Education notes

by David Safier

A few short, related, education-in-the-news takes:

1. One of the latest education buzz terms is "value-added," meaning teachers are successful if they increase the learning of their students. Though the concept is obviously true, using standardized tests as the measure of "value" is fraught with problems. A review of the literature from the National Education Policy Center indicates that students who do poorly on the official state tests often do considerably better on "a test designed to measure higher-order, conceptual understanding." This raises the question: is a teacher whose curriculum emphasizes learning that increases state test scores at the expense of "higher-order, conceptual understanding" adding more value than another who pays less attention to the state test's mandates and more to developing the less easily tested, more conceptual thinking?

Be careful what you test for. You just might get it.

2. NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has written books on China and is fluent in (I believe) Mandarin, wrote a column Sunday about the high scores on international tests in places like Shanghai. While the story in the U.S. is that we're losing the education race to other countries, parents in China are concerned their schools are "creativity killers." 

In Xian, I visited Gaoxin Yizhong, perhaps the city’s best high school, and the students and teachers spoke wistfully of the American emphasis on clubs, arts and independent thought. “We need to encourage more creativity,” explained Hua Guohong, a chemistry teacher. “We should learn from American schools.”

The truth is somewhere in between. Chinese culture, and many other Asian cultures, put tremendous value on education. In China, the paramount importance of passing high stakes tests goes back centuries. This emphasis promotes high achievement among students from families with this educational focus both in Asian countries and here in the U.S. But there are serious questions about whether the creativity and independent thinking encouraged in U.S. schools, sometimes at the expense of the accumulation of knowledge and skills, is a highly valuable and underrated part of our educational culture.

As Joni Mitchell sang, "Don't it always seem to go/ That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." (If anyone quibbles about my using a line with grammatical "problems" to speak about the value of our educational system, well, I rest my case.)

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