Race to Self Destruction: A History Lesson for Education Reformers
Race to the Top, Obama Administration’s $4.35 billion education initiative, has been touted many times by the President and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as “the most meaningful education reform in a generation”. It is also been proposed as the blueprint for the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently bearing the more notorious title No Child Left Behind (NCLB). I have always found Race to the Top amusingly sad and educationally harmful and written about it in different places including an op-ed piece in Education Week and a couple of posts on my blog. Today when I was re-reading Jared Diamond’s brilliant book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, I found his story of how the Easter Islanders’ race to build the most magnificent statues eventually led to their collapse chillingly similar to what is happening to American education.
The hundreds of stone statues on Easter Island have been one of the greatest mysteries on earth. Located in the southern Pacific Ocean, Easter Island is over 2,000 miles away from the closest land, Chile, and 1,400 miles away from the nearest island, which is uninhabited. It is also a very small island, only 15 miles long and 10 miles wide. Yet, on this remote and small island are over 800 giant statues carved out of stone. They are large and heavy—ranging from 15 feet to 70 feet and from 10 to 270 tons. The largest ever erected weighed over 80 tons. Some of them have a separate headpiece, a cylinder of red scoria that weigh up to 12 tons. When the first European explorer discovered it in 1722, the island was almost uninhabited, with just a few thousand people living in poor conditions without any advanced technology. The explorers did not find any large animals or trees that could be used to help move and lift the statues.
How could the islanders have carved, transported, and erected the statues because “organizing the carving, transport, and erection of the statues required a complex populous society living in an environment rich enough to support it” (Diamond, 2005, p.81) and such a society was apparently nonexistent when Easter Island was discovered?
Many theories have been proposed. “Many Europeans were incredulous that Polynesians, ‘mere savages,” could have created the statues or the beautifully constructed stone platforms” (Diamond, 2005, p. 82). They attributed these grand works to other civilizations and even intelligent space aliens. But Jared Diamond, a professor of Geography and Physiology of UCLA and a Pulitzer Prize winner for his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, presents a more compelling theory. Equipped with a large cumulative body of knowledge generated by archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, and other scientists, Diamond uncovers a history of tragic self-destruction on Easter Island.
The giant statues were indeed created by the Polynesians who began to occupy Easter Island about 1,000 years ago, when it was covered with forests of big and tall trees, some of which reached to about 100 feet in height and seven feet in diameter. These trees could be used to make seafaring canoes that enabled more productive fishing. Easter Island provided habitats for many species of seabirds. Coupled with a rather sophisticated agriculture, Easter Islanders developed a civilization that once had an estimated population of 15,000. Such a population provided sufficient labor force to carve, transport, and raise the statues. The tall trees provided the necessary tools and materials to transport and raise the statues.
The giant statues were also one of the primary causes of the collapse of the Easter Island civilization. The island was divided into about a dozen territories and each belonged to one clan. Diamond suggests the statues were raised to represent their ancestors and there was a competition going on between rival clans. Each chief was trying to outdo their rivals by erecting larger and taller statues, and later adding the heavy headpiece on the statues. The statues became a symbol of status, power, and prestige to impress and intimidate rivals. And because of Easter Island’s particular situation, building bigger statues became virtually the only race among the clans. As a result, the statues got bigger, taller, and fancier.
The race was costly. It took tremendous resources to carve, transport, and erect these statues. It needed surplus food to feed the people working on the statues and thus required more farming land. Trees were cut down to build vehicles for transporting and supporting the erection. Ropes used to pull the statues were made from barks of the tall trees. As more, bigger, and taller statues were built, more trees were cut down. Slowly, the whole forest on Easter Island disappeared, so were all tree species. “Immediate consequences for the islanders were losses of raw materials, losses of wild-caught foods, and decreased crop yields…The further consequences start with starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism” (Diamond, 2005, p.107, 109) Eventually, the Easter Island civilization collapsed, leaving hundreds of broken, fallen, and unfinished stone statues littered on a barren island.
Although there are competing theories pointing out that human activities may not be the only cause of deforestation and ecosystem collapse on Easter Island (e.g., some scientists suggest rats as another contributing factor), Diamond provides a convincing “example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its resources.” A significant driving force behind the overexploitation was the race to erect bigger statues.
I can’t help making the connection between Easter Islanders’ race to erect the statues and Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and proposed plan for reauthorization of NCLB, which has already set American education on a race of test scores for a decade. Some may object to this metaphorical connection by arguing that test scores represent the quality of education a school provides, the performance of a teacher, and students’ ability to succeed in the future. But the chiefs and priests on Easter Island also believed that the statues represented the health and power of their clans, the performance of their members, and promise for a more prosperous future.
Test scores have no doubt become American’s stone statue in education. America wants to outscore other countries on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS, just like the Easter Island’s rival clans wanted to out build each other. NCLB and Race to the Top force states, schools, and teachers to outscore each other with either a club or carrots or both. Whether it is the complex AYP calculation formula or the proposed even more complex value-added-measures, the ultimate measure remains scores on standardized tests. Whether it is the prescribed punitive measures of NCLB or the proposed “reward for excellence” by Obama, the criteria are the same: test scores and the intention no different: outscore others.
In their race to build bigger statues, Easter Islanders put increasingly more resources into carving, transporting, and erecting statues. Likewise, in America’s race to obtain higher test scores, American schools have invested more resources in raising test scores. A large proportion of schools have spent significantly more time on the tested subjects (math and reading) and reduced time for other subjects and activities. Teachers have spent more time preparing students for standardized tests and focused more time on tested content. Millions of hours are spent each year for students to take the standardized tests. Billions of dollars are spent each year on testing or simply measuring whose statue is larger.
Just like the Easter Islanders’ obsession with building statues damaged their ecosystem, America’s obsession with test scores have already begun and will continue to damage its education ecosystem. The high stakes attached to test scores have already forced states, schools, and teachers to improve test scores at any cost—manipulating standards, cheating, teaching to the tests, and only focusing on those students who can bring the most gains in scores. Students who are talented and interested in things that do not contribute to improving scores are considered at risk and put in special sessions to improve their scores. Teachers’ professional autonomy is taken away so they can more easily forced to raise test scores. Local democratically elected school boards are rendered assistants of the federal government to raise test scores. American’s traditional educational strengths—tolerance of diversity, respect for individual difference, and celebration for creativity—are replaced with standardization so as to raise test scores. A broad and balanced curriculum is narrowed to what can be easily scripted and measured so as to raise test scores.
What is more dangerous is that the Easter Islanders perhaps did not realize their imminent collapse before it was too late. Blinded by the short-term glory of their magnificent statues, they were preoccupied with creating even more magnificent ones while the last palm tree was cut down. Equally blinded by the potential of common standards and testing programs to improve test scores, the current administration is ignoring the real civil rights issues facing our children: poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, and unequal access to educational resources. Basking in the victorious sunshine of forcing some 40 states to change laws and policies and trade their constitutional rights to education for promised federal dollars, the Obama Administration may be getting closer to cut down the last palm tree in American education land.
And ultimately, just like Easter Island ended up a barren island filled with big statues, America may succeed in raising test scores but it will likely end up as a nation of great test takers in an intellectually barren land.
Actually, this has happened before. China’s imperial testing system, keju, enticed generations of Chinese to study for the test so as to earn a position in government and bring glory to the family. But it has been blamed as a cause of China’s failure to develop modern science, technology, and enterprises as well as China’s repeated failures in wars with foreign powers because good test takers are just that: good at taking tests and nothing else. Until today, China is still working hard to move away from a test-oriented education in order to have the talents to build a knowledge-based economy (See Chapter 4 of my book Catching Up or Leading the Way).
Dr. Doug Green has an excellent summary of the myths and negative consequences of standardized testing based on a book on his site: http://drdouggreeen.com.
Also, an AP story about President Obama’s recent speech seems to suggest that the President does not really like testing either but is this just talk in front teachers and students or will he eliminate standardized testing in the new ESA?
Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin.