National Assessment of No Educational Progress

Imagine an athlete training for the Olympic decathlon. The young man had been told that success would come by training specifically and constantly for the 100-meter dash and 110-meter hurdles. He did what he was told.

Day in and day out, he ran repeat sprints and perfected his hurdle technique. He expected to get better, but his times didn't improve. He doubled his workouts and persisted despite chronic pain and fatigue. By the time of the Olympic trials he was exhausted and frustrated. His overall decathlon score had actually declined over the two-year period of intense training. How could this happen? All the coaches and sports journalists were mystified.

Not only were his sprint and hurdle times unchanged, but he cleared no height at all in the high jump and pole vault, had to walk at the end of the 1,500 meters, dropped the shot put, and accidently threw the javelin into the crowd.

And so it goes with education reform in America.

The recent release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress seemed to mystify educational policy makers just as much as the hypothetical decathlete's miserable performance baffled his coaches. And the reasons for failure are just as obvious.

Despite several decades of NCLB, RTT, ESSA, standards, accountability, metrics, Pearson, Common Core, PARCC, Smarter Balanced and billions of dollars, America's children are not running any faster or jumping over hurdles with any greater facility. As with the decathlete, after all of the highly focused preparation for the math and reading "Olympics," the kids haven't made any progress.

The analogy, albeit imperfect, should be instructive. A successful decathlete must have a rich and balanced approach to training. Variety, great nutrition, ample rest and cross-training are necessary ingredients for success. Dashes, hurdles, high jump and long jump require explosive strength and speed. Pole vault, javelin and shot put require upper body strength. 800 and 1,500 meters require an exquisite mix of speed and endurance. 400 meters requires some of everything. Training exclusively and intensely for only two events is a recipe for disaster.

It is bad enough that many of America's students have been exposed to millions of wasted hours of test prep, "high stakes" anxiety and the constant vilification of their wonderful teachers. Even if it had resulted in a slight improvement in performance, the price would have been exorbitant. But the fact that all of this has led to no material improvement is shameful. Thoughtful educators around the country are saying, with no joy, "We told you so."

That's more than bad enough, but it is even sadder that these decades of education reform have also dramatically reduced children's exposure to and engagement with the arts, led to sleep deprivation and lack of physical activity, reduced the time and space available for play, and demoralized teachers. All for nothing.

To torture the analogy, great athletic training requires tending to the whole body. A sprinter needs endurance work. The upper body strength gained in weight work improves hurdle technique. The 1,500 meters often requires an explosive finishing kick. A good coach knows that a decathlete needs a mix of all these things, which complement one another when done in artful balance.

This is inarguably true in human learning as well. Exposure to music enhances language development and mathematical understanding. Theater programs bring history to life, inspire empathy, build self-confidence and strengthen linguistic skills. Building castles from blocks develops deep physical knowledge and makes better mathematicians. All human learning is interconnected. Depriving children of rich, complex experiences in the dull service of training for standardized math and reading exams actually stunts their math and reading development. Ironic and dumb.

And, inarguably more importantly, music, movement, imagination, daydreaming, building some things and questioning others, are what make life worthwhile. The fact that they also enhance the "traditional" academic skills is just icing on the multi-tiered layers of a full life.

There are countless teachers, psychologists, child development specialists, neurobiologists, artists, philosophers and many others who know these things. Why are they not driving America's education system?