In my last post, I wrote about the tension between learning, with the emphasis on the needs and progress of individual human learners, and education, which is the system by which we try to guarantee learning to all but which we often subvert in our well-meaning but misguided attempts to measure whether we are delivering that learning. I spent a lot of time in that post exploring research by Gallup regarding the workplace performance of adults, various dimensions of personal wellbeing, and the links of both to each other and to college experiences. One of Gallup’s findings were that workers who are disengaged with their work are less healthy. They are more likely to get clinically depressed, more likely to get heart conditions, and more likely to die young. I then made a connection between disengaged adults and disengaged students. What I left implicit was that if being disengaged as an adult is bad for one’s health, it stands to reason that being disengaged as a child is also bad for one’s health. We could be literally making our children sick with schooling.
I am in the midst of reading Anya Kamenetz’s new book The Test. It has convinced me that I need to take some time making the connection explicit.
In that previous post, I wrote,
Also, people who love their jobs are more likely to both stay working longer and live longer. In a study George Gallup conducted in the 1950s,
…men who lived to see 95 did not retire until they were 80 years old on average. Even more remarkable, 93% of these men reported getting a great deal of satisfaction out of the work they did, and 86% reported having fun doing their job.
Conversely, a 2008 study the company found a link between employee disengagement and depression:
We measured their engagement levels and asked them if they had ever been diagnosed with depression. We excluded those who reported that they had been diagnosed with depression from our analysis. When we contacted the remaining panel members in 2009, we again asked them if they had been diagnosed with depression in the last year. It turned out that 5% of our panel members (who had no diagnosis of depression in 2008) had been newly diagnosed with depression. Further, those who were actively disengaged in their careers in 2008 were nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression over the next year. While there are many factors that contribute to depression, being disengaged at work appears to be a leading indicator of a subsequent clinical diagnosis of depression.
Which is obviously bad for employer and employee alike.
In some cases, Gallup went all in with physiological studies. For example, they “recruited 168 employees and studied their engagement, heart rate, stress levels, and various emotions throughout the day,” using heart rate monitors, saliva samples, and handheld devices that surveyed employees on their activities and feelings of the moment at various points in the day.
After reviewing all of these data, it was clear that when people who are engaged in their jobs show up for work, they are having an entirely different experience than those who are disengage. [Emphasis in original.] For those who were engaged, happiness and interest throughout the day were significantly higher. Conversely, stress levels were substantially higher for those who were disengaged. Perhaps most strikingly, disengaged workers’ stress levels decreased and their happiness increased toward the end of the workday….[P]eople with low engagement…are simply waiting for the workday to end.
From here, the authors go on to talk about depression and heart attacks and all that bad stuff that happens to you when you hate that job. But there was one other striking passage at the beginning of this section:
Think back to when you were in school sitting through a class in which you had very little interest. Perhaps you eyes were fixed on the clock or you were staring blankly into space. You probably remember the anticipation of waiting for the bell to ring so you could get up from your desk and move on to whatever was next. More than two-thirds of workers around the world experience a similar feeling by the end of a typical workday.
I then went on to a point about preparing students to be engaged workers, but it’s worth pausing here and thinking for a moment. Schooling is the model, the archetype, for the workplace experience that literally causes people to lead shorter, sadder, sicker lives. Is that hyperbole? Is it a caricature of modern schooling? Actually, thanks to the current American obsession with standardized testing, the stereotype may actually understate the case.
In The Test, Kamenetz quotes the blog of a Chicago parent who had assisted her daughter’s class with computer-based testing. On the way home from the second day (?!) of testing, her daughter broke down in the car:
“I just can’t do this,” she sobbed. The ill-fitting headsets, the hard-to-hear instructions, the uncooperative mouse, the screen going to command modes, not being able to get clarification when she asked for it….It took just two days of standardized testing to doubt herself. “I’m just not smart, Mom. Not like everyone else. I’m just no good at kindergarten, just no good at all.”
I have read this paragraph a half dozen times now, and I still can’t get through it without tearing up.
Kamenetz then goes on to say that teacher and parents throughout the United States—especially the ones with elementary school-aged children—“report students throwing up, staying home with stomach aches, locking themselves in the bathroom, crying, having nightmares, and otherwise acting out on test days.”
A bit later in the book, she writes about a couple of Great Depression-era researchers named Harold Skeels and Harold Dye. They took a couple of one-year-old babies in an orphanage who had tested as “moderately to severely retarded” and moved them to a ward for mentally disabled young women, because the children were viewed as hopeless cases. Fourteen and sixteen months old, these girls were already discarded. But what happened next was anything but what the researchers expected. The girls became adopted by the residents and attendants of the ward. Kamenetz notes, “After just six months their IQ scores had improved to 77 and 87, and a few months after that their scores had climbed into the mid-90s, near average levels.”
The researchers were so taken aback that they repeated the experiment, bringing 13 “retarded” one- and two-year-old girls from orphanages to the adult women’s institution, where they were given foster mothers there.
According to an article discussing the case, the toddlers at the adult women’s home had toys bought for them by the attendants and clothes made for them by the residents. Their “mothers” cheerfully competed over which ones could be made to walk and talk first.
Meanwhile, a control group of supposedly low-IQ girls stayed at the orphanage, presumably living under the conditions one imagines in the kind of orphanage that would let some of its children be condemned to live out their lives in a mental institution when they were just 14 months old. What were the results?
The children [who were transferred to the mental institution] remained on the ward for a mean of nineteen months. All but two of the eleven gained more than 15 IQ points during that time. Once they tested at average intelligence they were moved to regular foster homes. A year after the experiment ended, of the thirteen original children, none was still classified as “feeble-minded.” At the first follow-up two and a half years later, in 1943, the mean IQ of the experimental group was exactly average, 101.4. Meanwhile the control group left at the orphanage had shown “marked deterioration” and now had an average IQ of 66.1, down from 86 at the beginning of the study.
Staying in the orphanage was actually more harmful to the young girls that putting them in an adult mental institution. This was not a short-term difference, either. In the 1960s, the researchers followed up with the girls from the original study.
Of the thirteen girls who had been adopted, first informally by developmentally disabled women1 in the institution and then by families in the outside world, all of them were self-supporting. Eleven of them were married. They had a mean of 11.68 years of education. They earned an average wage of $4,224, which was in the range of average annual earnings for men in Iowa, their home state—not bad for a group of women from an institutional background in the 1960s.
Of the twelve girls in the control group, only four of them had jobs, all of them working in the institutions where they lived. Only three had been married. On average they had less than four years of schooling. The cost savings to the state for rescuing the girls who went on to live healthy, productive lives was approximately $200 million in today’s dollars.
Anya’s primary point for telling this story is to review the history of evidence that standardized tests are poor predictors of human potential. But the story is also a compelling illustration of the long-term harm to health and wellbeing that we do to humans when we subject them to inhumane conditions (and, on a more hopeful note, how just a little bit of human love and understanding can be so transformative in a person’s life). Note that the Gallup research shows long-term health effects for work situations that are likely a lot less stressful than those of living in a Depression-era orphanage and almost certainly not worse than the kind of stress that Chicago kindergartener endured.
As I was pondering this story, I was reminded of FDA Commissioner David Kessler. (Bear with me on this.) Kessler successfully argued that nicotine addiction is a pediatric disease based on the long-term harm that it does to children. On that basis, he was able to establish that regulating tobacco falls under the purview of the FDA and was therefore able to put a collar on the powerful tobacco industry and regulate it for the first time. Given the severe and long-term stress that American children endure today due to a testing regime that takes up to 25% of students’ total schooling time, I wonder whether similarly compelling evidence could be gathered showing that forcing students to endure endless rounds of high-stakes standardized testing has effects analogous to long-term exposure to hazardous waste.
- Michael’s note: Given the rest of the story that Anya is telling here, it makes one wonder how many of those women were really developmentally disabled. [↩]