Teaching Opinion

The Achievement Trap

By Barbara Klein, John D. McNeil & Lynn A. Stout — November 15, 2005 4 min read
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— Peter Lui


Perhaps now is a good time to ask this question: What are schools supposed to do for our children? As learning specialists, we see an alarming trend: Our education system increasingly is focusing not on developing children’s aptitude for learning—their ability to absorb new information quickly and solve problems creatively—but on their academic achievements—their mastery of particular subjects and skills as proven by performance on standardized tests.

To see why this is dangerous, let’s think about why we send children to school in the first place. “Getting an education” once meant helping children become cultured individuals and thoughtful citizens. In today’s world of economic anxiety, global competition, and an unraveling social safety net, many believe education’s main function is to help kids land high-paying jobs. Yet even if this is our goal, we’re going about it the wrong way.

Employers in an information economy want a workforce that can read, write, and do simple mathematics, and our schools should teach these basic skills to as many children as possible during the K-12 years. But basic skills are not enough. The modern workplace is a fluid environment where technology, market conditions, and production processes shift rapidly. Employers need workers with learningaptitude: the ability to process new information quickly and solve problems creatively.

Once, our education system focused on aptitude. Now the trend is to identify students with an aptitude for learning a different way—by measuring how much they have actually achieved in their K-12 years. The theory seems to be that we can identify the best learners by identifying those who have managed to cram the most learning into their short lives.

Our children are caught in an “achievement trap,” an academic arms race that requires kids to demonstrate their ability to learn by actually learning more and more facts, at more and more advanced levels, all the hours of their young days that are not filled by such demonstrable time-eaters as soccer practice and violin recitals. In the process, American children are losing the chance to think, dream, explore, ponder—and play.

The achievement trap leads to at least two serious problems. The first and most obvious is burnout. A child who attends swim practice from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., orchestra from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and does homework from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. has put in a 14-hour day. We do not expect most adults to work that long, and we should not ask our children to do so. Nor should we be surprised by the high dropout rates, anxiety, depression, and teenage suicides that result when children follow such schedules.

The second problem is more subtle. It relates not to the quantity of achievement we demand from our children, but the quality. The achievement trap demands that our children learn things that can be measured “objectively,” preferably with an easy-to-grade standardized test. Standardized testing holds teachers and students “accountable” for mastering only skills and knowledge that are established and uncontroversial, asks them to address only questions with a single correct answer. They are not encouraged or allowed to explore the ambiguous, the uncertain, the mysterious—the wonders of the world.

History offers sobering examples of what can happen when standardized achievements are elevated over open-ended abilities.

This emphasis on mastering a standardized, uncontroversial curriculum drives schools toward an authoritarian, one-size-fits-all approach that downplays disagreement, inquiry, and imagination. In the process, it throttles student (and teacher) initiative and creativity. Our system is killing off exactly the qualities our children need most to appeal to future employers, who want not just “reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic,” but innovation, initiative, and flexibility.

Put bluntly, cramming children’s heads with facts and their hours with organized activities interferes with developing their interest and initiative. This is a serious concern for our kids and our society. History offers sobering examples of what can happen when standardized achievements are elevated over open-ended abilities.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, imperial China—once the most technologically advanced civilization in the world—fell into decline as power passed into the hands of a mandarin class of bureaucrats selected for their ability to memorize Confucian philosophy. More recently, Japanese authorities have begun dismantling an education system that long relied on a uniform national curriculum and after-hours classes at juku “cram schools.” The Japanese believe this approach has stifled creativity, innovation, and independent thinking, contributing to the stagnation of the Japanese economy.

We worry that America is heading down a similar path. If promoting our children’s achievements becomes our sole focus, both our children and our society will suffer.


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