How Standardization Killed Our Hopes for Let’s Move


In his State of the Union, the President made it clear that the most important contest this country faces today is not between Democrats and Republicans, but with competitors around the world for the jobs and industries of our time.  To win that contest and secure prosperity for all Americans, we must out-innovate, out educate, and out-build the rest of the world.

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But, children everywhere are under intense pressure to perform at higher and higher levels on a narrow range of standardized tests.  The result is that school systems everywhere inculcate us with a very narrow view of intelligence and capacity and overvalue particular sorts of talent and ability.

In doing so, they neglect others that are just as important, and they disregard the relationships between them in sustaining the vitality of our lives and communities.  This stratified one-size fits all approach to education marginalizes all of those who do not take naturally to learning this way.

I volunteer for my son’s Kindergarten class and most days I leave with an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

I watch students slouch under the weight of a system that expects them to perform well, which do not measure their abilities other than memorization and application and therefore do not measure their readiness for the next grade level—much less life, career, or college.

I’m tired of watching students produce amazing things, which show their true understanding of 21st century skills, only to see their looks of disappointment when they don’t meet the arbitrary expectations of low-level state and district tests that do not assess their skills.

I refuse to hear any more about how important it is to differentiate our instruction as we prepare our kids for tests that are anything but differentiated.

And, I’m tired of watching parents being tricked into believing that their children are being prepared for the complex world ahead, especially since their children’s teachers are being cowed into meeting expectations and standards that are not conducive to their children’s futures.

I am truly angry that parents put so much stress, fear, and anticipation into their kids’ heads in preparation for the EOG tests and the new MSLs—neither of which are consequential to their future needs. As a parent of Kindergartner I’m dismayed at the education that my child receives.

There’s no doubt about it.  American education needs to be fixed, but national standards and testing and learning how to stay quiet and stand in lines are not the way to do it.  In fact, it is moving in the exact opposite direction from the First Lady’s initiative Let’s Move!

Since the 1960s federal control over education has been growing but both standards and achievement among our children have deteriorated and childhood obesity rates have tripled.

The reason many schools systems are moving in this direction is that politicians seem to think that it’s essential for economic growth and competitiveness and to help students get jobs.

But the fact is that in the twenty-first century, jobs and competitiveness depend on absolutely the very qualities that school systems are being forced to tamp down.

Our education systems increasingly encourage teachers to teach students in a uniform fashion.  These approaches to education are stifling some of the most important capacities that young people now need to make their way in the increasingly demanding world of the twenty-first century – the powers of creative thinking

And, to top it off the current systems put severe limits on how teachers teach and students learn.  Academic ability is very important but so are other ways of thinking.  People who think visually might love a particular topic or subject, but won’t realize it if their teachers only present it in one, non-visual way.

Traditional teachers lecture, use blackboards, overhead projectors, and handouts. Researchers are finding, however, that these methods do not meet the needs of all students.

Children come into school with differences in background knowledge, confidence, ability to stay on task and, in the case of literacy and math, quickness. In school, those advantages can get multiplied rather than evened out. One reason  is that teaching methods are not aligned with what cognitive science tells us about the brain and how learning happens.

Every child is born with creative potential, but this potential may be stifled if care is not taken to nurture and stimulate creativity. Creativity shows one’s uniqueness. It is the individual saying: “I can be; I can do.” Isn’t this what we want for our children?

Every student has learning differences to some degree. Some learn better by reading than they do by listening to a lecture. Others learn best working with hands-on projects than by thinking about ideas in their minds. Some learn best by reading, and others prefer to write. The possibilities are endless.

Very few schools and even fewer school systems in the world teach dance everyday as a formal part of their curricula, as they do with math. Yet, we know that many students only become engaged when they are using their bodies.

It’s a fact some people need to “move to think”; I am one of them.  It’s called Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.  Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, is presumed to predominate in the profiles of athletes, dancers, craftspersons and surgeons.  It is the capacity to solve problems or fashion products using your whole body, or parts of your body, like your hands or mouth.”

Unfortunately, today when kids fidget too much, they’re medicated and told to calm down and parents are told they are unable to focus.

But, anyone who exercises regularly knows that your thinking process changes when you are walking, jogging, biking, swimming, riding the elliptical trainer, etc. New ideas tend to bubble up and crystallize when you are inside the aerobic zone. You are able to connect the dots and problem solve with a cognitive flexibility that you don’t have when you are sitting at your desk. This is a universal phenomenon, but one that neuroscientists are just beginning to understand.

The real problem is that the problems that need fixing are too deeply ingrained in the power and incentive structure of the public education system.  The renewed focus on national standards only increasingly threatens to distract us from the more fundamental issues.

The Obama Administration’s current push for national education standards builds on an initiative led by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). In September 2009, the groups’ Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) released college and career readiness standards for math and English language arts.  In March 2010, CCSSI published grade-by-grade benchmarks for each of these two subject areas.

From the beginning, proponents of the Common Core State Standards Initiative have maintained that the standards are voluntary and outside of the realm of the federal government. But federal funding has been linked to their adoption from the early stages.

The current education movement is laden with “if-then” rewards and a “carrots and sticks” approach to motivation. If students score well on standardized tests, they move on to the next grade level or graduate while their teachers receive favorable marks on evaluations. These are forms of extrinsic motivation and will work in short term, but performance will not be sustainable.

I refuse to be an unpaid administrator of field tests that take advantage of children for the sake of profit.

Have you ever wondered why Girls read more than Boys?  The typical woman reads nine books in a year, compared with only five for men.

Why?  Could it be that in the formative years for many boys and girls they are ACTIVE learners?

For 60% of children, learning to read will be difficult; for nearly 30%, it will be the most difficult skill of any task they learn throughout life.

The inconsistencies of English can make learning to read a frustrating guessing game for children. Kids hate to guess and be wrong; they want consistency.

Our systems of education put a high premium on knowing the single right answer to a question.  In fact, with programs like No Child Left Behind (a federal program that seeks to improve performance of American public schools by making schools more accountable for meeting mandated performance levels) and its insistence that all children from every part of the country adhere to the same standards, we’re putting a greater emphasis than ever before on conformity and finding the “right” answers.

Look at what happens traditionally when a child learns to read. Young children often are eager to learn to read. So parents teach the child letters and their sounds.

Next the child is able to read phonetic words like man, or hop.

However, soon the child sees words like one, two or was—non-phonetic words that seem to make no sense. Some children take all these inconsistencies of English in stride and learn to read quickly and easily. Others don’t.  Factor in the family history and languages already “pre-programmed”.  And learning to read, isn’t so easy and therefore, NOT so fun.

We’ve all heard of or experienced ourselves the mental or physical brain freeze that’s often described as “choking” under pressure.

“Choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right,” argues University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock.

Thinking too much about what you are doing, because you are worried about losing a competition or worrying about failing in general, can lead to over-analyzing the situation. This paralysis by analysis occurs when people try to control every aspect of what they are doing in an attempt to guarantee success. However, this increased attempt at control can backfire.

But, things are changing right?  That’s why I got so excited for Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move campaign.

Even the President of Nike joined First Lady Michelle Obama to make a major announcement to bring physical 
activity back to schools.

Only 4% of elementary schools, 8% of middle schools and 2% of high schools currently offer daily P.E. and only 9 states require recess in elementary schools.

However, even when physical education programs are in place, most students are not engaged in vigorous physical activity for the majority of their class time.  It is estimated that boys only spend about 18 minutes engaged in moderate and vigorous activity and girls spend about 16.  These statistics are disappointing and are resulting in negative outcomes in health and school performance for America’s children.  Many parents and educators should be wondering: Why are we neglecting the health needs of our children?

Perhaps that’s why Lisa Putnam asked us to imagine.

“If you are a parent, imagine that you take your child on a trip and they are very excited,” writes Putnam. “Now imagine they have to wait on a bus and stand in straight lines for three hours straight. Then imagine after one hour of ‘fun’ that they have to sit around and wait for three more hours that bus to pick them up.”

That’s what I do every day I drop my child off at school.

White House officials called the event “a groundbreaking, earth-shattering, awesomely-inspiring day.” But, even the athletes were uninspired.

No one was moving!

The students stood in three straight quiet lines for almost an hour.

Then, the students were ushered into a giant room with a stage and told they had to be very quiet, that there was a “surprise in there for them.”

As the event began each athlete was introduced.  They all had a 1-2 minute motivational speech that was so cheesy that none of the athletes really seemed to connect with the students and the messages did not resonate.

It seemed like one giant Nike advertisement.  Finally, the first lady came out.  Although she was stunning and her message was powerful, her back was to the children.  She was facing the media.

Many should be wondering, who is this event really for?  Are we really only trying to improve our standardized test scores?

And so it goes. Students in every grade level at schools across the country are struggling in class. It’s not because they’re underachievers, or they’re not smart, or they don’t care. It’s because we’re working against them. The longer children and teens are forced to sit and grow roots in their chairs, the harder it will be for them to bloom.

Students are not motivated by standardized tests, as they find no true meaning and value in them. Teachers are motivated for all the wrong reasons, some of which includes job security or a financial incentive. A focus on standardization narrows the curriculum and creates a teaching culture where creativity, exploration, and critical thinking are scarce or non-existent.

What is catastrophically wrong with this mode of thinking is that it severely underestimates human capacity.  We place tremendous significance on standardized tests, we cut funding for what we consider “nonessential” programs, and then we wonder why our children seem unimaginative and uninspired.

They say the tests measure only what students know at a given time, not what we should be defining as “learning.”

More and more countries and more people are in the game than ever before, and technology is in the process of changing the game itself as we speak.

The relationship between existence of standards and strong educational outcomes is not clear. While the countries that outperform the United States on international tests have national standards, so do most of those countries that score lower than the U.S.

In further defiance of the hypothetical rule, Canada handily outscores the United States on international exams but has no national standards.  Even the relationship between the quality of state standards in the U.S. and academic performance is weak and inconsistent across subject areas.

National standards will continue the trend of an ever-expanding federal role in education. Decades of increased federal involvement, beginning with President Lyndon Johnson’s implementation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965, have not led to comparable increases in academic achievement.

For many families, awaiting the results of a child’s yearly test has become just another rite of passage. But the practice of “standardized testing,” whether it’s to judge a child’s eligibility to advance a grade, or their caliber as a college applicant, is anything but standard issue.

The debate masks a larger question: just how do we define what it means to learn something, and how can we test for it?

“We all want the same thing – healthy, physically active students in every school. “

Imagine students learning their ABCs while dancing, or memorizing multiplication tables while doing jumping jacks.

National standards are unlikely to make public schools accountable to families; rather, they are more likely to make schools responsive to Washington, D.C. Furthermore, a national accountability system would be a one-size-fits-all approach that tends toward mediocrity and standardization, undercutting the pockets of excellence that currently exist.

The missing link between reducing obesity and increasing America’s ability to compete in a tough global economy? You guessed it – Physical education. Let’s Move.

Live and Learn. We All Do.

Thanks for reading. Please share 🙂

Please don’t forget to leave a comment.

About julia29

Hi. My name is Julia El-Haj. I am a Hall of Fame Athlete, an MBA, Professional Certified Marketer, Certified Youth Fitness Trainer, a Specialist in Sports Nutrition and a licensed Real Estate agent. I gave up my "seat at the table" to be home with my 3 children because that's where I was needed most. I blog about everything with Wellness in mind.
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