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The Committee of Ten

In Most Likely to Succeed, Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith trace the development of U.S. education over the last century and a quarter. In 1892, The Committee of Ten, led by Harvard President Charles Eliot, created a standardized framework for a high school curriculum that, in turn, dictated essential prerequisites for college admissions. 

This system required that students earn between 18 and 24 “Carnegie Units” in order to graduate. A Carnegie Unit is a standardized measure of “seat time served” in a given class—roughly 120 hours of class time over the course of a year.

Students’ grades in a particular class were supposed to represent how well they “serve that time”. Students’ grade point average and class rank are taken as measures of how well students perform, compared to peers. 

Astonishingly, 130 years later, grade point average and class rank still make up the typical high school assessment. These in turn are required by virtually every college and university in America for a student to be considered for admission. Can we honestly condone judging students in 2020 based on standards developed in 1892? 

These measures are more than a century old, and hopelessly obsolete. In our modern era of innovation, students need essential, dynamic "bionic learning" skills along with creative, risk-taking mindsets - habits of mind and heart that cannot be measured by Carnegie Units.

When the “assembly line model of education” emerged at the end of the 1800s, repetitive tasks were the order of the day. Happily for many, midway through the last century, low-wage routine jobs moved offshore. Fortunately for our material standard of living, millions of white-collar knowledge-based jobs were created, as large corporations demanded mid-level workers to manage information in this new Knowledge Economy. Our consumption-hungry society continued to be satisfied and the 1893 grade-based education system chugged along.

During the 1980s, a few voices did express concern about the quality of education in the United States. They cite results like those in the PISA exams, where our failure to teach students the essential subjects of math, reading and science help to breed a moribund education system, which continues to prove itself incapable of adapting to a changing world. 

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They cite the prescient Nation at Risk report of over 30 years ago remarked that “if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

An Existential Choice

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States faced an “existential choice”, as the innovation-based dot-com bubble ballooned around us. “We could completely redesign our education system … or we could push our existing system harder for incremental improvements and rely on policies calling for curriculum homogeneity, more pervasive standardized testing, and teacher accountability tied to student test score performance.” Unfortunately, on a national level, we chose to support our obsolete, rigidly test-based education system. 

We naively opted for President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top”. These measures incentivized states to hold teachers accountable for their students’ performance on standardized tests. Rather than recognize the skills needed for success and well-being in our transformative digital age, such as the creativity that plays to our strengths, we chose to ignore our creative advantage. Instead, we entered a race with Asian countries - whose unhappy students deeply study narrow silos of mainly STEM subjects while being worked to the bone in cultures dissimilar to our own.

Unfortunately, homogeneous standardized tests, like the SAT and ACT, simply don’t capture much of what is actually required to succeed in today’s rapidly changing digital age. In fact, grades and test scores that rely on the certain logic of deduction and the predictive logic of induction are antithetical to learning the abductive skills of innovation. Yet our mainstream education institutions that rely on standardized tests are largely stuck in 1892. 

There is a hopeful groundswell to understand and harness creative solutions, catalyzed by enlightened organizations such as VentureWell, whose mission is to elevate innovation and entrepreneurship though networks of individuals, organizations and resources. But the private sector, even with government grants, can’t accomplish alone what we need in order to transform education from the 1892 model to models, like bionic learning, which are designed to promote creative problem solving.

Wagner, Tony and Dintersmith, Ted, Most Likely to Succeed, Simon and Schuster, 2015.

What is your experience with standardized testing?