Care about the information, and you will learn it

I am disturbed by the idea of a standards-based educational system for Nevada, but not because I am not in favor of standards. The reason I am not willing to buy into the current craze for standards-based education is that often standards have very little to do with education.

You see, education is different from learning. Learning means that you amass a bunch of information. Education means that you care about the information you amass. That's why when schools, parents, business leaders, administrators and politicians demand that our students pass a test in the name of "educational reform," I have to object.

Now, I know that tests are very valuable tools for assessment, but they are not tools for education. "If you think you can improve education with a test," one rural administrator told me recently, "you must also think you can fatten a calf by weighing it." You can weigh the calf to see how it is gaining, but the scale does not contribute to the progress.

Although we can test whether a child has learned something and gets some idea of how well our educational system is working, we must be very careful not to fall into the idea that a test can "improve" education. As soon as a school begins teaching to a test, all is lost.

Students become educated when information is valuable to them; true education is interesting and useful. Education does not come from outside - it comes from within. Tell someone they need to know something, and they might learn it. Show someone a problem they want to solve by learning certain principles, and they become educated.

You can easily see the difference between information kids want to know and information they need to know by looking at the current Pokemon fad. My 9-year-old son has memorized all 150 Pokemon because he wants to; this knowledge gives him a social advantage in his peer group. However, give him 10 spelling words he needs to memorize, and he has difficulty.

The key to getting him to want to learn his spelling words lies in inspiring him toward an educational goal. For example, if he is required to use all his spelling words in a sentence as an exercise for school, he will learn them, use them and forget them. But if he has, for example, a round-robin school-wide spelling bee with prizes to the winning class teams, he will want to learn his spelling words, and he is less likely to forget them. Just like marketing, education must be founded upon the principle of making a person want something, not telling them that they need it.

Despite my mistrust of the standards, I know that the legislators, board members, parents and business leaders who put them in place had the best intentions to improve education. Nevertheless, I worry that the whole focus of Nevada schools has become directed toward standards and assessment, not education. Assessment tools and standards alone cannot perform the miracles required to meet the goal of bettering our educational system.

Without the inspiration of great teachers, of creative classrooms, or relevant lessons, we will continue to see our kids passing the tests but not getting an education, and we will continue to see good grades but not good sense. Can you remember the best teacher you had? What did you learn? Was it all facts and theories, or was it the inspiration to go beyond learning - to educate yourself.

My best teacher used to say to me, "My job is to make my job obsolete." The best teachers are those who know that the only educator exists within.

To our legislators and school boards, I say: Please, give us some standards that are educationally driven. Make the proficiency test a tool, but only one tool to evaluate our progress. Give our teachers the creative license and the quality instructional materials needed to challenge our students in meaningful ways, and give our students the encouragement to carry their learning past a test score or a classroom door. Then, and only then, will I say I am in favor of a standards-based educational system.

Dr. Michelle Trusty-Murphy is a community college professor of English/Developmental English at Western Nevada Community College. She is considering a run for State Board of Education in the year 2000.


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