Testing Abuse

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Good Things Never Die

One day last week I took my three kids to the park during a beautiful morning. The energy with which they moved, and the creative thinking they displayed while playing “make-believe”, left me in a state of both thanks and joy. Children seem to develop such a clear sense of the world when left to their own devices. It also got me thinking about all of the other parents that were there. Were they filled with the same feelings of joy, guardianship, and hope for their children as I was for mine? I mean, what do parents really want for their kids? I can safely project that the answer would be to be happy, to learn and contribute to society, and have a heart to love others. And you know what else? I just want them to be regular. Regular people who live a life that is their own; one that has self-directed goals that give them the desire to make the world a better place.

Yes, yes. I know. They also have to be “competitive” in the global market place. It reminds me of a commercial where all the children are running around in suits, leading their busy CEO lives. Ah, the excitable rush of the marketplace---and with baby bottle in hand! While I believe that we must mediate that reality of the world to our children, there is an underlying sickness that wells up within me which screams that something is inherently wrong with this picture. I see the results of this “world” every day in my classroom. As the last five or so years have passed, the effects of monotonous, fill-in-the blank lessons pushed by curriculum companies tied to the testing regimen required by No Child Left Behind, have left me with students who frequently cannot explain their thinking. I have children who have lost the desire to KNOW, to LEARN for learning’s sake, and to CREATE. Parents are somewhat aware of this, yet are so confounded in their own minutia that they have no time to battle the corporate forces that impress such unscientifically supported methods of instruction.

I have students whose parents work extremely hard to give them an adequate place to live. Those parents also work very long hours and are very tired upon returning home from their jobs, and quite frankly have very little left in the tank. Many times, both parents work so the children are left at home to take care of themselves. Homework is often rushed to be completed and then left unchecked, so kids can wildly scamper for the video game console, this generation’s new “baby-sitter”. I know parents don’t want this to be the reality, but it IS the reality. The fact is, parents are working harder and longer, and most have salaries that are either barely keeping pace with inflation or sliding behind it. But are they really out of touch with their kids’ school lives, or are they just plain worn out?

The point here is that our strained economy, and the effort it takes to maintain the family structure within it, are negatively affecting the input of parents into the development of our educational system. Many are unhappy, but feel powerless in many instances over control being taken out of their hands by corporate interests. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has developed a system of grading schools from A-F, depending mainly on their standardized test scores. Many well-known academically successful schools received low grades, but parents haven’t been fooled by all of the hype. Many parents were “astonished” by the results and have stated that the program is, “part and parcel of the way students are treated--constantly barraging them with narrow, deadening tests and demoralizing them with meaningless scores” (NY times). Some also have said, “Get out! Are you sure they haven’t made a mistake?”, when referring to the grades a highly popular school received. One even said that the “methodology was confusing, problematic and flawed...it doesn’t mean anything.” And the letters continue to pour in.

England has similar issues. In a Cambridge University report, children are “stressed” and find high stakes tests to be “scary”. Parents were also anxious “about the current educational and social contexts” and were found to have more “pessimism about the world in which today’s children are growing up.” In a new poll by the Partnership for the 21st Century Skills, 88% of the people believed that our children are “ill-equipped in critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills”---all of which have been suffocated by the overemphasis on test taking. According to Linda Darling-Hammond, out of Stanford University, some of the most successful countries teach and assess their children using hands-on, oral, and real-world problem solving situations. The innate spirit and curiosity of those children have been inspired to their maximum.

Why is this not the case in the U.S. ? Who decides what and how our kids learn? Will the “marketplace” determine what is best for them? Surely, the cancer that is high stakes testing is no solution. Increases in dropouts and violence among our frustrated youths have proven that. Parents need to get involved and stand up for their children to ensure their natural gifts are developed correctly. It isn’t hard. Think of protecting your most valuable possession, and then multiply that feeling times ten thousand. I say to parents: love your children, and then see that love spirate into real learning and curiosity; meet with others who feel the same and share ideas and concerns; be impactful and an inspiration to others. As a parent who wants to see his children just “be regular”, I left the park that day with a sigh and this thought in mind:

“Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And good things never die.”---Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption.