With every assessment of the world’s education programs, it seems that the U.S. falls further from its once-revered position as the intellectual center of the universe and into mediocrity. One such study, conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), ranked the U.S. 17th out of 50 participating countries, behind Finland, South Korea, and Canada, among others.
The EIU conducted the study over the better part of a decade, taking into account a combination of international test scores, literacy rates, and graduation rates between 2006 and 2010. It did not, however, include the area in which the U.S has annihilated all competition—confidence.
From birth, recipients of an American education are acclimated into a climate of obdurate denial, taught to repudiate the metric system and to view the acquisition of a second language as a superfluous and menial task to be taken on later in life. As this attitude of passive superiority has come to pervade American classrooms, large blocks of legislation have been passed in order to sustain the illusion that our system is not broken.
Educational institutions are faced with more restrictions each year, both in the form of state-mandated standardized testing and various consequential accountability statutes, most famously the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation. Under such laws, states must set a universal standard to be met by all students and administer yearly tests in order to receive federal funding. Students and teachers are left scrambling to get students a passing grade by any means necessary, often just barely succeeding.
Aside from the glaring fact that the system put in place by these laws has left millions of children behind, it sets dangerous precedents for the way we view the overall goal of American education. By withholding federal funding for schools on the basis of state-created standardized assessments, the government has created an educational culture of the test. Whether a child is able to reach high school graduation as an educated and well-rounded individual has become secondary, at best (and forgotten, at worst), so long as he or she looks like one on paper.
In no area is this flaw more evident than in the various special education programs around the country, which have undergone their own processes of standardization over the course of the past decade. In a wave of what has been referred to by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center as “mainstreaming,” students with various disabilities spend a greater amount of time in the same classroom as their peers than ever before, engaging in the same low-grade clerical work and preparing for the same standardized assessments. All children are made to meet the same standards in math, science, and language, and they are placed on the same track for doing so, the only logical end to which seems to be a post as a college professor.
At no point in our history has the range of talent, interest, and learning ability in any particular classroom been more diverse. More children attend school than ever before, and the tools for providing them with a comprehensive and individualized education have become exponentially more accessible with the advent of various technologies. And yet, our methods for educating students have grown broader, more regulated, and further streamlined.
Rather than modifying or supplementing the material taught to students with disabilities, teachers must prepare them for mandatory testing in subjects that have remained unchanged since the inception of public education in 19th-century industrial society. While the means for doing so have improved, the question remains as to whether these tests have any benefit on the overall education of a student diagnosed with “special needs”—a term that has itself become more general over the years.
What was once an exclusive and relatively misunderstood group comprised of severely disabled children has become a much larger body of students at all levels of functionality. According to data collected by the EIU, the number of students diagnosed with disabilities and enrolled in special education programs increased by nearly 700,000 between 1993 and 2009—a jump of about 55 percent.
In that time, a standard group of modifications and accommodations has come about to aid these students in passing the federally mandated standardized tests that have become increasingly popular. Students are given extra time and access to computers in order to complete the tests, as well as readers and scribes to provide a more effective means of interacting with them. Rather than facing the problems with the material, we have found a way to cheat the system, moving children through material they have not internalized by way of an arbitrary passing grade.
Every hour a student with special needs spends preparing for and taking these standardized tests is one that he or she might have put to good use mastering the very skills that this system has absolved them of any obligation to acquire. Critical thinking, professional writing, and the expression of one’s own ideas are among the most important qualities in a potential employee for any position—yet, they are abandoned in favor of rote mechanics and test preparation. Thus, the current special educational system does a terrible disservice to its students, especially the 80 percent who enter directly into the workforce upon graduation.
Reforming our educational system must come with the realization that many children have neither the desire nor the ability to spend a life in academia. Rather than attempting to make it appear as if they do, administrators must strive for accomplishment through effectiveness and practicality, leaving behind statistical illusions of success.
Featured Image by Jordan Pentaleri / Heights Editor