“What path innovation?”

Posted by Butch Owens on October 12, 2010

Are common standards and national tests the panacea for our nation’s woes?  Some seem to think so, but I’m not so sure.    Just last April I had the opportunity to hear Yong Zhao, author of Catching up or Leading the Way,  speak at our annual Leadership 3.0 Symposium.   He argues that while for years, politicians and the public have been looking for what is wrong with American education by constantly comparing the test scores of American students to those of students in such places as Russia, Japan, Singapore, and China, test scores don’t measure how well a country itself is doing. One striking example is how far America is ahead of all other countries in the number of patents issued; China, by contrast, is ahead in toy production.

The irony is that while we are busy trying to catch up with countries that have better test scores, those very countries are trying to emulate our educational system—or at least the one we used to have.  China, Korea, Japan and Singapore, for example, all have national initiatives to move their educational systems toward more local control, more autonomy, less emphasis on test scores determining a student’s or school’s future, and greater choices for the individual.  These are traditional characteristics of our system which have contributed to our success in turning out well rounded and innovative citizens.  And all of the latest literature argues that the ability to innovate is what we need in the future.

How would you judge an effective school?  Here are some top criteria on my list:

  • The number of  varied opportunities a student has beyond the core academics
  • The degree that students enjoy their school and feel they are important
  • Teacher behaviors that convey the expectation that all students can learn
  • Opportunities for students to progress at their own rate
  • Strong art and music programs and curricular activities that connect students to school

When you look back on your school days, is it the test scores that really motivated you to excel, or all of the opportunities you had to be an individual and find your own purpose and passion?

Take away those things that have enabled our system to produce the inventors and innovators of today and what will be left?  At best, a technically capable American engineer competing for the same job as an equally capable engineer from India who will do the job for $7500 a year.  A better alternative is an educational system that creates an American engineer with not only the technical skills but the imagination, innovation and creativity to design the new ideas that will need the $7500 a year engineer in India to help develop.

In an earlier post I wrote about what students really need to know and learn in school in this 21st century and ended with  the comment, “If it’s easy to test, it’s easy to digitize, and if it’s easy to digitize it can be done easily by a computer.”  What we really want are well rounded, innovative students prepared for a lifetime as productive, innovative citizens.  Will common standards and national tests ensure that outcome?

As you ponder that question, listen to Harry Chapin’s “Flowers Are Red“; how common do we want our standards to be?

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