In one or another of my college classes, during a discussion about our constantly changing education system, the professor pointed out one constant remained virtually unscathed: children were being required to sit in rows and faithfully recite the dictums promulgated by their teachers.
Schools, my professor maintained, were based on a German model of regimentation rooted in a desire to prepare all youngsters for obedience and productivity in an existing trade.
We should have learned by now that by the time a child now entering kindergarten grows up and enters the workforce, most of the jobs now available will have disappeared. In spite of numerous changes to the school system and teaching methods, and although students in many classrooms may sit in a variety of physical patterns, all students still must submit to regimentation, now comprising standard exams, purportedly – because all students are, we are told, capable of learning equally well – to prove which teachers are failing their duties to fill their students with state-prescribed knowledge.
Subjecting all students to the same standardized testing virtually guarantees the resulting data will show most schools failing, to varying degrees, to live up to the arbitrary standards. Allow me to submit children’s learning abilities are difficult to quantify in such rigid terms as income and age levels.
Some enjoy reading. Should we be surprised when tracking data shows they spend more time than others reading books. If a child is abused at home, or left hungry by too-small parental income, or badly treated by her peers because she wears different clothing, are we to expect she will do as well at test time? Should we expect a lad whose father was a mill worker to aspire to an engineering degree when those who surround him denigrate people with advanced letters?
And if we recognize those differences, how are we justified in criticizing teachers for failing to exact the same high scores from each of the aforementioned experiences?
For several years I have read and reported on No Child Left Behind, a program rooted shallowly in funding and fertilizer – the former for the fiscal means schools would use to accomplish the lofty goals, and the latter formulated without understanding of what it means to be “left behind.”
I once was destined to be a secondary English teacher, study for which gave me a deep appreciation for a teacher’s role. After 20 years in the U.S. Navy, I had come to believe that a person who wished, or whose abilities required, staying at a low pay grade should not be criticized for it. Neither should he be paid at the high level merely because he wished to have more money. And neither should he be forcibly kept at low pay levels by superiors who simply thought him “unworthy.”
After I retired, and as I closed in on a teaching degree, I learned there were students who could not, or would not, do the work, but whose parents thought they should be getting the grades of those who could and would. After seeing a few of those arguments, I knew classroom teaching was not in my future. I also gained a deep respect for those who could be teachers.
Teachers and parents have parallel responsibilities. Both are, or should be, charged with passing on the history and standards of the larger society. We listen to our politicians tout the necessity of job creation, then learn there are more than three million jobs unfilled, in part, because applicants for the positions do not see the importance of showing up for work at the assigned time and place.
At a local fast food establishment, the source of unsweetened ice tea of which my spouse is much enamored, I can order a large UNsweetened ice tea at the kiosk and see it come up on the screen, then pay for it at the first window and see it printed on the receipt. I can know, therefore that it appears on the screen at the second window as a large unsweetened tea – and when it is handed me, I taste it and discover it’s sweet tea. Once is a mistake. Three times in a week is a habit that badly needs breaking.
It seems to me we are turning our schools into data collection agencies. Teachers and school administrators are made to spend inordinate amounts of their days interpreting data that teaches them little about their individual students, when they could – should – be preparing their charges for whatever need is beyond today’s horizon – not how to do jobs as yet unknown, but to learn how to learn the new jobs their future employers will want them to perform.
Instead, they are collecting gobs of data. Using those little RFID tags Walmart employs to warn that we may have forgotten to pay for something we are carrying from the store, some schools are testing systems that can tell when their students move from one classroom to the next within the school. And a new “service,” planned for nationwide rollout for the 2013-2014 school year, tracks students as they read their textbooks, recording which pages they read and how long they take to read them. It is technology already available to alternative education teachers who meet online with their students. I have it on good authority that gathering and submitting such data takes an inordinate amount of time from actual teaching.
In the end, we succeed only in giving parents and students a documented way to blame someone else for the alleged failure. Meanwhile, the one piece of data we fail to track is how successful students are after high school graduation. We laud, rightfully, the student accepted to an Ivy League learning institution, and completely ignore the farmer who feeds us and the truck driver who carries pavement to make smooth roads on which we drive.
We might back off on data collection that primarily tells our kids they are behind every other nation in test scores, and put more of our time and treasure into self-worth and non-job-specific education.
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