An education in curiosity

Two Steps Forward

Every day from second through 12th grade, I commuted half an hour to a small private school in upstate New York. The Kenyon mansion (formerly an IBM lab) housed the high school — meaning that I had the pleasure of taking math class in the building where the first pocket calculator was developed. My graduating class consisted of 18 people. We called our teachers by their first names. There were no grades.

 Though its nontraditional approach to education allowed for many opportunities not offered by more linear schools, I think what the school did best was foster a love of learning. Its idiosyncratic course options (“Black Holes and Time Warps” and “World Design,” for instance) gave us a taste of how wide the informational horizon really was. So I sought out knowledge far beyond the old walls of Kenyon House — in books, on the internet and in the discussions I had with peers, parents and strangers. Once on a shuttle to Grand Central, I discussed the concept of machine intelligence with a woman who, it turned out, was a pastor. Her sense of the beauty of the world was infectious, and I still think about our conversation to this day. I am fortunate to have received an education not only in academic subjects but also in open-mindedness.

During my schooling experience, my teachers made it abundantly clear how shallow they believed the SATs and APs to be. Not only did this give us incentive to learn the required material (once we got it out of the way we could start on the real stuff), but it also provided valuable perspective on what was important. The tests were just a small fragment of the totality of our education. If we let them dominate our intellectual lives, we’d be forsaking whole vistas of more interesting and likely more useful material.

Many, however, are not so lucky. In many places, tests are the gold standard. What’s worse is that learning is further obstructed by such things as budget restrictions -— LA county schools have suffered a $1.5 billion budget cut in the past two years -— and crowded classrooms — from 1997 to 2005, the average class size in LA rose from 19.9 to 27.7. According to a 2008 Department of Education report, only 20 percent of students in “large central cities” attained a level deemed proficient according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test administered to all fourth-, 8th- and 12-grade public school students. LA clocked in at a depressing 12 percent. This is a sad state of affairs, made sadder by the fact that these tests were created in order to boost the students’ performance. Clearly something is getting in the way of  productive education.

Efforts to improve the state of public education have focused mainly on greasing the skids of the current system rather than rebuilding it. The No Child Left Behind Act sought to level the playing field by implementing “State assessment systems designed to ensure that students are meeting challenging State academic achievement and content standards,” which is to say, by adding another battery of tests to the already-impressive arsenal wielded by the public school system. The act received mixed reception from teachers across the country — while some teachers reported that it helped identify students’ problem issues, others said it contributed to “score inflation,” whereby children are taught to score better on tests without deeper knowledge of the material. You’ve probably experienced this yourself, if you’ve ever memorized a list of terms or esoteric equations for a test and then never used them again. In both cases, the underlying theme is the same: Increased testing results not in increased knowledge, but in more focus on testing. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy — a bubbled-in Ourobouros.

This is not to say that these tests have no place in the modern educational landscape.

With the numbers of students applying to college each year, it is useful to have some sort of concrete rubric to rank them; in underprivileged communities, there is value in setting quotas for achievement. But we stand to lose a lot if we let ourselves be blinded by the numbers and led to believe that an SAT profile or a chart of STAR scores is a complete portrait of a child.

By relying on these limited analyses, we miss the majority of each child’s development. Worse, we risk depriving those children of their own sense of wonder, crippling them intellectually and creatively for the rest of their lives. This should be avoided at all costs.

 A more effective way to nurture the intellects of our country’s youth is to teach them to learn for themselves, as I was taught. Even if their school districts are impoverished and embattled, they have public libraries. Even if they’re struggling with math, the internet is full of educational games. Our world is ripe with democratized information, more so than ever before in history. Teaching children to access the vast amounts of available knowledge is the best possible way to impart that knowledge to them.

Jacob Straus writes the Monday column on progressive issues. Contact him at [email protected]