Education and the Element of Creativity: a response to Diane Ravitch

As I sat in my chair listening closely to the famous scholar Diane Ravitch speak about education in United States, I could not help but agree with most of, if not, all of what she had to say in regards to the flawed educational system presently established in the United States. For example, she confessed that the reason behind the inadequate test scores of students across the United States has less to do with their individual ability and more to do with inadequate funding and a dependence on standardized testing which is supplemented by a faulty curricula. She first highlighted that poverty is a main cause of low test scores because it influences all aspects of a student’s life, then explained that standardized testing combined with the continuous reliance on the Common Core Initiative has negatively influenced the growth of students, as well as the perceived occurrence of bad teachers.

Instead of constantly over-testing students, Ravitch believes that we must begin to foster the type of student who asks the right questions and questions the right answers. These students should not be assessed based on whether they filled in the correct answer, but, instead, on whether they are kind, creative, and willing to think differently.

In response to her empowering beliefs, I found a strong connection between her perspective of education and Ken Robinson’s (2009) notion of the Element. Robinson explains that the element is the manifestation of one’s potential that is individually unique yet a universal variable that exists among those who discover what they love to do and what they are good at (p. 27). By examining the individual journeys of notable societal figures such as Matt Groening (creator of the Simpsons), Paul McCartney (member of the Beatles), and Gillian Lynne (accomplished choreographer), Robinson emphasizes the need to educate children not through a rigid hierarchical formula that elevates the importance of socially compliant behavior and standardized content but rather using a flexible, individualized framework that favors creativity and divergent thinking to help find that special, life-enriching element. As Ravitch explained during her lecture, as well as in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, we must provide universal childhood education, reduce class sizes, provide a well-rounded curricula that emphasizes the arts, must teach more and test less, and allow teachers to decide the standards for standardized tests.

In her response to the Common Core Initiative, Ravitch (2011) believes that instead of emphasizing the vague notion of “analytical skills required for success in college, career, and life”(par. 2, Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2015), it is more important that “A well-educated person has a well-furnished mind, shaped by reading and thinking about history, science, literature, the arts, and politics. The well-educated person has learned how to explain ideas and listen respectfully to others” (p. 16). As she touched on during the lecture, music can be an ideal tool for accomplishing this goal because it promotes the need for individual improvement and work ethic, working as a group to achieve a single goal, and allows for experimentation and creativity.

Based on my personal experience of having been nurtured in a local school district, but also taking part in my high school marching band, I absolutely agree with Ravitch’s claim. After graduating high school, I believe that music has improved my work ethic and further fostered creativity to a far greater extent than the rigid schooling framework I experience within the Common Core curricula. In the end, as both Ravitch and Robinson emphasize, education should foster creativity in the development of one’s character and the goal of education should be shaping an individual who is not only capable of thinking critically but unafraid of thinking differently. Therefore, I agree with their perception of education to the highest degree. 

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2015). English Language Arts Standards. Retrieved from 

Ravitch, D. (2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. Basic Books.

Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. The Element: How finding your passion changes everything (2009), pg 15. New York (USA): Viking.

The Downward Spiral of the American Education System

I obtained my Bachelor’s degree in Adolescent Education and Social Studies from St. John’s University in Queens, New York in May 2011 and was excited to find a full-time teaching position for the upcoming school year. After endless interviews, I received the phone call I had been waiting patiently to hear. I was offered a full-time teaching position for a public high school in Brooklyn, New York. I was full of excitement and enthusiasm as well as nervousness at the realization that I was about to be in charge of my own classroom and hundreds of adolescents. I was ready to take on the challenges that would ensue as I tried to make a difference in children’s lives and prepare them for their futures. I had always felt that some sacrifice on behalf of the teacher was necessary to ensure student success; however, I was completely unprepared for the realities of being a full-time teacher and the extent of sacrifices I would have to make for students, particularly in an inner-city school.

After the first few days of school, I was in complete shock and baffled by the education system in which I was teaching. I did not quite understand the circumstances in which I found myself. I had thirty-four students in each class composed of gifted students, on-level students, below-level students who were unclassified, students with disabilities of varying types and degrees, and English language learners who had multiple first languages and whose English abilities ranged from extreme beginner to advanced. I was trying to teach students who literally had no interest in learning and whose absenteeism was abysmal. Student behaviors portrayed a complete lack of respect for authority figures as well as peers, and undermined all efforts by the teacher to educate students who truly desired to learn. Parental involvement was almost nonexistent. I was supposed to prepare students for college and career readiness, but the majority of students had basic elementary level literacy skills. Additionally, hardly any students had been exposed to computers or any form of educational technology. Lastly, my administration and colleagues offered no support or guidance in how to teach this vastly diverse set of students. I came home everyday and cried due to the frustration and intense level of stress I was under.

I looked back upon my own education and acknowledged that I had been sheltered in some way from the realities of the world. Perhaps while growing up there were students who I attended school with that were not interested in learning; that had high rates of absenteeism; that did not complete their homework; that did not study for exams; that had behavioral issues and interrupted the learning experience for their peers; and that had no parental support at home, but I was never exposed to these types of students. I was on the advanced track in school. I took honors classes as well Advanced Placement and college-credit courses. I virtually spent my entire education with the same forty students who were similar to me, and perhaps, were all from the middle class, where resources were in abundance and parental support was the norm. We were chastised for our bad behaviors and bad marks in school and were taught to perform well in order to secure a successful future for ourselves. None of what I had known and experienced throughout my own education was apparent in the system in which I currently taught. I was bewildered and confounded.

Here I am, three years into teaching, and I contemplate leaving the profession. The American education system values conformity over individuality and self-expression. As Sir Ken Robinson stated in his talk Changing Education Paradigms, the American education system has become a factory system where we dole out students who are unable to think for themselves, but could state facts verbatim. Each student is expected to master the same reading, writing, and mathematical skills, but not to find passion in other subjects, which are now neglected in schools, such as the arts and trades. The curriculum encompasses a “one-size-fits-all” model, but each child is unique and should be taught to strengthen and foster their individual talents. Few of my students in Brooklyn fit this “one-size-fits-all” model that the American education system has created.

Diane Ravitch further supports the holistic education of children in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, where she stated, “We must make sure that our schools have a strong, coherent, explicit curriculum that is grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, with plenty of opportunity for children to engage in activities that make learning lively” (p. 13). The No Child Left Behind (2001) movement has taken the liveliness out of learning in favor of standardized testing that further alienates students who do not do well on these types of exams as well as teachers who are held fully accountable for students’ results. In my opinion, the Common Core Curriculum Standards do not accurately represent the student body of America today. The standardized tests and the new national curriculum merely reflect the goals and abilities of the elite, who have access to resources and parental support. These exams do not reflect the melting-pot culture of America, but merely the culture of our forefathers and colonial America. The American education system needs to reflect the changing times and experiences of current learners, like those who make up my inner-city public school in Brooklyn. How will America help all children excel in education, and not just the elite or native-born citizens? Reforms to education are needed, but not the type of reforms that critique and punish teachers who devote their lives to mentoring students and preparing them to become successful citizens. In its current state, the American education system is a downward spiral with no turnaround in sight, and it is our children who continually suffer the mistakes of bureaucrats who have never experienced the teaching side to education, yet tell educators how to teach.


Changing Education Paradigms by Sir Ken Robinson.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books.

Some thoughts on Vietnamese education after listening to Diane Ravitch’s talk at Lehigh University

The talk by Diane Ravitch at Lehigh University made me reflect on Vietnamese education system. Though I have been working as a teacher in Vietnam for 12 years, attended numerous training courses, and listened to a myriad of talks about education reform in Vietnam, I have never had an opportunity to listen to any educators who can vehemently express disapproval of the current education policies. What I heard about school reform in the US in Diane Ravitch’s talk brought me a refreshing experience and helped me better understand Vietnamese education.

Since “Doi Moi”(renovation) process in 1986, together with the economic reform, Vietnamese education has undergone significant reforms in education and has seen certain achievements. However, teachers and students who implement and are supposed to benefit from these reforms are almost always voiceless. There are articles in the media criticizing some aspects of the education system. However, in Vietnam, it is nearly impossible to find an education activist like Diane Ravitch or Sir Ken Robinson who can overtly criticize national education reforms, arguing they are killing students’ inquiry, creativity, and critical thinking, and propose that drastic measures should be taken to transform education rather than reform a failing system. There was once a high-school teacher in Vietnam who quite often publicly fulminated against the corruption in the Vietnamese education system. However, his debating points were not well-received by most people who were used to taking the negative sides of the public education system for granted. After several years of being the lightning rod of criticism, his voice in the fight against education corruption is no longer heard.

Quite different from public education in the US, Vietnamese public education is not threatened by educational privatization because public schools are recognized to be of higher quality than private ones.  However, there is still a need to protect public education as the ‘civil rights issue of our time’ in Vietnam. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights by UNESCO,  which was passed nearly seven decades ago, states that “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.” However, that right is not entirely ensured in Vietnam. Because public schools are underfunded, some students cannot enjoy free K-12 education.  Tuition and other hidden fees can become a burden for many households of students, including even primary students. The dropout rate after primary education is high, especially among students in rural, mountainous areas because their families cannot afford their education and/or child labor is more valuable than school attendance. Diane Ravitch is absolutely right when stating that poverty is among the root causes of low education standards.

Though there are no incentives and sanctions imposed on schools and teachers based on the results of high-stakes standardized testing in Vietnam. These tests not only drive teachers to teaching to the test, cause hierarchy among subjects, and lead to feeling “shame” and further marginalization among marginalized youth (Rich, 2003), but also make most students resort to purchasing private tutoring and consequently create “teacher corruption” (Dang, 2007). Unlike the US where low-performing students are offered free tutoring, private tutoring is a thriving market in Vietnam in which students (and their parents) – whether they are low achievers or high achievers – are the eager buyers of tutoring services, hoping to enhance their children’s academic performance and teachers are enthusiastic sellers, aiming to supplement their low income (Dang, 2007; Kim 2013). Private tutoring in Vietnam is not borne by the government’s encouragement to enhance the quality of public education like in the US. Its existence instead may threaten the quality of mainstream education. Private tutoring may “create disaffection” at school because students are bored with over-learning or they have learn the contents in advance during tutoring lessons. In addition, tutoring can decrease the effectiveness of teachers. Teachers may teach less during the school day to save their energy for the after-school tuition (Buchman, 1999) and students may have to attend lessons to please teachers (Dang, 2007). High-stakes standardized testing in Vietnam indeed directly or indirectly creates a fertile ground for private tutoring, which deepens the social inequalities between the rich and the poor, the rural and urban areas, and becomes a financial burden for many families.

I am totally convinced by Diane Ravitch’s argument that testing is “undermining education” and students’ academic performance and achievement should be evaluated through a process of learning rather than merely the test scores.  In order to improve education, we need to enhance the quality of teachers’ professional lives and increase their salaries rather than threaten to fire them. Above all, tackling poverty-related matters is the key to improving educational standards.


Buchman, C. (1999). “The State and Schooling in Kenya: Historical Development an Current Challenges.” Africa Today, 46 (1), 95-116.

Dang, H. A. (2007). The determinants and impact of private tutoring classes in Vietnam. Economics of Education Review, 26(6), 683-698.

Kim, H. K. (2013). An analysis of the causes of shadow education in the era of the schooled society. The Pennsylvania State University.

Ravitch, D. (2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. NY: Basic Books.

Rich, W. (2003). Historical high‐stakes policies relating to unintended consequences of high‐stakes testing. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice,22(1), 33-35.

From Afghanistan to the United States in search for “Best Practices” that don’t exist

Attending the education activist Diane Ravitch’s talk was an eye-opening experience for me. Before coming to the United States, I thought that I would learn “best practices” and “policies” from the U.S. education system and try to implement them in Afghanistan to solve some of education problems Afghanistan faces. However, I was not well aware of the drastic problems within the school reform in the U.S.

Ravitch’s talk flagged many problems with the U.S current education. In her talk, she engaged the audience in a marvelous imaginary debate with a school reformer. The reformer argued that public schools are failing, because they are not doing well on standardized tests. The reformer also emphasized that, since the test scores are declining, drastic measures are needed to save the nation and make it more competitive in a global economy.  Reformer further stated that teacher should be held accountable for student failures on standardized tests. If students do not perform well, according to reformer, the solution is to fire teachers. Ravitch raised a question, why shouldn’t teachers have a job for life?  Because firing teachers will not solve problems facing the field of education.

Ravitch’s counter arguments were very convincing.  In her talk, as well as in her book ‘The Death and Life of the Great American School System’, Ravitch argues that standardized testing has led school districts to narrow down the curriculum. Therefore, some subjects (such as art or history) are not perceived as important as math and science that dominate standardized tests. As Ravitch’s stated in her speech, this leads to more problems. Since students are more exposed to math and science rather than liberal arts courses, the system makes students more clerk-minded. While student may not know who the president was during the Civil War, they would know well how to eliminate answers on a multiple-choice test. Education thus becomes equated with either passing or failing the standardized test.

However, if students are failing the standardized tests, it’s not because teachers are not performing well. If the system insists on evaluating the teachers based on students’ standardized testing, why not use the same standard to evaluate lawyers? State legislators? Members of Congress? Governors? Why would they blame teachers for the failure of students instead of looking for faults in the system or considering the effects of poverty and segregation on poor student performance?

The fixation on standardized testing changes how we understand the purpose of education. With such a strong emphasis on tests, we are moving further away from what Dewey defined as “Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living” (p. 54). In order to know the real meaning of education, we should not prepare students to be as clerks but rather students with a higher aim in their lives.

Keeping this in mind, I am motivated to rethink deeply the education system reform in Afghanistan. Similar to the United States, teachers in Afghanistan are often blamed for poor students’ performance in schools. Whereas the policy makers and administrators tend to forget about other dimensions of teachers’ and students’ daily lives. Teachers are being paid very poorly and they are expected to work hard. This could be the main reason for why people are beginning to avoid teaching as a profession. Since there are so many other factors influencing students’ test scores, it is not realistic to just blame teachers for their students’ low performance.

Conservative reformers – both in the United States and Afghanistan – have looked for similar solutions to low students’ test scores. In the United States, the emphasis has been on charter schools and the broader movement to privatize public education. However, as Ravitch argues, for the past 25 years students in charter schools did not get higher scores than public schools. So why not focus on fixing public schools instead of pouring more money to charter schools and private hands? As Michael Apple (2005) mentioned, “market driven politics can lead to a remarkably rapid erosion of democratically determined collective values and institutions” (p. 13). This only leads to commercialization of education and nothing else, which is really applicable in Afghanistan.

Privatization of schools is becoming a serious issue. Nowadays, private schools are like business industries that pop up everywhere and attract students for various reasons. In most cases, the quality of education is the same as in public schools and they are teaching the same curriculum as public schools in Afghanistan. So why not support public schools when there is no difference in quality as well as curriculum? How would private schooling make education better if it has never done better before?  In Afghan culture, we have a proverb which says, “to retest the one tested is a fault in itself”. Ravitch also touched on this in her speech by saying that, the US is the most over tested nation in the world. Why are we so fixated on the tests that have never worked before and can’t change anything in the future?


Apple, M. W. (2005). Education, markets, and an audit culture. Critical Quarterly,47(1‐2), 11-29.

Flinders, D. J., & Thornton, S. J. (Eds.). (2004).The curriculum studies reader. Psychology Press.

Ravitch, D. (2011).The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. Basic Books

The Uselessness of Standardized Education

During my junior year of high school, my class, the graduating class of 2010, sat down to take our last PSSA exam. The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment Exam, like most other state administered standardized exams, covers the subjects of reading, writing, mathematics, and now, science, and is administered with the intention of measuring students’ academic standards and how well schools aid and enable students to reach these proficiency standards. It is a painfully dry and boring exam. Junior year, we had three school days where this exam seemingly took over our lives. If you weren’t physically taking the exam, you were mentally distressed about the thought of going back to a desk and filling in a bubble sheet for three hours, or even better, writing a narrative essay about ‘your typical day at school’. For me personally, that subject has never been, and probably never will be one that evokes genuine excitement and interest.

Later that year I was having a conversation with a fellow classmate about our senior year schedules. As I ranted about trying to make sure I had sixth and eighth period free (to have the shortest school day possible), she mentioned how an acquaintance was being required to take an extra reading class in addition to her core requirements in the fall. It turns out a friend of hers made a bold move and filled out the reading portion of her answer sheet in the shape of an elaborate smiley face. While most of us found this defiant move entertaining, the reprimand of having to take an extra class was everyone’s worst nightmare.

An idea that I never had until recently was that maybe this classmate of mine was better off than any of us after pulling off such a stunt. While we lethargically plowed through the questions, succumbing to standardization and believing that our intelligence could be measured by the content in front of us, she wasted no time stressing about the idea that her intelligence would be defined by the pattern of bubbles filled in on a piece of paper. While we waited for our scores to be sent home so we could stigmatize or praise our intelligence according to arbitrary standards, she had the piece of mind and courage to believe that her intelligence could not be measured by a standardized test. In my opinion, she was right.

I have been inspired by Diane Ravitch’s stance on standardized testing. Standardized testing stifles creative and innovative thinking, which are two things that are valuable in our world’s twenty first century. Schools place too much of an emphasis on test scores, and preparing students for these tests, that the classroom no longer inspires creativity and critical thinking in a time when it is needed more than ever. In addition, standardized test scores are used as an indication of school success without taking into consideration any of the challenges that schools and students are facing. The needs of students taking these tests are not taken in to consideration, and because of this, entire schools are affected and in some situations, shut down. We cannot continue to allow standardized testing to be an indication of an individual’s or school’s knowledge and success.

Adopting a Holistic and More Liberal Approach to Education

On 10th of February, Lehigh University hosted Diane Ravitch’s lecture “School Reform: Finding Common Ground” at the Zoellner Arts Center. As a graduate student in Comparative and International Education, I felt pretty lucky to have the chance to attend this lecture and listen to Dr. Ravitch’s speech about the U.S. public education. Her arguments were really thought-provoking and eye-opening.

First, I would like to start with Dr. Ravitch’s statement about poverty. Underlining the fact that poverty and inequality are very prevalent in the U.S. society, she argues that holding public schools – including their teachers and administrators – accountable for their relatively low test scores is neither fair nor realistic approach. She suggests that we need to get to the root of the problem. It is a common mistake to state that education is the answer to all of our problems and expect that education will sort all our problems. It is more like a fantasy projection as indeed many of the problems that we have in education today stem from existing social and economic structures. As Ravitch concluded, we need to tackle the broader problems of poverty and segregation first.

Secondly, I would like to touch on Ravitch’s arguments about test scores. As Ravitch suggests, if a test does not have a diagnostic value, it is nothing other than a score. There is an increasing obsession with test scores worldwide, which compels countries to perceive that rising test scores are a sign of success. However, placing more importance on test scores and pushing for more testing make students focus on testing only rather than learning. Indeed, such an approach to education may not leave much room for imagination and creativity. In addition to that, strong push for standardized testing creates a sense of competition among students, which hampers interaction, collaboration, and effective learning. When high test scores become the final goal in education, then the question comes to mind – ‘What is education for?’

At this point, I would like to refer to Finnish education system, which usually ranks the highest on the PISA test. Contrary to common approach to education, Finland has taken a very different path. As Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg highlights in one of his speeches:

“I want nobody here in the room to leave thinking that Finland has the best education system in the world, that’s an illusion that has been created by foreigners. Because in Finland we don’t think of education as a global competition. We actually don’t care if we are better than anyone else. Education for us is for individual enhancement and for the common good.”

I think the secret of Finnish success lies in the way education is perceived. Education is not a global competition and should not be perceived as commodity in the labor market. Rather, education should be a common good and prepare students for life. As Ravitch says, we should have more zeal to make our society better through education, which is much more important than high test scores.

Finally, I completely agree with Ravitch’s recommendations regarding well-rounded curriculum, arts education, and physical education. Narrowing the curriculum and putting more emphasis on math and science have negative consequences on students’ learning. Education consists of both intrinsic and instrumental values and it should enable students to grow not only professionally but also personally. Therefore, a holistic approach to education would be more beneficial. For as long as students are not exposed to suitable conditions, which can foster their imaginative function and spark creativity, it will be unrealistic to expect that school graduates will reach their full potential, be aware of what they would like to do in their lives, and be motivated in their careers.

Thoughts in Anticipation of Diane Ravitch’s Visit to Lehigh

Diane Ravitch Speaks at Lehigh on her Books, Experiences, and Opinions involving Educationhqdefault

There is so much pressure for change that it actually hinders change. The requirements outlined in the curriculum and standardization are tools for measurement, results, and comparing different demographics. However, the emphasis on the results of those tests has been so great that the curriculum no longer promotes education quality and creativity.

I am writing this blog in anticipation of Diane Ravitch’s visit to Lehigh University. After reading some of her work including chapters from her book, Diane Ravitch was the Assistant Secretary of education during the George H.W. Bush administration. She was involved in the process of creating and implementing the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. The act proposed that all states have to ensure that all students would meet the national standards through testing. By raising the bar each year, the goal of NCLB was to ensure that all students were passing by 2014 (last year!). 14 years ago the proposal sounded great and possible; however, here we are one year after the expected year of success and nothing has changed in education. Let’s ignore the name of it and just focus on what it proposed.

The first issue, as with many educational reforms, is that it sounds so perfect that it is almost impossible to argue against it. Especially with a name such as “No Child Left Behind”, anyone who attempts to critique it sounds inhumane. After all, who would want to leave any children behind? There were some good amendments in the law, but the bad ones outweigh the good. For instance, there is no time or funding for the tutoring that is mandatory for children that are below standards. Teachers do not have time to focus on helping the students that are behind because they have to ensure the entire class is following the curriculum. Teachers have to choose between spending extra time with students who are behind or spend that time moving everyone else forward by following the curriculum. Both choices are not possible. In either case, the teacher is not meeting a standard.

Another issue is that the law allows for each state to set its own educational standards to meet. Some states’ standards are so low that nearly everyone can pass them to ensure they receive their state funding. Although the school may be technically passing, that does not mean that all of the students are on a proficient learning level for their grade. Teachers have to teach to meet these low standards which hinder the quality of education. On the other hand, states that actually have high standards for their schools are at risk for having more schools that do not pass. A failing school does not receive federal funding or state funding. As a result, the school does not have the funds to purchase resources or programs needed to help these failing students, which attributes to budget cuts such as firing teaching, cutting programs, and increasing the class size. Either way, the children the law claims will not get left behind, are indeed getting left behind

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch quotes Donald T. Campbell who states that “the more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” In other words, the more value placed on standardization and testing to make decisions such as enrollment, classification, and acceptance the more corrupt that system becomes. Standardized tests are used for benchmarking and comparing students, but they have lost their innocence.

There are now teachers teaching to the test or cheating rather than teaching their students information to prepare them to learn, understand, and succeed. Now looking at the Act, without the context and innocence of its name, the amendments seem nearly impossible. This is the problem with curriculum, standardization, and educational reform in society. There is more focus on creating a proposal that sounds good than actually taking time to make sure it IS good. As Diane Ravitch stated, “there are no fads, no shortcuts, no utopias, no silver bullets” in terms of reforms for fixing educational issues. Teachers have to follow a state or national schedule of teaching rather than teaching based on need. Students learn through at different speeds, styles and have different interests so why teach all kids of various cultures, states, social classes, backgrounds, intellect, and who are so simply different through the same methods?

Questions for Diane Ravitch:
• What made you decide to get so actively involved in educational reform through speaking out on your experiences and writing so many informative books?
• With so much emphasis on testing and standards, what do you think would be a good way to measure progress?
• It seems like a major reason reforms do not end up being successful is due to the high demand for fast progress. Quick fixes clearly do not work, but how should an administrator propose and manage an idea that is longer term and avoid the pressure or force of being fired?
• How do you propose a shift in standardization back to being more of a tool for measurement and less of an emphasis in teaching to the test?
• Race to the Top is yet another education law that sounds appealing and optimistic, what are your thoughts on it? What do you think it will take for it to be successful?

Ravitch, D. (2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. NY: Basic Books.

Cognitive Dissonance and No Child Left Behind

Students thrive in a school environment where they are able to interact with their teachers, have more individualized learning plans catered to their skills and needs, and feel safe in the school community. My best learning experiences were in community-based classes that fostered analytical thinking and asked me to challenge what I was being taught. However, we live in a nation where schooling is typically not like that. To better understand the experience in schools, I interviewed my friend who is a preschool teacher with experiences in classrooms of pre-K, kindergarten, and second-grade. She describes that, “the only time that I have had free reign to be creative with my teaching was as a preschool teacher, where there was no pressure to teach to a test because tests don’t exist at that level. Students any older than that are always preparing for some sort of test, whether that is a simple quiz, a unit test, or a state exam. The fact that schooling is so based around exams limits your freedoms as a teacher.”

We know that all students would benefit from a great education that is catered around individual needs, but not all students receive it, due to social, political, and economic factors. Our current policies on schooling are not helping to achieve the goal of quality education for all.

The wording of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 pulls at the heartstrings, and it feels bad saying that you might disagree with “not leaving a child behind.” The act can be interpreted as a large-scale form of cognitive dissonance, an attempt to rationalize and forget why schools are failing.

The act aims to increase teacher accountability, raise standards of teaching, and ensure that students across the country are learning similarly well. It places an incredible emphasis on achievement testing, basing success of teachers and schools on students’ test scores. School funding, teacher salary, and school maintenance is all based on how students perform on tests. This places immense pressure on all people involved in schools.

Children feel pressure because they know that their teacher might get fired if they don’t score well on their test. On No Child Left Behind, this teacher says, “in theory it’s a good idea, but it was executed poorly. It’s important that all children have the opportunity to go to school and learn to the best of their ability, but it’s unfair that they’re expected to take all of these exams. There are the anxious test takers that freeze up when it comes time for an exam. It’s not right to do to the kids.”

Teachers feel like they need to base their entire curriculums around the test content, because their jobs and the students’ welfare is at stake. This teacher says, “in a large classroom setting, it’s difficult to cater to everyone’s needs because there are time pressures. The curriculums tell you specifically what questions to ask and how to teach it. In some cases, you’re pretty much given a script to read from, and that leaves no room for creativity at all.”

Administrators fear the test results because they dictate whether their schools will continue as usual or the government will take over. This act has instilled a sense of fear and tension within schools that are supposed to be safe havens.

The No Child Left Behind Act seems like an attempt at an easy fix to a system that needs be prioritized more by the federal government. It puts the education system into simple terms: if you score better, you get more funding. That ignores the systemic impacts on schools and students. It is easier for students in wealthy communities to score better on tests because those students do not have some of the same concerns as students in poorer communities.

In a case study example of schools in West Tallahatchie, Mississippi, as seen in the documentary “LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton,” LaLee’s grandchildren spent their days trying to find fresh water, taking care of their family, and seeking out school supplies that they could not afford (Dickson, Frömke, & Maysles, 2001). How could a child who is looking for fresh water have time to do their homework? They do not have the same opportunities to succeed and are at a disadvantage in school. These children should be bolstered by the government. Their schools should be given more funding to help support the children who need it the most. No Child Left Behind does the opposite. It rewards the schools that are achieving the highest, which are typically not attended by students in poverty. It punishes schools that are struggling and could use help most.

This act feeds into the myth of meritocracy, essentially saying that lower achieving schools have not worked hard enough, and therefore should not be the recipients of more funding. What the act does not consider is the extreme hardships faced by students in poverty, and the systemic reasons why students are not achieving as high as their counterparts.

A system that only rewards schools based on achievement testing actually sustains an inequitable schooling environment around the country. When high stakes testing is the most important thing, it devalues the concept of the whole student and undercuts the quality and creativity of education. However, with a name like No Child Left Behind and an attitude that is trying to rationalize why some schools fail, this policy allows people to lessen their cognitive dissonance and forget about the schools that struggle the most. This policy allows people to make sense of the fact that some students are achieving much lower than others, and that is not ok. The education system in our country should work to support children who need help, not punish them.



Dickson, D., Frömke, S., & Maysles, A. (Directors) (2001). LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton. United States: HBO.

No Child Left Behind, Retrieved from:

The Problems of the Unified State Examination in Russia

It was a warm sunny day in 2005. I was wearing my suit and tie. The day before, I followed advice of my English teacher and did nothing except relaxing. My classmates and I went to another school to take our first Unified State Examination (USE). I had my ID, a black gel pen, some snacks, and a dictionary (just in case) in my backpack. I had spent many hours with my English teacher on holidays and weekends and a few hours with private tutors, which together granted me with confidence for the test.

In 2001, USE was launched as an experiment in five Russian federal districts: Yakutia, Mari El, Chuvashia, Samara, and Rostov. In 2002, sixteen federal districts were added to USE. USE expanded to 47 districts in 2003, 65 in 2004, and 79 in 2006. Finally in 2008, the experiment reached every Russian school. Starting from 2009, the USE became an official tool for finishing secondary education and starting higher education. Certain regulations allow students to take USE before or after the announced dates.

The state examination is called unified because its results are used both for graduation from high school and for entrance into higher education. The USE consists of parts A (questions with multiple answer choices), B (questions require short written answer), and C (one or more writing assignments). A and B results are coded and processed by a computer. Qualified experts assess the C part. Russian language and Mathematics are mandatory subjects on USE, which are required for graduating high school. Three or more subjects are needed to apply for university admissions.

The universal examination is a recognized educational trendsetter in Russia. Universities are ranked by freshmen USE results. Teachers are awarded by their students’ USE results. Schools are rated by USE results. Private tutoring is proved to be a highly effective and marketable service for USE preparation. The USE assignments have transformed and continue to define school curriculum.


Numerous debates have taken place since the introduction of USE in 2001. The USE is expected to provide equal and just opportunities for every citizen of the Russian Federation to apply for any university admission if he/she meets requirements. However, students of nomadic schools (same citizens of Russia) who are striving to preserve their native endangered language, cannot meet requirements since their tutors cannot train them thoroughly. All tests, except foreign language, are in Russian. In 2009, the Russian Supreme court declined a claim for USE organization in other languages of the Federation. Children of native peoples left out of the system and obliged to study all subjects in Russian for getting a university degree. Moreover, foreign language will be the third mandatory USE as of 2020. In 2012, official reports stated that 2.9% Russia’s students failed the USE. Students who plan to apply for Arts and Humanities take the same Mathematics USE as future engineers.

The entire secondary education system is designed to prepare students for the standardized final testing. The USE caused a birth of State Final Assessment (SFA), which requires ninth-grade students to take two mandatory and three optional exams. Counselors state that exams are stressful for teenagers. There is some sense in it. Pressure starts at school when teachers motivate you by scaring of possible failure.



Some critiques point out that USE has caused corruption in schools located in remote areas where students score higher than in cities and towns. Nevertheless, it has reduced corruption in university admissions.

Students often use the 10-time-zone magic of Russia: students who start USE in Asian Russia help their colleagues in European Russia by displaying answer forms on the web. In 2012, 167 students from 46 federal districts were caught and their results were annulled.

As the Unified State Examination is widely criticized, the Education and Science Ministry makes an effort to further develop the test and address some of the critique. I think that the USE should be offered in all languages of the Russian Federation to preserve native languages, to provide equal access to education, to follow the state Constitution, and the article 26 of the Human Rights Declaration.



SAT Blues

Taking the SATS were the most stressful part of my high school career. I had always been a high achieving student, constantly getting A’s and increasing my involvement in as many extracurricular activities as I could. But I knew that I would not be able to apply to my dream colleges if I didn’t master the dreaded SAT. I was fortunate enough to be able to take an SAT class with other students – three hours every week that was meant to teach us how to take the test. I ended up doing quite poorly on the test after that class, and decided to take it again in the beginning of my senior year with no class, tutor, or preparation. I got the same exact score. With my frustration mounting and college applications due asap, I knew that my dream schools were no longer within reach. And of course, being the overly dramatic high school senior that I was, I equated my SAT score with my future success and happiness.

It is difficult for me to make sense of the College Board’s decision to drastically change this test in 2016. This new test will have different vocabulary words, focusing on “high utility” words that appear in more contexts. It will be shortened to three hours with an optional essay “in which students will be asked to analyze a text and how the author builds an argument.” These essay scores will be separate from the other sections of the SAT, unlike the current test that has a required 25-minute essay where students must argue a position. This new test out of 1600 will have a 65-minute critical reading section with 52 questions, a 35-minute written section with 44 questions, and an 80-minute math section with 57 questions. How the College Board came up with these calculations…I will never be able to understand.

In addition, every test will contain a passage from a US founding document. As if the test wasn’t unfair enough for non-US citizens, here the College Board goes again, making it even more discriminatory.

David Coleman, the president and chief executive of the College Board, spearheaded the process of revising the SAT. He was also one of the key architects of the Common Core state curriculum standards across the nation, and argued that the College Board’s vision of the SAT should parallel that alignment. These changes are being implemented, in theory, because standardized tests have become too disconnected from the work of high school students, and are not preparing students for the information that they may encounter in college. Rather, tests are too full of “tricks” to raise scores and are too stressful for students. While I do agree with this sentiment, I do not see how the foreseeable changes will fix this problem.

Another internal change coming is that the College Board will partner with Khan Academy to provide free test preparation materials to students, hoping to create a more transparent test between students, teachers, and guidance counselors. I can see the benefit of this plan, as standardized tests are meant to be an equalizer in the first place, so it is unfair that some are able to afford “insider secrets” while others must blindly take this test. However, I believe that SAT tutors will quickly adjust to this new test, continuing to offer their test taking tips and services at a high fee for only the wealthy to afford. But any step towards transparency would be a good one to take.

Recently there was a NY Times article about a former Lehigh student, now very successful journalist, who feared getting into Lehigh because of his SAT scores. Because he had previous generations of Lehigh alums within his bloodline, he was able to secure a spot in his graduating class. As a student who once believed that all of my hard work in school was worthless because of my low score on this exam, this article was important for me to read. This article proved that the higher your income bracket, the higher your SAT test scores, and that one’s scores had zero correlation with future success. While this is all very reassuring, it is still hard for me to relive my SAT days. My brother will be affected by these changes in 2016, and I am curious if these changes had affected me, would I have done better? Would my college applications have yielded different acceptance results? I can only wonder.