Thomas Armstrong recently wrote a provocative book with the same title as this essay. I invited him to write a post for this blog, and he did. His point of view stands in sharp contrast to the current policy environment of testing, data, competition, and punishment for teachers, principals, students, and schools that don’t hit test score benchmarks.

He writes:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (the ‘’nation’s report card’’), recently released reading and math test scores for fourth- and sixth-graders and the results have been less than stellar. Showing declines in reading and little progress in math, these results are bound to stimulate calls for new education reforms.  However, we should keep in mind the historical context in U.S. efforts to raise achievement levels in our schools.  This campaign for school reform dates as far back as 1983, when the then U.S. Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, wrote his seminal report ‘’A Nation at Risk’’ stating that American schools were being ‘’eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.’’

His paper unleashed what became a concerted attempt over the next thirty-five years to reform our schools.  The leaders in this effort were politicians (particularly state governors), CEOs of large corporations, and education bureaucrats. They held summits, passed laws (including the infamous No Child Left Behind Act), instituted more ‘’rigorous’’ requirements for students, and promoted new forms of standardized testing and curricula.  Yet as noted above, American academic achievement levels haven’t changed much. Similar evidence of little to no progress in test results over time among U.S. students can be seen in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests given every three years to 15-year olds in over seventy countries (the results of the latest scores from 2018 will be released December 3rd).

Perhaps it wasn’t all that wise to entrust our nation’s educational welfare to a bunch of politicians, corporate executives, and bureaucrats. Maybe there’s some other authority we can call upon who could put us on the right track with regard to education policy in America. In fact, I’d like to suggest a radical alternative:  why not Albert Einstein?  After all, he’s usually the first person that pops into one’s head when thinking of the world’s smartest person. His theories have literally changed the way we view the universe.  And as it turns out, Einstein had strong opinions about how education should be conducted which we could profitably apply to our current lack of educational progress. 

First of all, if Einstein ran our schools, he pretty definitely would discourage the current focus on standardization of curriculum and testing.  In an essay entitled ‘’On Education,’’ he wrote: ‘’A community of standardized individuals without personal originality and personal aims would be a poor community without possibilities for development.’’  Instead, Einstein likely would place a lot of emphasis in our classrooms on unleashing students’ imagination.  It was through his own imagination that he helped create a totally new way of looking at reality.  In high school, for example, he visualized himself racing alongside of a beam of light, and in his young adulthood, he imagined what it would feel like to be in a closed elevator in outer space as it began to accelerate (the experience would be equivalent to gravity).  These visual-kinesthetic images were the intellectual ‘’seeds’’ for his special and general theories of relativity. 

 Another capacity that Einstein would most probably encourage in the schools is the promotion of students’ curiosity.  Quoted in a 1955 Life Magazine article, he said ‘’The important thing is not to stop questioning.  Curiosity has its own reason for existence.  One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.  It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.  Never lose a sense of holy curiosity.’’ Einstein’s attitude toward curiosity stands in stark contrast to today’s typical classroom in the United States where students are required to make progress on hundreds of tasks that are a part of the Common Core State Standards used by over forty states, which includes such instructional goals as being able to ‘’ensure subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement’’ in language arts and to ‘’solve word problems leading to equations of the form px +q = r, where p, q, and r are specific rational numbers’’ in math. There’s not much room in these standards for authentic curiosity. 

Einstein cautioned us to keep our priorities straight with respect to education when he wrote:  ‘’It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good.  Otherwise he—with his specialized knowledge—more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person.’’  If, in our rush to raise test scores, we ignore such guidelines from one of the smartest individuals who ever lived, we do so at our own peril.

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is the author of If Einstein Ran the Schools:  Revitalizing U.S. Education.  Visit his website:  Follow him on Twitter:  @Dr_Armstrong.