In the car for an hour and a half, I began to write old-school style! With actual pen to actual paper, I started articulating thoughts that had been swimming around in my head for the past few days. Writing is an excellent way to correlate seemingly disparate thoughts. When I taught drawing to college freshman, I encouraged writing in their sketchbook-journal-idea books, as well as any working method to get those ideas out into the open.
My thoughts centered on school. What was happening to our children’s education, and how it would really affect them down the road? My son is in Pre-K and he has a real love-hate relationship with it. I think about his educational future a lot and I’m filled with many typical parental worries. But until recently, I never thought I would worry that school would ruin my child! Yes, I worry that he’ll be ruined by a system that seems to be so homogenous and unappreciative of the beautiful qualities that make my son unique. I am filled with worry and dread. It consumes me.
Common Core Learning Standards are taking over education. They were hastily adopted by New York State along with other state mandates, and schools and teachers are struggling to make big changes as quickly as possible. The Common Core is said to close the gap, to put everybody on the same playing field. I already see evidence of curriculum being scripted, a product for purchase from the shelves of large for-profit corporations like Pearson. Although I will not argue against high standards, nor against every child being given equal opportunities for learning, I do have serious concerns about a curriculum that I see as becoming a “one-size-fits-all” approach to teaching and learning.
I have a big problem with any “standard” that takes away an individual teacher’s unique voice. Why should teachers be forced to “shift” their teaching practices to align to a system that narrows curriculum. This is a prescription of content and method that serves only to prepare children to become good test-takers. This kind of learning is superficial and based on rote “learning” (memorization) of materials just long enough to pass a test. When the test is over, there is no incentive to retain the information. Children are not connected to their own learning and they perceive no value in the materials outside of the test.
This type of test-driven education is heartless, passionless, and surely fosters a hatred for learning. It leaves little time for child-centered learning, the type of learning that gives children an empowered sense of ownership over their own education and a sense of self-worth. Project-based learning, child-led discussion, and learning to work & cooperate in groups are given little value in a system that prides test scores over the unique values that each student and teacher can bring to the experience.
Teaching and learning are too complex to be reduced to scripted curriculum and standardized assessments. I recently heard a comment that was profoundly disturbing. Our children are so coached into what they need to know to pass the test that when they encounter a question in an unfamiliar form, they fall apart. This is a serious problem! Our students are being led to believe that not only is there one correct answer to the question, but that there is indeed only one way of asking the question. This does not create opportunities for students to think critically and creatively about a given problem. They do not know how to appreciate or engage differing perspectives. A conversation cannot be had when everyone says the same thing.
Sir Ken Robinson, an expert on creativity and a radical voice in changing the way we look at education, asks how can we claim to prepare students for a future that nobody can truly know anything about?
We are short-changing the next generation by not giving them the skills needed for an unpredictable future, namely skills such as creativity and adaptability. How will our test-takers fare when they become young adults and must then compete with their peers who did have a balanced and engaging education?
We live in a world rich with information. There is so much to learn, so much to discover. Who should decide what gets taught and what doesn’t? If we begin to appreciate the individual passions that drive each student and the way that they learn best, we can tailor an education that fits each student’s needs. Perhaps there is a certain skill set that we must expect all of our children to know. But to what extent? And in a world where facts are so easily obtainable, perhaps we should focus our attention elsewhere. Children that are inspired will take charge of their own knowledge. The will want to learn. They will love to learn. And if we accept each child’s propensity to learn in a particular way or to be drawn to a particular subject, the world will be a richer place. Rather than try to force everyone to adopt the same strengths, wouldn’t we be collectively stronger if we each added our own “strength?”
What would happen if all children were taught a particular lesson? It was the same lesson, about the same thing. It was given at the same time, whether or not the children were ready to learn it. The focuses were all the same. Someone had decided, you must know this, while that is not important. In fact, when we test you on this, you must say it just so because if you do not you will be wrong. A friend of mine recently called and described such a lesson. Her sixth grade son was learning to calculate a tip. At home he just didn’t get it and his mother (foolishly apparently) taught him another method. Her son understood this method and could calculate the tip without effort. But he was scared. He knew he would be in trouble for not doing it the “correct” way. Her mother wrote a note to the teacher explaining the situation. The teacher replied, “you’re a great mother and it’s great that you take the time to help your son understand. It’s wonderful that he gets it the way you taught it to him, but there’s one problem. When your son takes the test and if he shows his work in that way, it will be marked wrong and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is cited by many as the point when standardized testing took a strong foothold in public education. Enough years have passed and we are starting to see the results in young adults just entering college or the workplace. In the documentary, Race to Nowhere, college professors are reporting students that exhibit a sense of entitlement; They want to know exactly what will be on the test, or a step-by-step on how they can achieve an ‘A’. Employers are attesting to a similar lack of self-direction and independent thought; New employees are looking for constant guidance and imposed tasks. One can’t really blame these young adults… their education has consisted of being told what to do and how to do it.
So why are we pushing even harder to implement a monoculture of education with Race To The Top (RTTT) and the new Common Core Learning Standards (1,2,3)? It is naive to think that this will level the playing field. We already know which schools are struggling. But rather than provide resources and funds where they are needed, we’ve settled on a punitive system that is totalitarian in nature. We know that peremptory threats and punitive measures will do nothing to address the socioeconomic issues that are often the real underlying reasons that keep students and schools from thriving. I believe that this system will instead widen the divide between the Haves and the Have Nots. If you make it a Race, there will inevitably be winners and losers. And those who can afford the extra resources will surely come out on top–the books, the technology, the tutors, the tailored test-prep (because the Race is about the test), and other benefits that cost money. And if financially strapped schools do manage to invest in this Race, at what expense will this occur? Which extracurricular activities or valuable special programs will be cut? How many good teachers will be fired or driven out by the madness? How big will class size become, where students will have to compete for individual teacher attention? How many local schools will be closed and their students forced elsewhere?
We live in a diverse land composed of many different cultures, values, and priorities! Each one of us is a multi-faceted individual! And we NEED this diversity emulated in the classroom, not crushed into unquestioning conformity. Teaching is an art. As no two students are alike, the same is true of teachers. What they bring to the classroom is a unique reflection of who they are. Experience and experiences, as well as personality, are all valuable traits that do and should affect what they have to offer in the classroom. Teaching can and should ebb and flow as the teacher gains experience, as the types of students change, as knowledge is transferred from teacher to student and then reciprocated, as connections are made between disciplines, as the world changes, and as new evidence is uncovered in the fields of childhood development and psychology. There are too many contributing factors to name, and they do and should be allowed to influence the classroom experience. Teaching should not be a stagnant and monotonous endeavor.
The children are our future… It has become as cliche as saying, “think outside the box.” But like most cliches, it is grounded in truth. In many ways, the changing world we live in is a volatile one. With a soaring population, the end of fossil fuels in sight, global climate change, a fragile economy, the need for sustainable agriculture, species extinction, combatting health problems, poverty and many other complex issues, we need innovative solutions from creative, problem-solvers, not adept test-takers. Defenders of the Common Core Learning Standards have joked that “we’re learning to fly this plane while it’s being built.” This is no laughing matter. We can’t afford to have our children become the fallout of a failed experiment. The children are our future. We need solutions, not more problems.