Education reformers should bone up on Darwin

When I was in elementary school, we used to have to take those timed math fact tests in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  Do you remember those?  Cheap paper with dark green printing?  If you tried to erase a wrong answer, the paper ripped.  I don’t even think that the order was randomized from sheet to sheet.  I could be wrong about that part, but I remember those tests. Vividly.

Our school had something called the Charlie Brown Math Facts Contest.  The third, fourth, and fifth grades would compete to see how many perfect tests each class could accumulate over a set period of time.  We took the multiplication tests once a week.  The school prominently placed a bulletin board outside of the library, and each person in each class had her/his name written on a baseball bat.  Then each time that person scored a 100 on the timed test, s/he received a paper baseball with a “100″ on it next to her/his corresponding bat.  We saw that bulletin board every week when we lined up outside of the library to have our weekly session with Mrs. Rue.  I counted those baseballs and tracked how my class was doing.  I also tracked how I was doing compared to my peers.  At the end of the contest, the winning class received an ice cream sundae party.  I think my class won at least once, as I remember eating ice cream at my desk at some point, but I honestly can’t remember.

My how times have changed.

Would this kind of contest even be allowed in a school right now?  Possibly, given the intense focus on test scores as measures of student achievement and teacher effectiveness.  However, I’m more interested in knowing if the public display of individual achievement would be allowed.  Everyone could see everyone else’s name and the number of baseballs accumulated in the contest.  It was a pretty clear indication of who could effectively take those particular kinds of tests.  Sure, someone could have an off week, but with an ice cream sundae contest at stake, the heavy hitters in each class were needed to bring the win home for the team.

I’m writing about this memory because it makes me think about the value of healthy competition in an educational environment.  It also makes me think about how Darwin’s theories of natural selection and the survival of the fittest sometimes tell us more than we want to know or care to acknowledge about the way the world works. Essentially, a variation in a species survives because that variation helps the species to become more fit.  The fitter member survives.  Even with America’s intense focus on science education at this moment, I think that the concept of the survival of the fittest is difficult for Americans to swallow because it flies in the face of our egalitarian attitudes about fairness and equality.  America, the land of opportunity for all.  America, the land where everyone gets a chance at the American Dream.  America, the land where every child should win the ice cream sundae party, etc., etc., etc.

Can we really translate these ideals into practical realities in our public education system?  Should every child get the ice cream sundae party?

The current education system in the United States is perceived as flawed, broken, unfair, etc.  I don’t disagree entirely with that assessment, but I do think that some of these descriptors are assigned because some educational reformers believe that all students should be high achievers.  Every student should be a winner and get an ice cream sundae party.  Only then is the public education system truly equal and fair.  Holding onto that ideal is like saying that Darwin’s work never happened.  Reality tells us that some people are better at timed multiplication tests than others.  Some people are better at repairing automobiles.  Some people are better runners.  Or ice hockey players.  Or lovers.  And the list goes on.

Our public education system guarantees that all young people should have a chance at a free, quality education.  What’s being hotly debated right now is the quality part.  And reformers and academics are studying teacher effectiveness, parental involvement, poverty, and any number of variables that somehow contribute to a child’s experience in the current education system.  It is like peeling an onion and herding cats.  Dizzying.

I’m proposingthat as we continue to look for ways to enhance this “damaged” system, let’s not forget that natural selection exists.  It exists in the real, scientific world, and it exists in the professional world.  The “fittest” person gets hired for the job.  What a prospective employer considers “fit” will be subjective in many cases, but that’s how the world works.  Our education system should not protect young people from that very real dynamic.  Hiding from it, pretending that it doesn’t exist, seems juvenile to me.  If our education system could be more truthful about that, then we could also be more effective at helping young people to find where they are fittest and then cultivating those skill sets.

A lot of valuable time, energy, and money has been invested into trying to “fix the system,” and the results have been unimpressive and/or suspect.  The better use of these resources would be to actually understand how the system works realistically, considering science and what we know about natural selection, and finding ways to work with the laws of nature rather than defying them.

*** Please note that the blogger had big dreams of being an embryologist in 1990.  Those dreams changed when he was “naturally selected” out of that career when he was deemed “unfit” with a “D” in organic chemistry.  The blogger is thankful for the laws of nature, as his true path became clear, and his fitness was cultivated in other areas where positive variations had emerged.