The New York Times
Thomas Lepuschitz, one of 46 Austrians recruited by New York City to help
ease the shortage of math and science teachers, told a New York Times
reporter recently that he thought it strange that the state required even
the slowest students to take math and science in order to graduate.
It's different in Austria. "Our school system divides people who can do
certain things and people who can't," he explained. "The people who can't
are not lost; it's just a slower track."
Mr. Lepuschitz has touched a raw nerve. Standardized tests -- increasingly
linked to grade promotion, graduation, even teachers' salaries and the
tenure of principals -- are the single biggest thing to have hit American
education since Sputnik. Responding to the understandable demands for
more "accountability," almost every school in the land is morphing into a
test-taking factory. Both Al Gore and George W. Bush have touted
proposals linking federal dollars to scores on standardized tests.
There are obvious benefits. Uniform tests present clear goals and give
students, parents and schools ways to measure progress toward meeting
them. But standardized tests are monstrously unfair to many kids. We're
creating a one-size-fits-all system that needlessly brands many young
people as failures, when they might thrive if offered a different education
whose progress was measured differently.
Paradoxically, we're embracing standardized tests just when the new
economy is eliminating standardized jobs. There's one certainty about
what today's high school students will be doing a decade from now: They
won't all be doing the same things, and they won't be drawing on the
same body of knowledge.
Jobs in the old mass-production economy came in a few standard varieties
(research, production, sales, clerical, managerial, professional), but this
system has fragmented. Computers, the Internet and digital commerce
have exploded the old job categories into a vast array of new niches,
creating a kaleidoscope of ways to make a living.
Musicians, artists, writers and performing artists are discovering
multimedia outlets for their talents. Tens of thousands of people are
starting their own Web-based businesses and auction houses. People who
had been clerks and secretaries are turning into spreadsheet operators,
desktop publishers and Web-based inventory control managers.
Salespeople are becoming specialty technicians, finding or creating
products to meet particular customer needs.
We're also seeing an increasing demand for people who provide personal
attention and comfort. There's an upsurge in advisers, counselors, coaches
and trainers. Physical and occupational therapists are needed. Home
health-care workers, elder-care assistants and child- care workers are all
in short supply. And we have a chronic need for teachers at all levels.
Success in these jobs doesn't depend on mastery of one uniform body of
knowledge as measured by standardized tests. Instead, many of them
require an ability to learn on the job -- to discover what needs to be
known and to find and use it quickly.
Some depend on creativity -- on out-of-the-box thinking, originality and
flair. Others depend on the ability to listen and understand what other
people are feeling and needing. Most require "soft skills" like punctuality
and courtesy, although some geeks succeed wildly without even these
Yes, people need to be able to read, write and speak clearly. And they
have to know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. But given the
widening array of possibilities, there's no reason that every child must
master the sciences, algebra, geometry, biology or any of the rest of the
standard high school curriculum that has barely changed in half a century.
Nor is it necessary that every child graduate from high school ready to
qualify for a four-year liberal arts college.
This doesn't mean that "slower students" should be relegated to trade
schools, as they are in much of Europe. In the new economy, specialized
vocational skills soon become obsolete. Besides, the whole notion of faster
or slower learning is irrelevant when there are so many new options for
how and what to learn.
In our headlong rush toward "accountability," we seem to be veering
toward two extremes -- either expecting every child to pass the same test
or assuming that certain children are uneducable, relegating them to a
Our challenge is to find different measures of the various skills relevant to
the jobs of the new economy. It's our job not to discourage our children,
but to help them find their way.