'Teaching to the test': Part II

Thomas Sowell
Posted: Aug 21, 2002 12:00 AM

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.

At the heart of the problem of educational failure is the low academic quality of the people who become teachers and principals. This low academic quality has been documented by empirical research so many times, over so many years, that it is incredible how this crucial fact gets overlooked again and again in discussions of the problems of our schools.

So long as teacher training courses in education schools are Mickey Mouse, they are going to repel many intelligent people who would like to teach, and we are going to be left with the dregs of the college students. When the resulting pool of "certified" teachers consists disproportionately of these dregs, do not expect them to be even intellectually oriented, much less intellectually competent.

It is impossible to understand what is happening in our schools without understanding the kind of people who run them. But, once you see the poor academic quality of those people, you can easily understand why textbooks have been dumbed down and why there is such bitter opposition by educators to letting exceptionally bright children be taught in separate classes with more advanced material. Do not expect intellectual losers to look favorably on intellectual winners.

Such teachers are the natural prey of education gurus pushing non-intellectual fads with glittering names. If you got rid of every single counterproductive fad in our schools today, but left the same people in place, this would lead only to a new infusion of different counterproductive fads tomorrow.

And there would still be the same bitter opposition to "teaching to the test," which spoils their self-indulgences.