(Snowflake photographs by Wilson Bentley-ca. 1905)
I teach the fifth grade. There are approximately 5 million fifth graders in schools across the United States. Some of those schools have money and some are very poor. At some schools the parents show up and volunteer. Some of the students at these schools bring food to school everyday. Many don’t. Some of the parents at these schools read to their kids at night. Some of the parents can’t, because their work schedule doesn’t allow it. Some schools attract students who take pride in learning and care about the results of their matriculation. Other schools attract students who can’t make it anywhere else. This list could go on and on.
The new assessments, set to be in place by the 2014-2015 school year, will be based on “Common Core Standards” across the nation. How accurate can these tests be at defining a school’s success with so many unaddressed variables in play? How accurate can they be at evaluating teacher effectiveness with such inconsistent conditions?
Before every test I give my classes all a special talk about different skills, some children can run fast, some can paint beautiful pictures, some are terrific secret keepers. They mostly just stare at me anxiously. They already know something that it’s taken me a long time to get: those wonderful traits that I talk about before every test actually don’t matter, because they don’t show up on the test scores. The only thing that matters is whether that number that will flash on the screen at the end of the test will be high enough to make them worthwhile in the system.
The move further and further toward unilateral standard based education assessment has deeper and far more fundamentally insidious effects on the children of our nation. Through our new and incredibly one-dimensional testing system, we are teaching our children to devalue their own feelings and intuition. We are teaching them that somebody else knows the answer. Their job is to memorize it.
When I hear politicians speaking about education reform I hear words like innovation or inspiration. If every question has a “right” answer and a child feels unable to choose it, that child will begin to doubt his own intelligence, bending instead to the knowledge of those around them. The child will either begin to learn to play the game of “what do they think is the right answer?” or they will live with constant anxiety about their abilities or they will give up. Even the children who don’t struggle with the tests learn the language. If we are trying to encourage flexible and innovative young people who are able to think critically after matriculation, why are we requiring them to think inside the box?
I took my class on an overnight field trip to Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. We stayed at Jawbone Flats, an area that has year-round residents. Because of this, my students were instructed to not run outside between the cabins. Knowing of my group’s proclivity for running both outdoors and indoors, I asked them what they would do if they saw a friend running where they weren’t supposed to. They were quiet for a long moment as they pondered this question, then, when it became apparent that I wasn’t going to feed them the answer, one girl raised her hand and said, “Stop, stand still and wait for instructions?” I smiled a little and told her that was a good answer, but I was looking for something a little more practical. Her friend then raised her hand and said, “Find an adult and ask for help?” It took another bit of reasoning to get them to understand that all I wanted them to do was to remind their friends that they shouldn’t be running. They wanted so badly to say the “right” answer that they were unable to think logically about what they would actually do in real life. They’ve been well trained in the one-dimensional, purely analytical response to the question. They’ve been taught to question their own intuitive reasoning so much that now they bypass it, certain that there must be a different right answer.
I know that, in certain cases and at appropriate levels, standards and accountability are imperative. I know that education reform is meant to help our nation’s children fare better in the world and to ensure that every student has the same access to information. But the policy makers are not listening to the data. The test results are showing their failure. Many extremely knowledgeable and experienced people are letting us know that competition and test-driven education curriculums do not make better, happier or smarter students. Furthermore, a system that values only one kind of learning will eventually destroy the other kinds through natural selection.
John Gatto, an award winning schoolteacher who retired after thirty years of teaching, said that he has never met a special education student. I agree with him. I had a boy in my class once who spent most of the fifth grade playing with little scraps from his desk. He would sit and make tiny sound effects as the scraps battled each other, effectively blocking out any instruction from my ever-important lessons plans. He failed to meet achievement standards on test after test. We began the process of having him tested for an Individualized Education Program with Special Ed. I could tell he was anxious. He told me multiple times that he was stupid. Before we completed the IEP process, he ended up moving schools. I see him every once in a while around town.
The interesting thing about this boy is that if you gave him a pair of scissors and a piece of paper, he could make beautiful snowflakes. I’m talking professional grade snowflakes. I’m terrible at making them, myself. I always cut the wrong side and they come apart into multiple little snowflakes. I sat with this boy once and watched him as he considered the folds, held the paper this way and that carefully deciding where he would cut, explaining to me what pattern each shape would make when we unfolded the paper. He was right, and it was beautiful.
What if I could have stopped teaching him fractions and instead learned about his own genius with patience, symmetry and balance? Who would he have become as he understood that the things he was good at are of value as well? (I know, there isn’t much of a market out there for paper snowflakes, but when Henri Matisse did it, it was called gouaches découpés, and they sold for millions.)
Who could our children become if we stop forcing them to learn the same thing as everybody else and let them explore their own skill sets? How much anxiety could we allay? How much confidence could we produce?
Perhaps most important of all, how can we actually reform education so that it supports and values the skills that our children are born with in order to create a system based on respect and confidence, rather than competition and fear?
Our education policy has been on the path of high pressure, high competition, high standards and low results for long enough. It’s time to try something new, something different, something truly innovative. The health and prosperity of our children depends on it.