Academic achievement seems to be one of the ultimate goals of our school system.
"Achievement" is one of those unquestioned goods that is often thrown about in discussions of what is right and wrong in education.
In 2006 an "achievement gap" for boys was big news.
The Reading First program of the No Child Left Behind law spent billions of dollars to help stimulate early academic achievement, but, seems to be utterly failing.
The problem is not achievement, the problem is the imposition of early academics as the only supported goal for elementary age children (~6-12 year olds) for the majority of their waking hours during the developmental period when important attitudes towards the world are forming.
The achievement that matters for primary school-age students is the achievement of the 3R's of Respect, Responsibility, and Resourcefulness, not Readin', 'Ritin' and 'Rithmetic.
Imagine handing a kid the first acorn he's ever seen and then pointing to an oak tree and saying, "Those two are the same plant, that acorn in your hand will some day be an oak tree like that one."
You would be sympathetic if the kid is not convinced until he is also shown the intervening elements of the pattern from acorn, to sprout, to sapling, to oak tree.
And he will not truly appreciate the miracle of that life until he has also glimpsed some of the amazing processes that occur at different levels to transform that acorn into an oak tree, from DNA molecules and cellular metabolism up to ecological and climatological dynamics.
Now imagine a similar situation in which the child is handed a hammer and then shown the White House and being told, "If you learn to use that hammer you could build a house like that some day."
Being handed a hammer and promised the White House is like the tragedy of enforced early academic achievement.
We are forcing the kids to learn to use a set of tools by telling them about the great things that have been built before, but completely neglecting everything in between.
It's a tragedy because it is very well intentioned, but utterly misses all the intervening elements of the pattern that led from a hammer to the White House.
It also neglects the goodness, joy and beauty of all the amazing processes from personal decisions and basic problem solving to the coordination of the trades and working with government agencies that produce the desired result.
Is academic achievement the only achievement that matters?
Achievement is a core issue of what education is supposed to be about.
I define education as the production of an educated person, where an educated person is someone who perceives accurately, thinks clearly and acts effectively on self-selected goals and aspirations.
Achievement is still important in this way of thinking.
But the forceful imposition of academic goals short circuits the whole process.
First, it's a problem when the goals are other-selected, not self-selected.
Second, academics are socially valued means to the end of optimal states of mind.
(In my piece about elementary school I explain optimal states of mind in more depth.)
Therefore, adults willingly make the imposition based on the assumption that the kids will need access to academic means.
Adults recognize that academic tools are necessary for building a successful life in today's society.
So, they focus on trying to make children learn to use those academic tools.
But by focusing on the tools for achieving optimal states of mind instead of the end result, many children are un-willingly forced to endure non-optimal states of mind by well-intentioned adults who don't realize they are defeating their own purpose.
The academic achievement system in schools can be summed up as a gauntlet of imposed symbol manipulation activities imposed on children by well-meaning adults.
In another piece about our education system you can read about my criticism of the assumption that symbol manipulation is the most basic "nuts and bolts" of schooling.
Academics are a vast set of tools for achieving access to optimal states of mind.
Those tools cannot build anything of value without someone to do the designing, organizing, and building.
Elementary education needs to be about helping children become the designers, organizers and builders of their own lives.
Then in the middle and high school years, and beyond, the focus on the tools makes sense and academic achievement is a good benchmark for success.
What can be done to transform elementary schools?
Let's start by recognizing that the true goal of schooling is not academic achievement.
The true goal of schooling is to provide access to optimal states of mind.
The single best means to achieving that goal is to discover a young student's current means of accessing optimal states, and then, building on that foundation.
That means providing them with opportunities to access optimal states in ways they have already discovered before arriving at school, and then encouraging them work with their compatriots in the community to discover as many other means as possible.
Which will inevitably include the most popular means our species have yet devised, the various forms of symbol manipulation and the academic disciplines.
The biggest challenge will be realigning the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum is where brains interact with policies.
Since brains and policies cannot be directly observed in the classroom the interactions between them are hidden.
Realigning the hidden curriculum to support more reliable access to optimal states of mind will change how adults and children interact.
Organizing education in this way will require us to transform our concepts of teachers and their proper role in the lives of children.
Rather than being autocratic dictators who impose symbol manipulation activities upon children for their own good, teachers will be community leaders who are charged with ensuring that children have fair and reasonable access to the resources they need to increase the diversity of ways that they gain access to optimal states of mind.
Teachers will be leading the way for children by organizing their own lives and their communities to provide access to optimal states of mind.
Early academic achievement is a well intentioned booby prize for kids.
We can do better than academic achievement.
The foundation they need for a successful future starts with developing a good attitude before they are goaded into the gauntlet of grades.