aka mental health and positive natural development) of our children. At the end of the day, all I really want is to see my children arrive home safely and get off their school bus with a smile.
Now some experts would think such concerns of safety are uncalled for. They want us to believe violence in schools is steadily dropping annually. I guess if you wear doctor prescribed blinders, or can only focus on one thing at a time due to an extreme Adderall addiction, some statistics do suggest the experts have a point. The number of student to student acts of violence has declined steadily during the past decade or so. But when you look at the whole picture, though the number of incidents might have dropped, reality would suggest the severity of such acts has reached a level never imagined.
We, and more importantly our students and educators, will never think the same way, recover or heal completely after the tragic events taking place in our schools today, such as the shootings at Sandy Hook or Columbine where this nightmare basically all started. In the USA, every month if not sometimes every week, it seems we hear about another shooting, bomb threat, or major act of mass violence taking place in our schools. Just a month ago, before the first bell for class even rang, a small-framed troubled kid with kitchen knives from home stabbed and sliced more than 20 students in a Pennsylvania high school.
And rest assured there are many more acts and threats of violence that our 24-hour crisis news gurus don’t cover in lieu of more important headlines… such as spending one more day, one more week, one more month, hyper-focused on the unfortunate missing Malaysian Jetliner. Sadly, I must admit I watched Anderson Cooper ask the same questions for weeks on end, and only hoped Courtney Love did indeed locate the plane via Google Earth. But such news coverage of events so far from home, so detached from what is really important to families, is trivial to so many other challenges our children face daily in our schools.
After one gets by the shock and horror of such senseless acts taking place in schools, the first question we often ask is “Why” did these possibly Columbine-inspired perpetrators do it? Were they driven to such actions due to possibly being bullied, ostracized, desensitized to killing via over exposure to violent media or video games, or struggling with side effects or withdrawal from dangerous psychotropic drugs? Unfortunately, evidence and research would suggest it could be a combination of such factors. Many of the shooters have been bullied. Preliminary evidence also suggests that during the past fifteen years, in nearly all mass shootings at schools and on college campuses, the shooter was either currently taking or suffering from withdrawal from a prescribed psychiatric drug (e.g., ADHD drugs). With too many young souls being traumatized in our schools, or even worse lost forever, it is beyond time to reconsider what SHOULD be the main priority of our education.
To some, the most important input to schools is more instructional minutes to teach new curriculum, and the output is test scores. The fact that we spend far more billions of dollars on standardized testing than apparently everything else combined, is evidence that our kids safety and helping each student prepare for the test of life is far less important than preparing them for a life of tests. But how can such standardized test scores be more important than providing the basic human needs that Maslow determined to be first and foremost in order to even pursue enlightenment? How can standardized testing deserve more money and attention than just first doing everything we can to guarantee and provide basic safety, healthy food that is actually edible (and doesn’t arrive at the school in microwave-able bag), and a nurturing learning environment capable of inspiring kids to grow academically but also equally important become more caring and contributing citizens?
The sad part is that since we started forcing standardized tests on our schools, the extreme acts of violence have continued and only worsened in severity. We have moved further and further away from our education’s original goal to develop a workforce of dedicated community members. The testing has only contributed to leaving more children left behind. Since we developed this testing obsession, we have gone from worrying about falling from being one of the best education systems in the world to annually producing a body of students that can’t score better than average to below average in comparison to other industrialized nations. Since we started spending billions in the pursuit of prepping for the test, and for some teaching to the test, we have lost sight of what our education system must do first; serve as a social incubator for our children.
Research shows that approximately 32% of our students from elementary to high school are being bullied. Close to a third of our students, more than 3 million, drop out every year because they do not find school meaningful to their goals or feel like no one cares about them in the school. Of those who actually graduate a high percentage are not prepared for college. The situation is so bad, nearly 50% of our new teachers leave the profession within 3 years, and many of our best more seasoned teachers are seeking early retirement or leaving the profession for greener pastures. With stats like these who needs test scores to confirm the failure and challenges of our current approach?
Luckily, there are educators out there, playing the testing game, but also doing what is right. They are putting the personal development of each student ahead of test score concerns. Thankfully, there are organizations such as Rachel’s Challenge, started by the family of Rachel Joy Scott (the first student killed at Columbine), helping schools focus on a process to build a much needed chain reaction of compassion in education. Fortunately, even the US Department of Education and Department of Justice recently have released grant monies to help schools focus on reducing violence and building healthier school climates. But how does $100 million in grants focused on building the social side of education even compare to or compete with the exponential billions of dollars more spent on testing? And how can educators put climate and safety first (actually be student directed) when they are told their job security rests upon annually increasing tests scores; and basically nothing else?
As a result, unfortunately, some educational administrators are forcing “bad testing” students to leave the school and do their coursework elsewhere online. Other educators, as my research has discovered are lining up kids before meals to get their “medicine.” For no good reasons they are serving breakfast to 4.5 million kids for ADHD and millions more for autism and depression that consists of dangerous, addictive Schedule II narcotics similar to Meth, Cocaine and Opium. Yummy! They are doing this just so the non-conformist kids, bored with the testing focus, won’t disrupt the all-so-critical instructional minutes. And unfortunately, if these approaches don’t work, some teachers are willing to erase the wrong answers given by kids on the achievement tests just to keep their jobs.
Many of the eggheads and bureaucrats, at the highest levels and darkest halls of our government, want to act like fixing this broken education system rests upon some Einstein-ian algorithm. But if they would just take a moment to listen to educators and parents, or here is an idea… the KIDS, they would learn the remedy is quite simple. All that most of these kids need is a dream and inspiration. Kids’ brains are like a sponge. If you pour to much liquid in the sponge nothing will be retained. They need to be able to exercise regularly and have more free time to unwind and use their creative minds. Kids don’t need more instruction; so leave art, music, physical education and vocational trades in the curriculum. They don’t need more drugs. They need to feel unthreatened by their peers and cared for by their educators. They need loving parents and caretakers that truly take an interest and active role in their education. They need love and for some they need tough love and more help from professionals not pushing pharmaceuticals.
When you set aside (or statistically control for variables such as) the socio-economic status of our children (i.e. the income and educational level of their parents) and the IQ they are born with (both are things we cannot fix at a macro level), what is most predictive of better academic grades is more parent involvement and more inspirational teachers. With positive more dedicated adult role models and mentors we can then increase student motivation to learn and increase the positive feelings kids have for schools. With all of these factors we can also increase their intrinsic motivation to want to succeed.
And when we realize this as a nation, our teachers will stay longer, work smarter, and enjoy their careers more intrinsically. Our kids will actually want to go to school, and smile more when they get off the bus. Our test scores will increase by default, and you can spend all of those billions of dollars on so many other things actually meaningful to education.
What SHOULD be the #1 priority of our schools?
KIDS! Not test scores!
They deserve nothing less.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.