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All Work And No Play

By Sharna Olfman

Given that education reform is now spearheaded by politicians and the corporate elite rather than by experts in childhood, it comes as no surprise that the "accountability" movement, now in its 20th year, and its handmaiden, the "wired classroom," have not only failed to improve education, but indeed, have undermined it. Recent results of the congressionally mandated National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly referred to as the Nation's Report Card, which has been assessing school performance for almost 30 years, reveal that states with the highest stakes attached to standardized testing are more likely to perform below average on the NAEP, whereas states that give minimal import to standardized tests are more likely to perform above the average. Furthermore, in 1998, the highly acclaimed Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), which compared a half-million students from 41 countries, revealed that U.S. high school seniors were tied for last place in math among developed nations.

'Teaching to the Test': Narrower and Shallower

The impact of tying teachers' and administrators' bonuses, salaries, and job security; state and federal and funding of schools; and students' graduation to standardized tests is that teachers are compelled to "teach to the tests." The tests, which are usually multiple-choice, merely sample the curriculum and do not assess depth of understanding, meaningful application of knowledge, or original thinking. Consequently, the curriculum becomes narrower and shallower, and drills, rote learning, and practice tests increasingly dominate the teaching methods.

Peter Sacks in Standardized Minds notes that James Stigler and his colleagues from UCLA demonstrated this by analyzing videotapes of Japanese, American, and German high school math classes as part of the TIMSS assessment: "[R]ote, mechanical, and superficial teaching was far more evident in the American classrooms than in Japan." The Japanese lessons covered much less content in any given class as compared to the American lessons, but did so for the purposes of achieving depth of understanding, and meaningful and creative application of the concepts.

In the race for high test scores, kindergarten students and even pre-schoolers are now subjected to a similar barrage of academic drill work at an age when they are meant to learn through play and hands-on experience. If the NAEP and TIMSS results are any indication, these teaching methods are unsuccessful; yet, they are being introduced at increasingly younger ages, in the vain hope that they'll somehow "take," if we start young enough.

Screens in Preschool: 'Failure to Connect'

A very similar scenario prevails with respect to computer use in the classroom. As Jane Healy documents in Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds and What We Can Do about It, children with specific handicaps and older children benefit from thoughtful applications of computer and Internet technologies. But their use with preschoolers and children in the early grades actually undermines the very skills that they are intended to support: literacy, higher-order thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Even when young children learn to decode the words on the page with the aid of reading software, they are often unable to understand what they have read, let alone apply the knowledge meaningfully, a trait that Healy terms "alliteracy." And certainly, the pervasive presence of screens in our culture undermines the desire to read. As Barry Sanders argues in A Is for Ox, the proliferation of screen technologies actually threatens to eradicate literacy.

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