The No Child Left Behind initiative is a notable effort to establish metrics for our education system so its efficacy can be measured and appropriate corrective measures can be taken when necessary. This sounds like a good idea, and one can wonder why it has taken so long for us to get here. Maybe it is because this may not be the place we want to be. Let me explain.
Knowledge consists of two aspects: Explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge can be articulated, codified, and documented. As a consequence, it can be readily transmitted to others and is easy to measure. Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is difficult to transfer to another person by writing it down or verbalizing it, and as a result it is difficult to measure.
As an example, the words in a language that make up its vocabulary are explicit knowledge. Knowing how to weave these words into an engaging story is tacit knowledge. It is easy to test people’s vocabulary, but measuring how engaging a story is; that is another matter.
The tests administered for No Child Left Behind primarily measure explicit knowledge, and it is these test results that determine the performance measures, funding, corrective actions and initiatives that drive our education agenda. This test bias leads to an emphasis on explicit knowledge at the expense of tacit knowledge, the so called “teaching to the test.”
At the same time our rapidly evolving technology places greater demands on our workers’ tacit skills. The principles of computer programming or genetic engineering can be learned in a relatively short period of time, but becoming an expert in these fields requires years of practice to develop the sophisticated tacit skills necessary to exploit the technology effectively. As the pace of technology advances continues to accelerate, the demands for these tacit skills will continue to increase. Because technology drives our economy and our standard of living, it is increasingly important to emphasize tacit skills.
The current approach being used by No Child Left Behind is not going to achieve this. In fact, it is doing the opposite.