Is the Culture of U.S. Education Based on Productivity & Consumption?

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Is the culture of U.S. education based on productivity and consumption?

In the eighth decade of the 20th century, E.F. Schumacher wrote about the scale of things in his book Small Is Beautiful (Library Copy).

For a moment lets consider that achievement score levels are analogous to consumption, as normally understood economic’s speak. Fair enough?

In each of these contrivances, more is portrayed as better. Getting a score of 95 on test is considered better than a score of 85.  Being able to consume more products is considered better than not.

But is there value in discussing optimal achievement and consumption?

Schumacher thought so. In the matter of optimal patterns of consumption, he writes:

The optimal pattern of consumption, producing a high degree of human satisfaction by means of a relatively low rate of consumption, allows people to live without great pressure and strain and to fulfill the primary injunctions of Buddhist teaching: “Cease to do evil; try to do good.” As physical resources are everywhere limited, people satisfying their needs by means of a modest use of resources are obviously less likely to be at each other’s throats than people depending upon a high rate of use. Equally, people who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on worldwide systems of trade.

Let’s apply this theorem to learning and achievement test scores.

Since 2002, when the No Child Left Behind Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Bush, the nation’s schools have been forced to increase the levels of achievement scores for all students on standardized tests, year after year.   Although achievement levels of students have increased over the period 2002 – 2012, there is dissatisfaction with the results, and indeed, schools have been told that they must push students to higher levels of achievement if the nation is grow and be competitive economically at the global level.

When we stand back and take look at the situation, we see that increasing the productivity and consumptive power of students in schools is a major goal of the NCLB Act, and the most current plan, Race to the Top (follow this link for a series of articles on why I think the Race to the Top was a bad idea).

In the economic realm, increasing the consumption function of people is critical in an environment where the goal is to incase production of goods and services.  Schumacher, as have others, question this, and wonder if this creates an unsustainable society.

In the education realm, we have borrowed this kind of thinking and have insisted that students increase their productivity on achievement scores, or else.  And this is especially critical if you are a teacher, because your merit, your value, your value as an educator is “measured” by how much your students increase they productivity.

In our testing culture we have created an unscientific appraisal of student achievement, and have established a system in which students’ achievement scores can be used to decide their achievement level as:

  • Basic
  • Proficient
  • Advanced

To give you an idea how this really looks in our educational system, I’ve created this chart (Figure 1), which shows the math scores for 8th grade students from 1996 – 2012.  The graph shows the average productivity (achievement level) over this period for all students.  It’s the orange line on the graph.  It fall between “basic” and “proficient.”

The chart also includes additional data comparing students who are eligible for free or reduced lunches vs students who are not eligible.  It’s clear that there is a relationship between poverty and achievement.  The productivity of students who are eligible for free or reduced lunches is significantly lower in each year of testing.

igure 1.  Long term trend scores 8th grade math comparing all students by eligibility for free or reduced lunch.  Cut off scores are included for these achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced.

Figure 1. Long term trend scores 8th grade math comparing all students by eligibility for free or reduced lunch. Cut off scores are included for these achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced.

But we need to ask about the achievement levels that are shown in Figure 2.  The achievement levels in math are shown for 4th, 8th and 12th grades.  The scale scores can range from 0 – 500 on NAEP tests.  As long as we use standardized tests to assess students, we simply see the same increases in achievement scores shown in Figure 1, and will reduce to curriculum to the shortsightedness of standards-based tests.

Figure 2. NAEP Mathematics Achievement Levels by Grade

Figure 2. NAEP Mathematics Achievement Levels by Grade

If we were shift our priorities away from test scores, we would open school learning to a world of creativity and innovation.  Teachers would be free to practice their craft by designing curriculum that was based more on the needs and aspirations of their students.



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