All Articles Education When we get there, are we going to be happy we arrived?

When we get there, are we going to be happy we arrived?

4 min read


Seemingly everything we do in education is about standardized tests. If we cannot put it in a narrow slot and measure it, it is not worth doing. It also appears that what we test changes regularly, kind of a “this is the most important thing in the world; no wait, this is the most important thing in the world; no wait …”

Well, if we are putting everything else aside while we center on these narrow skills, we need to be confident that this really is the most important thing in the world — because, unfortunately, it is becoming the only thing in the world (except maybe reducing childhood obesity).

If someone decides that flipping a coin with your right hand is the most essential skill in life, and we spend all of our time and energy helping students master this, I hope it isn’t decided at some point that the person meant the left hand. And then if it turns out that the person actually did mean the left hand, when we master that, have we actually accomplished anything of value? I think we can help students get better at almost anything. The point of education is to help students achieve the most important things.

There is no question that testing has made us more intentional in what we do. Curriculum mapping, developing outcomes, etc., have sharpened the focus of all educators. But at what cost? One grave concern is that this emphasis holds back the best teachers. Why would we split the atom when we are testing only for the definition of photosynthesis? Why should we move on to three-digit addition when we measure only at the two-digit level?

The best teachers have always taken their students to heights never achieved by others. They help young people dream and believe. When you think back to the best teacher you had, you still get goosebumps remembering what that was like — how the person made you feel so smart and so special. Do we really want to take this away?

I always tell my children that a follower is never going to cure cancer. And, personally, I would like someone to come up with that solution as soon as possible. However, if it is not on the test, can we ever get there? If we visualize each student as a jar of potential, our responsibility is to take the lid off and point the jar in the right direction, not tighten the top so the highest level of creativity never gets out. The U.S. became a great country by doing new and better things, not by repetitively enhancing minimal skills. A friend of mine once said, “If we want to get to the moon, we cannot just keep building faster trains; at some point, we are going to need a rocket.”

By limiting dreams, we also limit possibilities. Confidence is the most valuable gift a teacher can give. We have to make sure that this is what is at the end of our educational path. Otherwise, our journey will have been for naught. The best teachers instinctively know this. They know what is right and wrong and what is best for students. Let’s make sure we do not limit them by placing restrictions on what they do. The best teachers do not need research to lead them down the correct path. We need them to forge ahead to discover solutions for the rest of us, and then we need the research.

Todd Whitaker (@ToddWhitaker) is a professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University. He has written 30 books, including “What Great Teachers Do Differently,” “What Great Principals Do Differently” and “Shifting the Monkey.”