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When Education Reformers Clash

If taxpayers were not confused enough about conflicting claims over the best way to improve schools, they were left in an even more perplexed state after reading an op-ed written by Vinton G. Cerf ("How to Fire Up U.S. Innovation," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 12). Cerf, who helped develop the Internet, has impeccable credentials. But he comes up with the wrong answer to the question he poses about why America's K-12 education system is unlikely to turn out enough innovators in technology in the years ahead.

If Cerf genuinely wants young people to "understand and experience the thrill of science and discovery," he needs to talk to science teachers. They share his belief that students should do "real science," rather than merely read about it. But what he doesn't address are the pressures on schools to focus almost exclusively on boosting standardized test scores that have little to do with sparking student interest. In fact, they do just the opposite.

The innovation that Cerf wants ultimately depends on creativity. He admits as much when he writes that students need "the freedom to pursue ideas, the freedom to fail, and the freedom of access to information in the broadest sense." But how will students achieve these indispensable goals if virtually all their science education in today's reform movement is based on practices that discourage the attainment of these very same objectives?

Educators have long debated whether creativity can be taught. I think the realistic answer is that teachers can establish conditions in their classrooms likely to nurture whatever creative ability students possess. But teachers cannot develop Einsteins in their math classes or Darwins in their science classes. What they can do is to allow students to become the best they possibly can. Sadly, this strategy is the antithesis of what is taking place in public schools across the country under the accountability movement.

It's ironic that schools in this country prior to the accountability movement did a good job of producing talent in science and math. The World Economic Forum, for example, consistently ranked the U.S. No. 1 in competitiveness, with one exception - right after 9/11 when the U.S. was bumped down to No. 2.

I wonder what Cerf would say about that?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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