(Second post in the “Why Design?” series. All of Garreth’s writing represent a view from the crossroads of education and design. See more of Garreth’s posts here.


I work in an area of Pennsylvania with many “good” public schools.  I say “good” because there are a number of high schools in this area that sit at the top of the rankings for “Most Challenging Schools” or “Best High Schools” done by any number of publications in the state/nation. Naturally, these lists all have their own metrics for selection; however when one digs deep enough, the metrics usually resolve themselves into some reliance on test scores, most notably the number of students in a district taking and passing AP tests.

I know little about AP classes other than they cause my own students a good deal of (good?) stress, that they seem successful in stuffing students full of information, and that many students enjoy the challenge in the game of regurgitation and getting the “5” on the test. After all, that’s what school is about.  And it certainly helps that such success may well excuse successful students from the “intro” courses at college.  Let us face it, on the level that matters most, economics, taking an AP course and passing out of a college requirement is money well spent.

(Full disclosure:  I probably would have been a 4—AP class-a-year student if they had been around when I was in high school.  I was good at the game of school.)

GOOD SCHOOLS

Thus, when a district shows up on the “awards list du jour,” when the awarding educational conglomerate or state official sends the congratulatory banner emblazoned with their brand/seal, when the schools celebrate their academic acumen at faculty and board meetings, well, this is, I suppose, what it means to be a “good school.”  I also imagine parents who succeeded in schools just like these, and how they would want to live in districts with “good schools,” and so I understand the cachet that accompanies the hard work it took from teachers and students alike to play that game, to “score” that goal and win that trophy, that banner, that emblem. (I recognize that I have ignored the elephant in the room, namely the issue of how socio-economic status is clearly linked with student success and achievement in schooling.  However, an examination of that pachyderm will have to wait.)

MAKING THE GRADE

Of course, placing such important rankings upon these classes really begs the question that AP achievement (or almost any test for that matter) actually is a proper standard for what constitutes a “good school.”

Is it?  Well, the answer rests upon the assumption that the way we have always done school works best, and that assumption is based upon the institution’s myopic belief that drilling and testing will create intellectual monads capable of “making the grade.”  If recent articles and research are any indication, the capabilities engendered through such an education are little more than compliance and belief in the system itself.  In fact, at least according to one researcher, there seems to be little correlation between making the grade and truly making a difference in the world.  (This Valedictorian’s speech, as well as Erica’s Goldson’s well known 2010 address,  also speak student-power to the truth.)

So “good enough” really means “making the grade.”  It means meeting the criteria set by a world which is not the world that ought to be but is simply the world that is.  It means buying into a massive naturalistic fallacy:  that the way the world is is the way it ought to be.  

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

As a debate coach, I’ve endeavored to help all my debaters spot and reveal reliance upon logical fallacies.  But closer to my heart, I don’t want my children to be part of a fallacy.  And this fallacy is one that denies the very ideal of education to begin with—that we educate because we know the world can be a better place.  It is this belief that has driven me to a quarter century in the classroom.

It is also this belief that has driven me to work with PlusUs.  I’m in education for the same reason PlusUs is involved in Human Centered Design, because:

  • We won’t settle for the way things are;  
  • We know we can work with others to make things better.  
  • We believe that designing, that making, is better for our students, for our world, than merely making the grade.

(7/1/17  Update:  Grant Lichtman just posted this blog post further damning the AP industry.  Key sentence from his post:  “No school I know of that has dropped the AP has had any drop-off of their college matriculation statistics.”)