Where should we focus our efforts?

Posted on May 31st, 2012 by David Coffey

During the Second World War, Allied bombers were sustaining heavy damage from flak and bullets while flying missions over Germany. Many of these bombers failed to return to their bases in Britain. A study was conducted of the damage done to the planes that did make it back which resulted in a proposal to add armor to those areas that had sustained the greatest amount of damage. This would have been a costly undertaking as it meant spending valuable resources on refitting the planes. Furthermore, the extra armor would make the bombers heavier and less maneuverable. Had this effort been carried out, it most likely would have failed.

From Digital Roam

Fortunately, a Hungarian mathematician, Abraham Wald, had another perspective. Why not reinforce those parts of the bomber that had not been hit? He had noticed a different pattern in the shot-up planes. Each had avoided damage in similar spots, and Wald reasoned that these were vital areas that needed to be protected. After all, these bombers had successfully returned from their missions in spite of the damage they had received.

The Allied Command followed Wald’s suggestions. (A collection of his memos can be found here.) However, I believe education reform is missing the wisdom of his message. This came to mind while watching Yong Zhao’s keynote at the AACTE 2012 Annual Meeting. The keynote starts about 18 minutes into the video.

Recent education reform seems obsessed with test scores and how we compare to the rest of the world. The narrative is that our standardized test results show that our education system is full of holes. The truth is that, “American education has always been bad.” [32:33] Poor test scores are not a recent phenomenon. In the 1950s, our test scores were worse than those in the Soviet Union. “We have had over a half-a-century of bad education according to some measures.” [40:49]

Much like Wald did, Zhao interprets the data differently. While many in education reform attack American schools for instilling confidence and enjoyment in learners at the expense of test scores, Zhao sees these characteristics as related to our entrepreneurship capabilities. In other words, focusing on high test scores means embracing conformity at the expense of what has always been our national strength – creativity.

Unfortunately, the current wave of education reform is focusing on the perceived gaps rather than our successes. Yes, we have holes but these holes have not kept us from being successful. Still, we seem committed to embracing standards-based test-prep while eliminating the arts. If we do not listen to the wisdom of Wald and Zhao, we will spend a lot of resources to fix what is not really important and make our education system less flexible as a result.




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