Thomas Sowell

One of the objections by the educational establishment to state-mandated tests for students is that this forces the teachers to teach directly the material that is going to be tested, instead of letting the students "discover" what they need to know through their own trial and error, under the guidance of teachers acting as "facilitators" from the sidelines.

In other words, the students should not simply be taught the ready-made rules of mathematics or science but discover them for themselves. The fact that this approach has failed, time and again, to produce students who can hold their own in international tests with students from other countries only turns the American education establishment against tests.

Discovery learning is just one of the many fads in education circles today. Only someone with no real knowledge or understanding of the history of ideas could take such a fad seriously.

It took more than a century of dedicated work by economists of genius to arrive at the analysis of supply and demand that is routinely taught in the first week of Economics 1. How long are novices in economics supposed to flounder around trying to "discover" these same principles?

Nobody believes that the way to train pilots is to let them "discover" the principles of flight that the Wright brothers arrived at -- after years of effort, trial and error. Would anyone even try to teach people how to drive an automobile by taking them out on a highway and letting them "discover" how it is done?

The issue is not what sounds plausible but what actually works. But judging one method of teaching against another by the end results that each produces is the last thing that our fad-ridden educators want. That is at the heart of their objections to having to "teach to the test" instead of engaging in "creative" teaching and "discovery learning" by students -- as they arbitrarily define these terms, and simply assume that these methods work.

The education establishment's bitter opposition to the testing of students by independent outsiders with standardized tests is perfectly understandable for people who do not want to have to put up or shut up. For decades, the ultimate test of any teaching method has been whether it was fashionable among educators.

Educational philosophies that have been put to the test in other countries -- Russia in the 1920s and China in the 1960s, for example -- and which have failed miserably there, as they are now failing here, continue in vogue because there are no consequences for failure here. Not so long as teachers have iron-clad tenure and get paid by seniority rather than results.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate