An Expert Weighs In

Our new Learning sections will feature a question-and-answer segment with an education expert. For our first installment, we’ve chosen Sir Ken Robinson, a best-selling author and longtime advocate of transforming education. His latest book, “You, Your Child, and School,” was published in March by Viking. The following interview was edited and condensed.

Your new book offers wide-ranging advice for parents as they try to manage their children’s education. If you had to choose one takeaway, what would it be?

Parents have more power and more choices than they may realize in educating their children. Many parents are worried about how the world is changing and the uncertain futures their children face. Parents are especially anxious about education. They worry that there’s too much testing and competition, that the curriculum is too narrow, that their children are not treated as individuals and that schools are not cultivating their curiosity, confidence and creative talents.

They worry about how many young people are being medicated for “learning problems.” They worry about the rising costs of college and whether their children will eventually find a job, whether or not they go to college. Often parents feel powerless to do anything about all of this. The good news is that a great many educators share these concerns and are also campaigning for change.

While it’s reasonable to lay heavy responsibility on parents for charting the path of their children’s education, they are no match for the bureaucracy of any single school, let alone a state or federal Department of Education. How can parents expect to have any real impact?

The challenges parents face and the options they have are naturally affected by their circumstances. Parents living in poor neighborhoods with limited resources face different challenges from those in wealthy suburbs with paid help. Some parents can pay for the education they want; most cannot.

In general, they have three options: They can work for changes within the current system, particularly in their children’s own school; they can press for changes to the system; or they can educate their children outside the system. Whatever their circumstances, parents are not powerless and their voices must be heard.

Is there one school system you think is doing things right? And if so, how?

Governments everywhere are trying to improve education. For decades, the main strategies have been standardization, competition and incessant testing, especially in literacy, mathematics and science. It’s been a partial success at best and in many ways a dismal failure. The story in Finland is different.

Finland is regularly at or near the top of international league tables in those disciplines but its success is much broader. Significantly, there is no mandated curriculum in Finland. Schools are encouraged to follow a broad curriculum that includes the arts, sciences, mathematics, languages, humanities and physical education. There is hardly any standardized testing. Finland invests heavily in the selection and training of teachers, and teaching is a high-status profession.

The Finnish system is not perfect and it’s still evolving, but it’s succeeding against a wide range of measures, where many other systems fall tragically short, and it’s doing that by following a different path.

You talk about the stress students are under these days. What’s the best way for a parent to ease that stress, while still keeping their students competitive in a very tough and demanding global environment?

In the United States, more than eight out of 10 teenagers experience extreme or moderate stress during the school year, including headaches, loss of sleep, anger and irritability. The main causes include anxieties about academic performance, the pressures of testing, and parental pressures to excel at school and get into a good college.

girl doing homework with her parents

Many young people feel overscheduled with nearly every waking hour being assigned, plotted and planned with little time for just “being a kid.” Parents can help in three ways: by learning to recognize the signs of “toxic” stress, by easing the pressures at home through encouraging more downtime and by working collectively with the school to reduce some of the avoidable causes of stress, including the often excessive levels of homework and testing.

You have been critical — as have many — of standardized testing. If you could change it, how would you do it differently? End it altogether? Change the format? Do it less often? And if the last, how do you ensure that students are learning what they need to know?

There was a time when school students could expect to take a few tests each year. Now they face a seemingly endless steeplechase of tests, sometimes starting in kindergarten.

High-stakes testing was meant to raise standards in education. Instead, it’s generated a dreary culture of incessant competition, which has soaked up billions of taxpayer dollars with no significant improvement in standards, causing enormous stress for teachers, children and their families. Constructive assessment is an essential part of high-quality education, and some forms of diagnostic testing can be helpful. The usual forms of high stakes testing are neither constructive nor essential.

The proper purposes of assessment are to support and improve student learning and to provide an informative record of their achievements. There are many better ways to do this than through the barren rituals of bubble tests.

What is your view of charter schools? Would you encourage or discourage their existence?

Charter schools are independently operated public schools, which have freer rein than regular public schools in what they teach and how they are run. In themselves, they are neither better nor worse than ordinary public schools. Some are very successful, others less so.

One argument for charter schools is that they can invigorate the public sector by spreading new practices. Some do and some don’t. Another is that they give parents more choice in education. The choice can be more apparent than real. All schools have limited spaces, and popular ones soon become oversubscribed. Either way, for most families, public schools are still their best opportunity in education.

If you were the United States education secretary, what is the first thing you would do to change the American school system?

What is education for? In my view, it is to enable all students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens. The proper role of government is to create the best conditions for that to happen.

If I were secretary, I would encourage all schools to adopt a broad and balanced curriculum including languages, math, the arts, sciences, humanities and physical education, and develop nonstatutory guidelines and resources to support them. I would roll back the current testing requirements in favor of more informative approaches to assessment. I would support the comprehensive development of early-years education. I would institute a “soup to nuts” review of the selection, training and support of teachers. I would introduce incentives for creative partnerships between schools, families, cultural organizations and the private sector.

In these and other ways, education can and must change — for all our sakes.