This past week I watched Education Nation. I continued to support action through our work at United Opt Out National. I read articles about the supposed benefits of NCLB waivers. I received notices about legislation being written which dictates what public universities do and forces schools of education to drink the corp. ed. Kool-Aid. In the midst of all of this I read about an increase in the number of homeless children in New York. And then there was Occupy Wall Street – underreported – but representative of an America - composed of independent thinkers - waking up. As people begin to speak up, those with power tremble ever so slightly.
I tremble a bit as well…with an inner rage that I try to keep calm by swimming laps several mornings a week while thinking about how we might change the current narrative regarding this fabricated educational crisis that has allowed corporations to swoop in and profit at our children’s expense. I watched a clip of MorningJoe on MSNBC in which they talked about how the arts have disappeared from the public schools. They talked about China and how China is moving away from excessive testing in the hopes of allowing creative minds to develop, while our country adds tests, narrows the curriculum and shuts down any opportunity for innovative thinking. A death sentence for our country; yet, it appears that many of us are the walking dead already. We are allowing it to happen.
Is it just me or is there something creepy about the pictures of children in charter schools in New York where they all sit straight in their chairs with hands folded on the desks? What the hell is that? My classroom was always an interesting mix of couches, desks, tables and groups gathered in the midst of projects, conversation and INNOVATION. The children were everywhere – true movers and shakers! I never gave a rat’s ass about the test scores (this was before the smack down started and forced teachers to teach to the test), which are currently upheld as the indicator of a school’s success. I cared about their day-to-day learning, their ideas, goals, opinions and their confidence to move forward when they left my class and headed out into the world. I hoped that the skills I taught them and the opportunity to imagine and create in my classroom would allow them to become inventive, passionate Americans who would help make our country and our world a better place.
Yet, under Race to the Top and the pathetic NCLB waivers now being offered, we are simply creating test takers who perform robotic actions that leave our children with no opportunity to even imagine what could be. Their SAT scores have declined - an indicator that years of having a test shoved down your throat does little to improve student achievement and actually harms and hampers our students' opportunities.
While China and other countries are attempting to end a test-oriented education and create a talent-oriented education (read Yong Zhao’s Catching Up or Leading the Way for more on this topic – all future references to Zhao are taken from his book), we are destroying a country that was at the top of innovative thinking. Zhao talks about how China was looking to us as they searched for a model of innovative education. He states, “As a country with the most Nobel laureates, most original patents, most scientific discoveries in the 20th century, and largest economy in the world, the United States of America seems a reasonable candidate (Zhao 2009).”
Why are we getting rid of what other countries want?
Zhao also states – and this is important so please listen up - “But most vexing is why Americans, who hold individual rights and liberty in the highest regard, would allow the government to dictate what their children should learn, when they should learn it, and how they are evaluated?”
When did we become doormats? We are all guilty of non-action. The infiltration of corporate control over our schools is beyond scope – beyond reason - in a country, which calls itself a democracy.
Zhao shares a beautiful story about attending a talent show at his child’s school in his book Catching Up or Leading the Way. He discusses how talent is encouraged, honored and praised in our country. He talks about the guts and gumption it takes for a child to get up and perform – even when a talent may be lacking or imperfect. It is this exact quality – valuing individuality - that allows our children to develop confidence, take risks and grow as individuals who can say – YES. I am capable. I am confident. I am ready to interact in a world full of confusion, possibility and change. I can make a positive difference and think, listen, share and improve my community.
I don’t see any standardized test helping to create a child like that. I am heartbroken for the children who are abused by corporate education reform movements in a country that is not waking up fast enough to stop the madness.
Zhao states, “As a result of adopting national standards, schools will produce a homogenous group of individuals with the same abilities, skills, and knowledge. Such a result will be disastrous to America and Americans because as globalization and technology continue to change the world, America needs a citizenry of creative individuals with a wide range of talents to sustain its tradition of innovation.”
On Education Nation this past week they talked about being fearful of China. We don’t need to fear China. We need to fear ourselves. We are becoming what China is desperate to rid itself of – a test-oriented culture which is producing citizens that score well on tests, yet are not able to innovate and function in positions that require out-of-the-box thinking.
I cringe when schools share their successes with the community by referencing and applauding their test scores. I cringe because I know that high test scores, in a culture of excessive testing and punitive consequences for low test scores, typically mean that schools are narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test, taking away subjects which allow a child to find their inner spirit, innovative thoughts and talents. I know that test scores are high at the expense of good teaching, fine arts, play, nap, recess – all important in allowing a child to develop and grow into a confident and independent thinker.
I cringe because as China knows, a high test score tells us nothing except that the child scored well on a few subjects and scored well using a form of testing that does not display any useful information regarding a child’s actual achievement as an individual learner.
The achievement gap in our test scores is a result of poverty. Zhao calls it the resource gap. The resources missing are clean, well-maintained facilities stocked with qualified teachers, nurses, librarians, books and more.
As the richest country in the world with the highest percentage of children living in poverty in an industrialized nation – one must look at what is going on in our current education system and wonder why the focus on the test? Isn’t it fascinating that the current reform movement doesn’t focus on sheltering children from the effects of poverty, but rather focuses on pouring money into tests to determine if these children who lack food, shelter, sleep, clothing, health care and access to books can get a good score on a test?
We are spending billions on the test and denying America’s children the right to think creatively through various subjects – whether it is art, music, PE, history, science, imaginative play and more. Our children will become adults who haven’t had the experiences necessary to interact successfully in our world. And like China, they will not be able to keep a job if creative and independent thinking is necessary. We could lose our status as the country with the most innovative ideas.
I appeal to Americans everywhere – in rural areas – in the suburbs – in the cities. I appeal to your hopes for America’s children. Please recognize that a good test score does not equal a good education. It does not equal a healthy, well fed child. A good education can be found in a rich and diverse curriculum taught by educators with teaching degrees where student work - written, verbal, or through performance, projects, portfolios and interactions with others – is used to assess, evaluate and plan for quality instruction – and where children are SHELTERED from the effects of poverty so that they can reach their greatest potential.
Please recognize that these tests, which are costing our country billions of dollars and result in punitive consequences for schools, will be the death of our democracy and our current status as a leader of innovation. We will become what China is attempting to end – a culture permeated by the “high score low ability” syndrome (see Zhao for more information) – a culture filled with good test scores but the inability to develop skills that are needed in an innovative and global economy. China, South Korea, Singapore and Japan are all attempting to create an education system in which creative thinking is emphasized and standardized testing is de-emphasized. They move forward, using our education model; we move backwards, using their model.
While corporate reformers and politicians would like us to believe that good test scores are allowing our country to race to the top, we should be fearful that good test scores combined with excessive testing and punitive consequences for low scores, will leave our children and therefore our country behind. A country which prizes the individual – prizes innovative thinking – should be very leery of testing tied to top down standards and curriculum - which prizes nothing but a score and results in unequal educational opportunities for children and corporate profit for a few.
Does America have talent? Not for long. I can no longer even see the child in our public school system. Civil disobedience is needed to bring our children back to the forefront. The vision of the eager child who smiles on the first day of school is buried under mandated tests, curriculum, standards and corporations who are tearing down our democracy and destroying our children’s opportunity to determine and explore their purpose, their talents and their chance to be productive individuals in our communities. And sadly, our children are increasingly taught by educators who are poorly trained, hired as cheap labor and who believe the test is the indicator of success. Superintendents and administrators without any teaching credentials increasingly lead the way.
Who do I fear? Not China. I fear us.