Make Motivation First

There’s only one thing wrong with testing—and that is that testing alone cannot improve education.

It’s that simple, really. And we’ve all heard it said. Yet it seems to be the one thing that Shael Polakow-Suransky, soon to be Cathie Black’s number two in the New York City School system, doesn’t understand. Yes, better testing improves the information available to educators and, yes, “’Until we start seeing assessments that ask kids to write research papers, ask them to solve unfamiliar problems, ask them to defend their ideas, ask them to engage with both fiction and nonfiction texts; until those kinds of assessments are our state assessments, all we’re measuring are basic skills.’” But none of this will improve education by itself.

Not even if it is used as a tool to weed out bad teachers will testing improve education. It’s not bad teachers, after all, who are holding our students down—for all the anti-union people would like to believe. Firing teachers doesn’t raise test scores (even assuming that test scores are an adequate rating of education).

At best, test scores can help identify problems. They can’t solve them.

The problems we face in education don’t come from low test scores, and won’t go away even if scores go through the roof. The problems come from attitudes in our society towards education, problems created and/or exacerbated by politicians, parents, and school administrators. Oh, and by our continued divisions of race and class (but that’s another story). The problems come from society’s failure to motivate its students.

We have turned education into a commodity, something that can be improved by imposition of standards, as though education were a car that needs to meet certain requirements to be allowed on the road. And we have turned the student into a consumer, into the person buying that car. Or, at least, into the person who will be driving it.

Oddly, our concentration on the car forgets the driver. The education (the product) needs to meet standards, but the student (as a person, not as a test-taker) does not. It’s as though we believed that, if the car is safe enough, we don’t have to worry about the driver.

Standardized assessment ends up focusing on the product, the car. It’s as though we’re giving driving tests to thousands of people at once, then blame the auto manufacturers for the resulting demolition derby.

To improve education, we need to stop focusing on the vehicle and to pay attention to the individual driver, to the student. To each student. In particular, we must focus on those things that can motivate individual students to succeed in school.

If students are not motivated to learn, they will not learn. You can provide the best schools and the best teachers, and still the education will fail.

As a society, we seem to have decided that the only motivation is economic. A good job at the end—isn’t that motivation enough? Well, no. Education is much more than job training; the motivation needs to be more, too.

Talking about motivation leads one to talk too much in generalities, but motivation is different in each individual case. So it becomes extremely difficult to identify factors leading to student motivation to learn. Impossible, in fact—unless we look to the individual student, and not to the aggregate.

And how do we do that?

First, we stop focusing so on the product, the education itself, and expand our vision to include the family and the neighborhood. The family is where motivation begins, and where the individual is best understood—and the neighborhood provides an important first milieu, the place where attitudes are developed, confirmed, and amplified.

Until we stop thinking that we can improve education through a focus on evaluation of schools and teachers, one that relies heavily on standardized tests, we will never see American education get better—not even if, as Polakow-Suransky would like, we improve our tests to the point where they evaluate something beyond basic skills.

A motivated student will learn, no matter what the situation—look at Frederick Douglass. Look at Malcolm X. An unmotivated student will always fail.

In terms of education, our job (as Americans) is to see that means of motivating students are in place—and only then that our schools provide the best possible means for education, making sure that future students won’t have to educate themselves on their own, but can do so with the assistance of competent teachers and adequate schools.

No amount of testing will accomplish this.

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