We’ll begin this week’s essay with a nod to Walt Disney, who coined the term imagineer seventy years ago when he founded WDI (Walt Disney Imagineering), the design and development arm of the Disney Company. This essay, however, will not deal with anything as entertaining or enjoyable as Disneyland. Quite the contrary, it is more about what might be called Dismal-land – the failing state of public education in America. American public education is, by any reasonable standard, in a state of decline, and, if we don’t quickly turn it around, America will also find itself in a state of decline.
We’ll largely (but not entirely) skirt the political hot-button issues of teachers’ unions, tenure and unaffordable pensions, because we believe there are even more urgent problems plaguing American education. Public education in America is sacrificing the nourishment and early development of our children’s imaginations upon the twin altars of conformity and achievement testing. It is folly.
While we have, in the past, written at some length on the crisis in American education, we are revisiting the issue given the availability of recent data, which ironically, demonstrate an exceeding poor correlation between what we spend on education and how well our students learn in school. The international rankings of American students are abysmal. Our kids ranked 25th out of 30 advanced nations in math and 24th in science, and barely average in reading comprehension according to The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). And it isn’t for want of spending either. Only Switzerland spends more per student among the numerous countries measured.
So, we in America spend more per student, much more, than just about everyone else, but we rank near the bottom in science and math and barely average in reading comprehension. What does this portend for a nation desperate for economic growth, desperate to reduce its debt (which now exceeds the size of its entire economy) and desperate to revitalize its middle class? It portends a very gloomy future, indeed, unless we dramatically alter the course on which we find ourselves. Thus, this essay is an urgent call to begin that course correction.
Imagination is the essential requisite to innovation; and innovation will be what is needed in the years ahead to drive economic leadership and an America that can, once again, thrive. The early nurturing of imaginative thinking among our primary-school children is what will enable them to achieve their full potential, and what will assure that we have a chance to maintain international economic leadership as today’s students take their place as adults in a complex and increasingly competitive world. Yet, sadly, imagination seems to be the attribute around which we detour in our rush to standardize what we expect of our students.
Imagineering (to borrow from Mr. Disney) will be as essential as engineering in the brave new world that lies before us. No Child Left Behind, as well intentioned as it may have been, promises to leave every child behind as we strive for early achievement (quantified by achievement testing) in reading, writing, language and handwriting skills and even early use of electronics in the classroom. What’s the hurry?
Standardized achievement testing in our primary schools is, we believe, a type of child abuse when we train young minds to test well instead of nurturing young minds to imagine, to experience wonder in the sound of music, or leaves rustling in a breeze, to visualize unconventional abstractions of shape and form and to create things, something…anything.
Albert Einstein instinctively understood the power of a fertile young mind. He wrote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
When years of political profligacy and irresponsible spending causes pervasive budget crises throughout the land, our schools rush to cut funds for “Art Education” as though we are wasting money on frivolous expenditures. Perhaps, we should change the name of the curriculum to “Imagination Enhancement” or “Introduction to Innovation.”
A second grader who hears and recognizes a discordant musical note, or visualizes whatever beautiful music brings to mind, or one who understands the role that each of six measured ingredients play in making delicious French Christmas cookies may be demonstrating every bit as much, or greater, aptitude for an innovation-centered career than a child who has memorized his multiplication tables by the second grade.
Standardized achievement testing in primary schools is, of course, but an indication of where our expectations are focused, and that’s the problem. Children are not like standard issue products. They have tremendous thinking and imaginative capacity that, to the extent possible, should be turned loose in the early school years. Children in a variety of private schools here and abroad that delay emphasis on reading and writing and language in the early years, and instead concentrate on a wide variety of learning experiences that foster creativity and curiosity, and an appreciation of the world around them, quickly catch up when tested against their “achievement-oriented” peers.
According to the December 2011 Harvard Education Letter, which analyzed the alternative Waldorf schools, “Waldorf students tend to score considerably below district peers in the early years of elementary education and equal to, or… considerably above, district peers by eighth grade.” Certainly, the 80-year old Waldorf schools, which originated in Austria, and which have experienced dramatic growth in the United States, aren’t unique. Finland, which eschews testing in its primary schools, educates its students for about 35% less than we spend per student in America, and their students out perform American students by a country mile. So how do these systems, which lack early testing and rigorous early academics, outperform the U.S. on the very tests they aggressively shun? This is not a particularly perplexing question, and the answer seems rather obvious.
The impressive success of a variety of private alternate education systems such as the Waldorf system, the Montessori schools and John Dewey’s Lab School at the University of Chicago (to name but a very few), and the spectacular track record of countries, such as Finland demonstrate the wisdom (and the value) of programs that are student (rather than curriculum) focused, and which recognize that primary school is the ideal time to concentrate on the nourishment of imagination. Imagination is an incredibly powerful resource, the development of which can be compromised by early and over-zealous concentration of the so-called three r’s, or handwriting and other testing-oriented curricula.
Alternative education has a long and tumultuous pedigree in America. Once largely the province of families whose primary concern was the lack of religious or spiritual orientation in traditional public schools, the alternate education movement now attracts millions of students whose families simply believe their children deserve better than what traditional public education is providing. There was a time when parents who tried to home-school their children were prosecuted, and threatened with loss of custody of their own children. It wasn’t until 2000 that an unlikely Supreme Court majority consisting of Rehnquist, O’Conner, Thomas, Ginsburg and Breyer established, in Troxel versus Granville, that parents had the right to direct the upbringing of their own children.
Politics still roils attempts to reform public education as evidenced by the near shutdown last year of Washington D.C’s highly successful school voucher program for low- income families. The NEA has vigorously opposed the program, and it was only through the insistence of House Speaker John Boehner and a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in Congress that the program was extended. Neither President Obama nor Secretary of Education Duncan supported extension of the program, although we suspect that, but for union pressure, both would have been sympathetic to its continuation. But politics being politics the President’s 2013 budget request, were it approved, would zero out funding for the highly successful program.
Many public education systems now do provide publically supported alternatives such as charter schools and state-sponsored cyber schools. The internet also now hosts numerous accredited alternatives to public education and many parents are availing themselves of these home-school alternatives rather then letting the quality of available public education dictate their children’s future.
We share a growing concern that the panoply of early achievement tests to which our youth are being subjected reveals little about their real potential, either their strengths or weaknesses, but which will, in effect, determine their presumed intellectual identity.
We are certainly not among the first to call for a major overhaul of public education. Forward thinkers have long advocated a very different approach to public education. John Locke, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Francis Parker, Jacques Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Rudolph Steiner, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, and countless others, spent much of their lives crusading for a better approach to public education.
The products (alumnae) of these alternate approaches to public education shine in virtually every field of endeavor. Top achievers in business, economics, politics, science, literature, sports, performing arts, indeed, every field are abundantly represented among those who began their education in school systems that took an alternate path to educating their young students.
There is no magic here. These are not alternate approaches to education that need cost more per student, nor invest more heavily in technology or require particularly expensive facilities or lavish salaries for instructors. What they all have in common is simply a focus on inculcating and nourishing the most important attribute schools can help develop in their young students. Imagination!