As a parent to a nine-month-old, I never thought I would already be considering my child’s education. Before she was born, though, people brought up college funds and said such things as: “In a blink of an eye, you’ll be sending her off to college,” “Wait until she heads to Kindergarten!” and “Once she’s in school, you won’t have much say regarding the ‘princess’ stuff.” These well-intentioned words indicate how much we take our children’s education for granted in this society.
A thought rang out: Will we even be sending our daughter to school?
I did well as a student, though I didn’t really like school itself. Some extracurricular programs were nice, because they let me loose around the normal structures of the day-to-day proceedings. I loved a bunch of my teachers, the ones who engaged critical thought or who were real people in our presence. But the monotony of it all still sits with me half a lifetime later: assignments that didn’t make sense, Draconian rules that no one could explain, the way-too-early hours, arbitrary vindictiveness from authority figures.
Six years after I graduated high school I returned as a substitute teacher. Much had changed. State and national standards engulfed originality in the classroom. Discussions devolved from complex thought to figuring out ways to score well on the mandated state tests. Grade-schoolers brought home bags of books that weighed more than they did, and even these youngest of the lot had the razor’s edge of high stakes testing aimed directly at their necks.
Once, while in a classroom of hostile teens, a student challenged me, “Why are we doing this?” We were reading a simplified text of “Romeo and Juliet” that removed Shakespeare’s phrasing. I had no answer, because in that moment I was asking myself the same thing. Why were we doing this?
The ninth-graders before me had advanced to high school with limited literacy. Someone let them slip through the cracks, pushing them up and out without actually providing the education the school system promised. How happy would you be if you were asked to read but couldn’t? Or you could pronounce the words but not process the meaning? Each day, they saw me as the enemy, because it was my job to penalize them for having this inability. Because I was a long-term substitute teacher, I couldn’t really steer the ship. We stared each other down and waited out the 50 minutes, breathing deep sighs when we could part company.
Many teachers lamented state testing as a creativity zapper. I witnessed paint-by-numbers classes designed to do little else but raise scores. One year, an elementary school did away with recess since they hadn’t made the grade. Everyone knows that children benefit from down time during their day, but the pressure was on. Heads at the top would otherwise roll, so cosmetic surgery – outward toughness in stripping kids of their enjoyment – trumped sensibility.
Teachers often take the blame for bureaucratic “solutions” that create more problems. Those on the front lines are rarely listened to and most teachers I know want to educate kids deeply rather than throw facts and figures at them. Schooling has become an assembly line that doles out black-and-white punishment, teaches our kids to pass Pavlovian tests, and pushes invention and novelty out the back door. Though I know many good teachers, I don’t know many happy ones. Though I know many good students, I know few who love school.
I look at my daughter and she eats up learning right now! She explores her environment, discovers new abilities, and tries out three new ideas a minute, it seems. When she’s not wet, tired, or hungry, she smiles broadly and frequently. Life is so interesting to her that we think she hates sleep. Even at 1 a.m., when she’s flopping around on my tired wife, you can look at her and make out her grin through the darkness. How many schooled kids show this type of exuberance between September and June?
If resources dictate, we might send our daughter to mainstream schools, though we’re hoping to avoid this. High stakes testing and hyper-competitiveness have negative effects on a child’s psyche. (In college, I had to learn that B’s were not the end of the world, as my parents had tried to do for years.) I’ve been reading about alternative venues – from Waldorf to home to “unschools.” A decision has yet to be made and I’m glad we have time.
Teaching can be a noble profession and solving the public school crisis could be easy: Remove all standardized tests, limit class sizes, shorten the school day and year, and encourage creativity and critical thinking over mindless regurgitation. Politicians and school officials keep pushing the opposite, even though many people believe school problems are worse than ever.
After slogging through the paces for many years as a student, I went to graduate school at age 31. I did it by choice. Though my biology teacher had dogged me into despising the discipline two decades ago (to the point where I stopped taking science after eleventh grade), I achieved a Masters in Science last year. I was wholly engrossed in my classes and loved the learning process. I engaged, because it had meaning to me. I knew “why I was doing this.”
Let’s engage children while they’re eager and able to soak up vast quantities of knowledge. Schools share much in common with prisons these days. I’d rather see my daughter smile through her learning for the next eighteen years than have her lose recess because arbitrary measurements weren’t met.
How about you? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.