NCLB and outside-the-box education
This is a response to kn_parent, who commented on the previous post. Originally, I thought I would make a responding comment, but then I realized I had more to say than would be suitable for a comment; rather, a whole new post is in order.
One of the points that kn_parent agreed with me on was that children need more than just the book learning that they get in regular school. The sort of education that the kids got participating in the Kid Nation reality show involved community building and problem solving, skills that are not given much emphasis in modern school curricula.
Part of the blame can be attributed to the No Child Left Behind act. While the general purpose of the act is well intended, the execution has not been good. The emphasis is now on students being able to pass standardized tests, with harsh penalties for schools whose students don’t do so well. The result is that teachers feel pressured to teach “to the test” – that is, they concentrate on making the students memorize the material that will be covered in the standard tests, rather than teaching more useful skills such as problem solving and critical thinking.
Before President Dubya came to Washington, he was the governor of Texas. Under his administration, Texas implemented a form of NCLB that was highly successful. The success of the Texas program was part of the reason Congress enthusiastically approved NCLB for the whole nation.
In Texas back then, as in the nation as a whole now, there were worries about how well NCLB would work. One of the biggest fears, then as now, was that teachers would stop teaching what students really needed to learn and just concentrate on passing the standardized tests. Texas Monthly magazine reported on a study that analyzed the effects of Texas’ NCLB program a few years after it was begun. (It was 1996, if I remember correctly, in the September issue.)
The interesting finding of the study was that the students who did best on the standardized testing were NOT the ones whose teachers taught “to the test”; rather, the students who did best were those whose teachers taught problem solving and critical thinking. In other words, force-feeding a bunch of facts for kids to memorize, even if those facts were aimed specifically at the tests, was less effective than teaching kids how to think. What matters most is not knowing the answer; it’s knowing how to arrive at the answer. If you think about it, it makes sense – which is better, memorizing a million facts, or learning a couple hundred principles that lead to those million facts, and a few million more?
I see this with some of my own students. In their previous educational experiences, they have been presented, for example, with a run-on sentence, and they’re supposed to tell whether it’s a run-on sentence, a sentence fragment, or grammatically correct. They just make random guesses. They have never been shown how to take a sentence apart and figure out what the parts are. What I show them is how to dismantle the pieces and see how they work together.
The kids on Kid Nation were given the opportunity to go way outside the box. Those who weren’t home-schooled exchanged 25 days of NCLB-oriented indoctrination for 40 days of problem solving and critical thinking, in a healthful outdoor environment. If the results from Texas a decade ago are any indication, the Kid Nation kids ought to do just fine on the NCLB tests.