I published my first thesis post on March 1, 2010, referencing an article in New York Magazine titled “The Junior Meritocracy1.” Even though I had been involved with Project: Interaction research for months already I hadn’t yet taken a deep dive into the serious issues impacting K–12 education in its current state. This article was the first eye-opening step in my long thesis journey. My thoughts at the time were especially poignant:
“It looks like our education system is flawed here, and never having gone through [the NYC school system] myself, I’m very interested in finding out more.”
Just a few months earlier, my classmate Carmen Dukes and I discovered we were interested in teaching interaction design to high school students. Without any teaching experience, we thought it would be a good idea to do some research into the current state of schools and the teaching and learning experiences.
During the spring and into summer I gained a vast knowledge of our education system. I learned about an entire culture that revolves around testing and standards, where a requisite percentage of students must succeed on standardized tests to enable a teacher, and moreover a school, to be deemed qualified to continue educating young people.
I saw something lacking in the classrooms I observed: creativity. Many of the teachers I met were careful to teach only from the prescribed books and curricula. It was only in art classes where some teachers felt free to deviate from the expectations laid out for them, probably because the expectations weren’t considered “essential” by the schools and the state in the first place.
After months of research and development, Carmen and I produced our own curriculum plan for Project: Interaction, an after school program that teaches students to change their communities using design. We found a school interested in working with us and set up our first class for the fall of 2010.
As our investment in the teaching community deepened, the conversations I had with teachers fueled my curiosity about creativity in the school system. As a highly educated person embarking upon my second fine arts degree I kept looking out for ways that the system would support people like me – those with creative and intellectual fervor, who embrace change and the ability to see possibilities instead of only risks.
I started reading books and blog posts on the subject of the public school system. Many voices were speaking loudly, and most were claiming the system to be deeply flawed. In contrast to the academic perspectives I had been reading, I trekked to a theatre to see Waiting for Superman, a popular documentary that criticizes the current system by detailing the vast differences between the quality of public school education across socioeconomic categories.
In the fall of 2010 the media was suddenly abuzz with ideas for education reform. Everywhere I turned there was a new method or solution being proposed that would “save” American public school education. Can games solve the education crisis? What about design thinking? Or, can adaptive testing save education?
Even though I was immersed in this world, I still couldn’t pinpoint the exact problem. What exactly was everyone trying to save?
In her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch writes:
“The passage of No Child Left Behind made testing and accountability our national education strategy… Education reformers in the states and in the federal government endorsed tests of basic skills as the only possible common ground in education. The goal of testing was higher scores, without regard to whether students acquired any knowledge of history, science, literature, geography, the arts, and other subjects that were not important for accountability purposes.”2
The education system is focused on results without any regard to the benefit of the journey. We must “save” the opportunity to wander off the path.
Ravitch’s opinion was echoed by many of the teachers I spoke with about standardized testing and No Child Left Behind. The general attitude I heard in my research is that the school system’s laser-focus on metrics and testing is hurting the ability for educators to reach the students most in need of their help.
In addition to their concerns about testing, teachers were facing myriad other problems including lack of funding, restricted permissions, and the challenge of working in an environment with other teachers who treat their jobs as just a paycheck instead of the life-changing role it can be.
Midway through my research I realized the challenges of our education system were much too big for me to tackle in a single project. I decided I would focus on the group of users for whom I had come to develop a deep sense of empathy. I would focus my user research working specifically with high school teachers.