A High-Stakes Feedback Loop
There are twin, parallel forces slowly severing learning from American education.
If it seems contradictory that “learning” could somehow be separate from “education” (one is the purpose of the other), consider that standards for credentialing overwhelmingly rely on time spent in an educational environment (school attendance) and discrete performance indicators (standardized tests). Possibly no one explains the fundamental gap in our priorities more eloquently than Sir Ken Robinson in his TED Talk.
Despite their best efforts, neither of these measures of education guarantees learning; more alarmingly, neither is immune to the interference of grade inflation and school athletics.
This is exactly what it sounds like: over time, American schools and universities have gradually increased the proportion of high grades awarded to students, and reduced the proportion of low-to-failing grades.
Every level of schooling is permeated by the understanding that performance markers matter more than actual learning: do well now, and you can be assured of a good spot for the next grade; good grades now, and you can get into a good college; good college, so you can be assured of the best possible network and job opportunities.
Teachers, in turn, have their own perverse incentives to tilt the academic scales in favor of their students.
“…rather than some top-down directive from administrators, grade inflation also seems related to a steady creep of pressure on professors to give higher grades in exchange for better teaching evaluations,” wrote Catherine Rampell in a recent Washington Post opinion piece.
Outside of universities, alarm over instructors “teaching to the test” accompanies every iteration of standardized tests, whether they come as part of No Child Left Behind, Common Core, or state-specific approaches to academic gatekeeping.
With both funding and enrollment on the line, Rampell characterizes the grade inflation cycle as an arms race, writing, “Without collective action — which means both standing up to students and publicly shaming other schools into adopting higher standards — the arms race will continue.”
The same arms race that is driving the trend of grade-inflation is also spurring the continuous elevation in the stakes of youth sports participation.
Any social or developmental benefits of youth sports participation–teamwork, leadership, how to set and achieve goals, etc.–tends to be buried under the intensely costly, hyper-competitive context that has come to define modern sports culture.
The financially lucrative status of professional sports has trickled down like a Reaganomics fever dream, permeating youth sports all the way down to the earliest childhood years. The promise of entering a professional draft, getting a college scholarship, making the high school team–they all blur into a continuum of pressure, over-training, and upfront investment of time and money that chains families to the system indefinitely.
The professionalization of athletics at every level, by extension, compromises the academic mission running in parallel to athletics: athletes need relief from the pressures of schoolwork (grade inflation) so they can better focus on coping with the pressures of their sport.
Academics hardly needs the added pressure to compromise standards from athletics. Already, the helicopter parent hyper-focus on grades and standardized outcomes obliges administrators and teachers to compromise. This biased pressure ensures that preconceived student outcomes are recorded, without respect to actual performance, merit, or learning.
When you stop and ask, “Why?” the structure of much of what passes for education looks rather self-serving. Students need good grades to advance and access new educational portals; teachers need happy students to receive better professional report cards, and grades have become an informal currency they may trade for this purpose. Standardized test scores let us judge our collective performance, as well as individual student and teacher competence; at the occasional expense of more holistic learning and intellectual development, teaching refocuses entirely to accommodate these discrete measures, and learning may or may not follow.
“Why?” might be the foundation for a powerful, self-guided pathway of real learning. As Sir Ken Robinson explains through his TED Talks, curiosity is fed and satisfied by engaging with the world through the lens of “Why?”. When the “Why?” is a matter of advancement, discrete performance, competitive advantage, and self-preservation, learning is all but abandoned. It strips play from participation in sports; it raises stakes and reduces satisfaction.
There is an upward limit to how far these stakes can be raised. With the emerging data on sports injuries and the physical and mental costs of participation becoming painfully clear, it would appear we are finally hitting the ceiling on the youth sports arms race.
Personalized learning platforms, online on-demand delivery, and evolving tech-driven learning solutions answer “Why?” in a different way than schools have managed to do in the new century. Digital playgrounds and social platforms reunite experimentation, engagement, and play with learning, without escalating the cost/benefit equation of participation.
They also frequently cannot answer the question of “Why?” with any formal certification or broadly accepted acknowledgement of accomplishment. Learning in the digital arena is exclusively personal, unless it bridges back into a brick-and-mortar institution.
The popularity of free/cheap online tools, toys, and platforms for self-guided and informal learning activities underlines the fallacy of the front-loaded model dominating American academics. People want and need to continue learning throughout their lives, and without the barriers that high-stakes systems have created.
The forcing function of innovation looks poised to topple the tower of academia.
Picture by Eduardo Carrasco via Flickr