School’s out! Here is an end-of-the-school-year post in three strands positing that much of what we do in school is a monumental waste of time, creativity and intellect.
Strand one: recruitment insights from Google
In a recent interview in the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, a senior vice president at Google, reported on the evolution of his company’s hiring strategies. One comment caught my eye:
One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless—no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore, unless you’re just a few years out of school. We found that they don’t predict anything.
Let’s get this straight. All the attention everyone pays for all those years to students’ grades and test scores—everybody from parents to administrators to college admissions officers and school evaluators—is basically pointless in the long run. It’s unlikely this is just a Google thing. Students with great grades may make lousy employees, and underachievers in school might be invaluable assets when they’re in the work world. Laszlo explains why:
[Y]our ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school, because the skills you required in college are very different.
I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. You could figure that out, but it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer. You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.
Strand two: grading Regents Exams in New York City
For the last two weeks of the school year, I found myself in an unchartered circle of Hell in which I was tasked with sitting at a computer all day long, ascertaining whether New York City high school students were able to provide obvious answers to terrible questions. The U.S. History Regents Exam (find your own path to Hades here) is one of several that teenage New Yorkers must pass to get a high school diploma.
I can’t speak for every Regents Exam, but the U.S. history assessment is one of the worst anyone could imagine. Fifty multiple choice questions that get recycled with slight variation from year to year (the Elastic Clause gets a query nearly every time); a dozen or so “document-based questions” that turn regurgitation into the cardinal educational virtue; and two flaccid essay questions. Don’t think an essay question can be flaccid? Try this one on for size, from the January 2013 exam:
Throughout United States history, Congress has passed legislation to address important political, social, or economic issues. These laws have often had a significant impact on American society. Select two laws passed by the United States Congress and for each, discuss the historical circumstances that led to the passage of the law and discuss the impacts of the law on American society.
Imagine having to take this exam. Now imagine being asked to grade untold hundreds of them in a nightmarish fiasco that, for the first time, was computerized and put on the web by the surprisingly incompetent educational publisher McGraw-Hill.
Sitting there at my computer terminal buzzing through essays and document-based questions, eyes glazing over and soul withering into the ether, I wondered how things might be different. How could students be challenged and excited by American history, rather than stultified by it? How can we assess students in ways that promote real thinking and complex analysis? How can we sharpen their critical faculties rather than dull their spirits and their intellects?
Strand three: the final email of the year from my daughter’s pre-kindergarten teacher
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
It’s new-agey to a fault to read this as an indictment of the pursuit of knowledge or a plea for removing the study of facts from a history class. History isn’t about what kids idly dream up, and Einstein was no fact-o-phobe. The point of this sentiment is to remember that human curiosity is not ignited by schools that just give answers. It is cultivated by teachers who ask good, hard questions and who help develop students’ abilities to tackle them.
My colleagues in the social studies department were motivated by just this desire when they redesigned the final exam for 9th graders, making it a challenging exercise in practices they had been working on all year rather than a call for students to spit back pre-packaged answers. The exam armed students with a laptop and a dictionary and asked them to conduct online research on the spot. After being given a topic, each student posed an inquiry question, developed search terms, located good secondary sources and speculated on primary sources that a fuller research project might yield. This is light years away from “name some laws that had some effect on American history.” But for schools that teach to the Regents Exam, such an assessment is simply out of whack. It has neither a closed set of correct answers nor an embedded lesson in conformity.
The Common Core curriculum is on its way in most of the 50 states, including New York. Eventually Regents Exams will give way to new assessments that are matched to the more rigorous requirements of the Common Core. There is reason to be hopeful that things will improve. If they don’t, it’s not just Google that will suffer.