Jewish World Review August 20, 2002 / 12 Elul 5762

Thomas Sowell

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"Teaching to the test" | Florida's school year has already started early, so that its students will have more preparation before the state-mandated tests that will be administered to them later in the school year. Meanwhile, there is much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth because so much classroom time is spent "teaching to the test" as our "educators" put it.

Unfortunately, most of the people who call themselves educators have not been doing much educating over the past few decades, as shown by American students repeatedly coming in at or near the bottom on international tests. That is why some states are trying to force teachers to teach academic material by testing their students on such material, instead of relying on the inflated grades and high "self-esteem" that our schools have been producing, instead of knowledge and skills.

While our students spend about as much time in school as students in Europe or Asia, a higher percentage of other students' time is spent learning academic subjects, while our students' time is spent on all sorts of non-academic projects and activities.

Those who want to keep on indulging in popular educational fads that are failing to produce academic competence fight bitterly against having to "teach to the test." It will stifle "creativity," they complain. The author of a recent feature article in the New York Times Magazine declares that "genuinely great teaching -- the sort of thing that Socrates and his spiritual descendants have delivered" will be discouraged by having to "stuff our charges with information" in order to pass tests.

If there has actually been such "genuinely great teaching," then why has there been no speck of evidence of it during all these years of low test scores and employer complaints about semi-literate young people applying for jobs? Why do American students learn so much less math between the fourth and the eighth grade than do students in other countries? Could it be because so much more time has been wasted in American schools during those four years?

Evidence is the one thing that our so-called educators want no part of. They want to be able to simply declare that there is genuinely great teaching, "creative" learning, or "critical thinking," without having to prove anything to anybody.

In states where tests have been mandated by law, the first order of business of the teachers' unions has been to introduce as much mushy subjective material as possible into these tests, in order to prevent anyone from finding out how much -- or how little -- academic skills they are actually providing their students.

The more fundamental question is whether our educational establishment has even been trying to impart academic skills as a high priority goal. Over the past hundred years, American educators have been resisting the idea that schools exist to pass on to the next generation the basic mental skills that our culture has developed. They have said so in books, articles, speeches -- and by their actions in the schools.

Since the rise of teachers' unions in the early 1960s -- which coincided with the decline of student test scores -- the education establishment has increasingly succeeded in de-emphasizing academic skills. In that sense, our schools have not failed, they have succeeded in changing the goals and priorities of education.

Despite all-out efforts by the education establishment to blame the declining educational standards in our schools on everything imaginable except the people who teach there -- on parents, students, television or society -- the cold fact is that today's students are often simply not taught enough academic material in the first place. Even if there were flawless parents, perfect students, no television and no problems in society, students could still not be expected to learn what they were never taught.

In fact, it is a lot to expect the teachers themselves to teach what they do not know or understand. Tests have repeatedly shown, for decades on end, that college students who go into teaching score at or near the bottom among students in a wide variety of fields. No wonder they dislike tests! And no wonder that they find innumerable fads more attractive than teaching solid skills, which they themselves may not have mastered.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late.


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© 2002, Creators Syndicate