“Waiting for Superman” — a recent documentary evaluating the state of public education — praised charter schools’ efforts to hold students accountable through a strong emphasis on test-taking. Meanwhile, “Race to Nowhere” — a film screened at the University’s School of Education last month — proclaims that the overemphasis on test taking overlooks the skills students really need to be successful.

This paradox raises the question: Should schools maintain such a test-centered approach, or should they work to develop alternatives for measuring student success? Teaching to the test risks that students will cling to structure, burn out and adopt a résumé-centered existence. A more holistic approach would be to focus on developing creativity and critical analysis. Teachers could devalue grades and encourage students to think highly of themselves regardless of performance.

Such an answer to the proposed question is contingent on schools’ goals. If a school’s ultimate goal is to get its students into a top college and a subsequent high-paying job, then yes, a focus on test-taking and test preparation is conducive to such a goal. But not all students will go to a top college. And for those who don’t, a fairly large percentage will work jobs requiring just a high school degree. “Waiting for Superman” lauds college as the ultimate goal of public education. Criticism swarms that mindset not only because of its narrow-mindedness regarding personal development, but also because, for some students, college isn’t necessarily a wise investment.

Assume schools decide to eschew such a careerist approach, and instead champion values such as compassion, intellect and independent thinking. It would become apparent that standardized tests don’t sufficiently measure these abilities. If schools want to alter the skills of their students, schools will have to alter how they measure their students.

But if schools lighten up, students might too, and not necessarily in the ways schools would like. “Race to Nowhere” doesn’t concede that students might engage in unproductive activities with their extra time. But it’s not self-evident that kids will start their own businesses, read more and engage in community service if they spent less time worrying about earning top GPAs. It might even be presumptuous to assume that a school’s view toward tests can affect student behavior. It’s likely that Lady Gaga and LeBron James-like figures play a large part in forming students’ identities. The same can’t immediately be said for a school’s method of evaluation.

As this analysis has demonstrated, questions initially proposed unravel separate, more profound questions upon inspection. What is the best method to measure student success? That would depend on how schools define student success. What is the best method to hold teachers accountable? That hinges on what attributes schools value in their teachers.

Taking a stab at these questions is far beyond the scope of this article, so let’s first focus on what’s clear. What’s apparent about the education system is that everyone has problems with it. Math scores of American students have been steadily falling relative to students in other countries. Vast inequalities exist between schools located just minutes of each other.

Those invested in the debate are eager to answer the big questions. Education Policy Adviser Ken Robinson excited education enthusiasts with a couple of TED — a conference that brings together people from the Technology, Entertainment and Design industries — talks. He highlighted the importance of replacing conventional, linear models with more holistic ones that unearth creative potential. But his follow up books haven’t answered the “how-to,” and people are still awaiting the all-encompassing narrative — in book or documentary form — that promises to reconcile the institutional, economic and cultural problems that plague our education system today.

We’re not going to receive a magic formula for fixing schools because we don’t fully agree on the paradigms underlying the problems. This ideological stalemate will continue to subsist, but that doesn’t mean students should complacently sit around the proverbial dinner table while the “adults” talk about how to “fix” the education system. As these documentaries demonstrate, anyone can be portrayed as a victim. It’s easy to notice the inherent complexity surrounding educational policy and refuse to proclaim any responsibility or agency, but such complacency is self-defeating. It’s imperative that we — high school and University students alike — analyze the “race to nowhere” the documentary suggests we’re participating in and define for ourselves what we want to gain from our educational opportunities. If we don’t, we’ll continue waiting for some superman to decide that for us.

Erik Torenberg can be reached at erikto@umich.edu.

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