Over the past several months I have had many occasions to think about public education in the United States. Each time I do, I have a tendency to feel confusion, frustration, and ultimately, defeat. I don't know the system well enough anymore to feel as though I can offer any brilliant alternatives to the way things work now. Unfortunately, I know only enough to feel as though we are in big trouble as a nation if we continue down this path.
As a nation, we have always been fascinated with standards and measuring. We love to devise ways to assess ourselves, the GDP, inflation, unemployment statistics. Many years ago we introduced standardized testing in to our schools as a way to objectively measure how well our students were mastering the materials we presented to them. Over time, those measures morphed from a tool into something else. Something bigger than they ought to be. Stock markets rise and fall according to the economic numbers - numbers that tell us what has happened, not what could be ahead. Teachers are rewarded based on how their students did on the tests last year which only spurs them to teach the test materials to the exclusion of all else.
I can recall cramming for standardized tests as a child. I can recall the answer sheets with their computer-generated bubbles and the pair of freshly sharpened #2 pencils I lined up just so beside them. What I can't remember is the vast majority of the information I put into my short-term memory so that I could purge it onto the test page. I know virtually nothing about important historical dates. I couldn't name the states in alphabetical order or each of their capitals if you paid me. But I passed each and every one of those tests with flying colors because I learned how to study and regurgitate with ease and purge my memory banks in order to move on to the next subject.
In Eve's school, each grade level has its own objective. First grade is for learning to read. Second grade is when we work on math concepts. Third grade is spelling and book reports more than anything. Fourth grade is for the WASL, our state's answer to the concept of 'No Child Left Behind." Fifth grade is for teaching the kids to be organized and juggle multiple subjects. Each grade is distinct and separate from the others and the culture of the school itself hinges on statistics. Every quarter our families receive a glossy, professionally printed booklet that details our students' achievements with respect to standardized testing. There are graphs and pie charts, accounts of money spent in various areas of the school, and a feel-good letter from the principal, touting our school as a blue-ribbon school, an example for other schools in the state.
I don't feel good. Kids are leaving our school like rats from a sinking ship. Enrollment in private schools continues to be up despite the recession. Applications for alternative/charter/choice schools that are publicly funded are up over 100%, and only one child in every three or four is chosen for admission because the competition is so fierce. Collectively, our parents are not worried about how our kids are doing on standardized tests. Overall, our local elementary school is head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to that. We are concerned that our kids are learning short-term facts instead of strategies for learning. We want our children to come home from school energized and excited about their studies. We want them to truly understand and master the materials they are given, not wave a test score in our face that they wouldn't be able to reproduce if the same test was given in a month.
In my neck of the woods, there is an ever-increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots. I shamefully agree that I am contributing. Next year, Eve is departing our local "blue ribbon" school for a private school whose emphasis is on the joy and passion of learning, whose staff are themselves excited about teaching these kids to learn. We don't know yet which one, but the three on our short list have something in common. They have opted out of the standardized testing world and, instead, focus on understanding. The students are expected to master materials to the point where they can teach them to the rest of the class, a vitally important concept we like to call "stand and deliver." The kids at each of these schools are joyful. They have lively class discussions and, indeed, the students themselves often help design the curriculum as they ask questions the teachers haven't yet considered. The staff are compensated based on their ability to help their students learn, not on their ability to force their students to regurgitate predetermined answers.
I wish I felt as though I knew enough to change the system. I wish I felt as though I wasn't simply leaving behind a mess for someone else to clean up. I believe that changing the system will require a massive culture shift from objective measurements to something more personal, more holistic. Instead of measuring outcomes, we need to be looking at the here and now. We need to be ensuring that our children are learning for the sake of learning, for the thrill of discovery as opposed to a set of numbers on a page. We need to know that our teachers are teaching not for compensation or competition, but so that their students can light up with knowledge and understanding. I do not mean to disparage public schools or their teachers as a whole. I know that, within the system, there are many tremendously creative and exciting teachers and I applaud them. I only worry that maintaining that creativity and passion for teaching in such a culture of measured outcomes and strict curriculum rules will prove too difficult and these teachers will burn out and leave.