The U.S. educational system clearly produces some of the best minds in the world.

America leads in science output and in adult science literacy, yet when it comes to standardized tests, the United States has always been in the middle of the pack and that has long been a concern.

Almost a generation ago, a new bipartisan educational policy named No Child Left Behind boosted results for minority students across the board and female math scores increased to be on par with males for the first time ever, but it was politically unpopular and so the Obama administration gutted it and advocated Common Core, which similarly emphasizes high-stakes testing and scripted lessons.

Though teachers like it even less than No Child Left Behind, it will probably work. The U.S. Army has successfully turned people with little education into educated people by 'teaching to the test' and making people continue to learn and test until they pass. Despite having no exceptional gift for, or background in, rifle design, 30 years after my basic training I can still strip an M-16 rather quickly and a few months of an Office Basic Course in electrical engineering was absolutely ideal for learning how things work without having to take years of circuit theory.

Clearly teaching to the test has value. That it will not get everyone a Nobel prize is not a legitimate criticism.  What education in the military gets right and that educational unions get wrong is the understanding that some people are going to be in Delta Force and some people are going to fill out paperwork. And not everyone is going to do great in school no matter how much money we spend.

Yet in the modern American obsession with the low end of student achievement, we forget about the best students and teachers. When is the last time you saw a newspaper article lamenting that funding for exceptional students was cut? Never, those classes will get dropped before art and music classics because the assumption is smart kids 'will make it anyway', which would be ridiculed if we said it about virtually anyone else. 

Though they don't get a lot of attention, the best teachers and students may have a roadmap for how to make more kids into decent students, even if they won't get a Nobel prize. A recent analysis of the classroom practices of National Teacher of the Year finalists and winners showed that the best teachers are not simply teaching to the test better than their peers, they also take creative risks. They incorporate real-world themes and their own experience.

If we allow the best teachers to inform education as we think about science education of 2020, the worst become outliers. In a recent paper, Punya Mishra and Danah Henriksen of Michigan State use examples such as a San Diego teacher who raps his algebra lessons and an Oregon science teacher whose students create advertisements to learn photosynthesis. 

Punya Mishra and Danah Henriksen
Michigan State University scholars Punya Mishra and Danah
Henriksen. Credit: Michigan State University

It seems so gimmicky even the marketing department at Chipotle would have to dismiss it but the Army uses acronyms and other gimmicks all of the time and it works well. If you want modern children to remember classical music in a world where they are bombarded by modern music, get them a CD like Beethoven's Wig (seriously, get them a CD, don't download the songs, it will work better - a CD, and to an even greater extent an LP, is a commitment). It works because they put lyrics to Für Elise and other songs. The words are the mnemonic hook and eventually they will know the songs when they hear them.

In their Teachers College Record article, the authors don't think teaching to the test is valuable at all, which is the popular claim, along with ridiculing American students for American test scores while ironically advocating for more funding to the teachers them puts students in the middle of the pack - but they have some evidence on their side. America leads the world in Nobel prizes because we teach how to think, yet every 2 years when we see mainstream media lamenting how children do poorly on international standardized tests, few note that is because education in Finland and China is far more conservative in its approach (I have noted that, in USA Today and other venues). In Finland, bad teachers are fired - that is not possible in the U.S. unless you intentionally run over a student in the parking lot. In China, teachers do not get to go on strike, they have to clean their own bathrooms. In both cases, they teach by rote, they do not focus on how to think. As a result, they test well and American kids do not - but we never have. When international tests first started in 1964, American kids placed 11th...out of 12 countries. Yet if you look at the science output - where 5 percent of the world population has produced over 30 percent of the world's science - and Nobel prizes - where America almost runs the table - international tests are not painting a very accurate picture.

And so an exceptional student may respond to an exceptional teacher but to make sure everyone has a minimum level of competence, it is importance to have a defined threshold of what that is. We could not drop that rapping algebra teacher into a school in inner-city Detroit and have math scores suddenly skyrocket, because there are a lot of confounding issues outside the control of educators.

For that reason, though creativity is great and it certainly helps the best students, we need to think about tests too - because tests make sure no one is penalized by a bad teacher.

Citation: Danah Henriksen, Punya Mishra, 'We Teach Who We Are: Creativity in the Lives and Practices of Accomplished Teachers', Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 7, ID Number: 17947 2015. Top image from Education: Stop New Age Thinking, Chalk And Talk Might Be The Best Way After All by Shutterstock.