A tenth-grade classroom in an affluent suburban high school stands out in my mind from a trip I took three years ago to visit 200 schools in all 50 states, where I spoke with thousands of students, teachers, administrators, policymakers, business people and others who have a stake in our education system.
In this classroom, students sat silently at desks neatly aligned in rows, filling in worksheets. Some seemed focused on the task, knowing these worksheets were good preparation for the SAT exams that are key to getting into a quality college. They’ve been told this is the only clear path to a secure future. Others fidgeted at their desks, stared out the window, or watched the clock, wondering how the material could relate to anything they might encounter in the real world.
The teacher later shared with me some novel ideas on how he’d like to run that class. But instead of engaging students on his terms, he was required to drill them on the skills needed to boost scores on state-mandated standardized tests. Scores from these poorly-designed tests affect the school’s reputation and funding, leaving administrators with little choice but to dictate a “teach to the test” curriculum. It’s no wonder that many teachers feel demoralized by the futility of this wrong-headed approach.
This experience was typical of high school classrooms I observed, across varied geographies and economic classes, in public, private and charter schools. It is the all-too-common product of a testing-obsessed education system.
Allow me to explain. The recently released 2017 National Assessment of Education Progress, more commonly known as “the nation’s report card,” shows that for 15 years, test scores have barely budged. Across six key measures — reading and math proficiency in fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades — the greatest rate of compound annual growth is 0.3 percent. Five of the six scores changed by 0.1 percent or less. In other words, our system has failed to make progress on its stated goal.
Why is the 15-year timeframe important? It coincides with the implementation of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 legislation signed into law by President George W. Bush, which put standardized testing at the center of our education universe. President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and Every Student Succeeds Act further escalated the role of standardized testing. In spite of significant increases in per-student spending since 2002, we’ve succeeded only in becoming the world’s leader in creating and administering standardized tests.
Perhaps most importantly, this singular focus on testing has impaired our ability to prepare students for life in the modern world.
My career as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist gave me a firsthand view of the innovation economy, its demand for creative problem-solvers, and the emergence of machine intelligence that is marginalizing or eliminating millions of jobs. I grew increasingly concerned that by measuring our schools on their ability to produce students with low-level skills needed to improve standardized test scores, we were not preparing children for challenges and opportunities of the innovation era.
Driven by this concern, I’ve spent the past decade trying to understand our education system and searching for what works in the field. This led to my nationwide school tour in 2015-16.
Contrast that scene in the tenth-grade classroom with an eighth-grade history class I visited in Fargo, North Dakota. This classroom buzzed with activity as students worked on a project they chose: capturing the stories behind historic buildings in their city. The project involved researching buildings, interviewing adults and sharing their findings through digital storytelling techniques. Instead of rote memorization of historical facts, these students were learning to think like historians — and enriching their community as they learned.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, students at a public charter high school helped a local minor-league soccer team craft its social media strategy. The project required skills including writing, graphic design and applied math. Most of these students struggled in traditional schools, but here they were motivated by the opportunity to help a business solve a real problem. And they developed useful post-graduation skills.
How do students in such non-traditional learning environments fare on standardized tests? One answer comes from Eminence, Kentucky, which adopted a student-driven, teacher-guided approach that trusts students to “own their learning.” Students spoke with passion about their projects to address issues in their school and community. Eminence schools don’t teach to the state-mandated tests, but their high schoolers score in the top 5 percent of Kentucky’s students.
When I embarked on my tour, I expected to see plenty of the “drill and kill” approach portrayed in my first example — and did. But I also found remarkable classrooms and schools that are experimenting with the type of collaborative, project-based learning that I witnessed in Fargo, Albuquerque and Eminence. These innovative approaches popped up in affluent and underserved communities, in public, private and charter schools.
Innovative teachers across the country are paving the way for meaningful change in our education system. They help students learn to collaborate, prioritize, negotiate, problem-solve and innovate — skills needed to thrive in this century. Such innovations didn’t come from distant government officials, committees of academics, or mega-foundations; they were created by inspired teachers and nurtured by administrators who trusted them and willingly bucked the system.
These remarkable examples suggest that we should turn to our teachers to lead the way forward, with support from principals, school boards, parents and communities.
It won’t be easy to wean ourselves from standardized testing and the false comfort of its data. But our nation’s future depends on emphasizing higher-level skills. By fostering and scaling innovations such as those I saw in many classrooms, we can create a more meaningful report card and make progress on goals that matter.
Ted Dintersmith is one of the nation’s leading voices on innovation and education. His four-decade career spans technology, business, public policy and education philanthropy. He was the executive producer of the acclaimed documentary, “Most Likely to Succeed,” and is the author of the new book, “What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America” (Princeton University Press).