Killing US Education: Emphasizing Competition Over Creativity

Awesome post by David Brooks from April on The Creative Monopoly:

One of his core points is that we tend to confuse capitalism with competition. We tend to think that whoever competes best comes out ahead. In the race to be more competitive, we sometimes confuse what is hard with what is valuable. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value.

Think about the traits that creative people possess. Creative people don’t follow the crowds; they seek out the blank spots on the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows.

He goes on to point out that this is exactly how we treat our education system now, as if it is for building competition, not creativity:

First, students have to jump through ever-more demanding, preassigned academic hoops. Instead of developing a passion for one subject, they’re rewarded for becoming professional students, getting great grades across all subjects, regardless of their intrinsic interests. Instead of wandering across strange domains, they have to prudentially apportion their time, making productive use of each hour.

Then they move into a ranking system in which the most competitive college, program and employment opportunity is deemed to be the best. There is a status funnel pointing to the most competitive colleges and banks and companies, regardless of their appropriateness.

This is why No Child Left Behind is a joke. This is why the goal of beating out Pacific Rim countries like China, Japan, Korea and Singapore on the PISA and TIMSS exams makes no sense at all.

In the business world, in the Lean Startup movement, there is a term called vanity metrics. Vanity metrics are numbers that make us feel like we are doing well but in the grand scheme of things doesn’t mean much. They don’t mean much because they are not actionable numbers and to be actionable they must have a clear cause and effect. In the iOS software world, downloads are one of those measurements. I have no idea why downloads happen because I am completely removed from the App Store process.

I would argue that PISA and TIMMS scores are also vanity metrics. Who cares if we are 19th in the world in this or 5th in the world in that. For the most part we aren’t even comparing apples to apples, as this incredibly good article by Zalman Usiskan, professor emeritus at the Univerity of Chicago, points out. What really matters is that our students can graduate and be productive members of society.

What we need in this country is more creativity, not more competition. And our success and failure in birthing creative students will not be reflected in any test score.