Memories of school days stay with us our whole lives. What do you remember about your years in school? Do you remember the spelling tests, the multiplication worksheets, the maps of the thirteen original colonies? Do you fondly recall the weeks of filling in answer bubbles for state examinations or slogging through phoneme awareness flash cards?
Or rather, do you remember the camaraderie of being in a school play? Or the time you won first place in the science fair with your bean experiment…you remember, the one where you grew a bean on the window sill (bean 1) and another in the closet (bean 2)? Or the team sports, the exhilaration of a good win and the shared commiseration of a disappointing loss?
I would guess most of us recall those moments of activity, creativity and relationship more clearly than the work sheets, the state tests and the coloring within the lines. I would also bet that most of us learned more from these activities than we did sitting in a desk filling out bubble sheets. What is learned by participating in creative, physical and intellectual activities is lasting and profound. And conversely, what is learned through canned-curriculum and endless testing is fleeting and superficial.
And what of this “learning” from testing and bubble sheets? What I see from my perspective as a long time teacher in the trenches, is that mostly what kids learn from standardized curriculum and testing is that “learning” is a series of hoops to jump through and that “learning” is a chore with no rewards and that “learning” can be forgotten the day after the tests. No wonder Ritalin is being doled out like candy. You’d need it too if you were a five-year-old boy who had to sit for hours trying to master Math Standard 1.5 when every molecule of your being just wants to hear a good story or play in a puddle with a stick.
Leadership, self-confidence and creative problem-solving through analysis and synthesis are the qualities we look for when we want anything important accomplished in this world. When I choose a mechanic, I don’t want the guy to sit behind a desk and guess what’s wrong with my car, I want him to get out into the shop and systematically go through my engine and find the problem and then fix it. In our mad zeal to improve test scores, we have sold out our schools and our children to the black hole known as “accountability” whose only “reward” is a number that says your school or child is doing better or worse than some percentage of other schools and children. Schools are testing for their lives because if they don’t improve each year, they will be thrust into a kind of Fahrenheit 451esque “Program Improvement” status which promises all kinds of bureaucratic torture if they fail to make “projected gains” and “targeted improvements.”
So I felt a little like Ray Bradbury’s Montag as I left my classes with a substitute and spent a Wednesday afternoon in January at the 4th annual Poetry Out Loud presentation at the Yreka Community Center. According to their website, Poetry Out Loud “…encourages the nation’s youth to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation. This program helps students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage.” And guess what, nothing about this objective is tested on the STAR test or evaluated on the school’s yearly, “Adequate Yearly Progress Report” or AYP, the document administrators hang their careers on.
Twenty or so area teenagers gathered in front of an audience and judges to recite the rich poetry of John Donne, Lord Byron, Sara Teasdale, Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe, Bob Hicock, Ted Kooser and others. Talk about busting through the smoke and mirrors of top down educational reform. The lights dimmed to a spotlight on their fresh young faces as they recited clearly and eloquently such lines as, “She walks in beauty, like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies” and “For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams/Of the beautiful Annabelle Lee.”
Do you think these students will remember their mastery of California State Standard 2.2 when they get their first monotonous job as an adult? I don’t think so, but I know the Yreka High student who recited Bob Hicok’s, “After Working for Sixty Hours Again For What Reason” will certainly remember that poem as he slings burgers during the summer between college semesters. I know our student from Etna High will remember “A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky” as he ponders the passing of time watching his own children play some day in the future. I would bet my entire meager pension that neither of these boys will recall with nostalgia the hours they spent every year in public school filling in bubbles on state mandated tests. And I would also bet that the lessons they learned in memorizing and reciting these poems will serve them better in life than some narrow assessment on a state standard that will be modified and replaced in yet the next cycle of “educational reform.”
I do not reject the idea of educational standards or even reform. I think schools need parameters in curriculum. But when schools become more concerned with chasing data and worshiping some bottom line on a spreadsheet, they have lost their way. “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.” Politicians and think-tank academics who place test scores above creative experience and who have reduced flesh and blood children to numbers and lines on a graph have denuded real reform. They should not then be surprised when their mechanic cannot fix their car, or their doctor cannot diagnose their illness or their children require Ritalin just to make it through their day.