You hear the craziest things at school board meetings. Last night I heard a former teacher talk about how we’ve completely stopped asking what we can do for children and have started demanding that they supply our needs. You see junior, you may be cold, hungry and homeless but we need you to focus, because we need these data points. Our agenda completely depends on you delivering these numbers, so lets get to it. We need those number so we can close some schools, fire some teachers and demonstrate how ineffective local school boards are. We also need to able to add to our resumes and drive our Priuses to our suburban homes free of guilt. So buckle down and start producing.
On the way home from the ASD meeting last week I was discussing with a local school board member the state of the education conversation in America. Reformers have so controlled the conversation and language that we are now reduced to arguing over data points like they are stats in a football game. We have become completely blinded to the fact that these data points are actually real live human beings. They have hopes, dreams and fears that don’t necessarily align to ours, yet we are arguing whether they are learning fast enough or not. We are not just doing it in a broad sense either. We dissect the numbers to the minutiae, ignoring everything about that person but that number. One side argues the other while the other claims that its not exactly how it appears. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel a little dirty and we should all be ashamed of ourselves..
I hear the chorus now. “We have to have accountability,” “Kids demand more rigor”, “Assessments allow us to truly gauge results.”, and my favorite “We owe it to the kids!”. Really? Kids are demanding that you take everything in their extensive world and reduce it to a single number and then rate schools, teachers, and friends based on it? yea, color me doubtful. Parents don’t even demand it. All they demand is a quality education. The only people I’ve heard demand it are those with a financial stake. They’ve come along and taken parents demand and added their definition while scaring parents into acceptance. After all if Johnny’s in third grade and not reading at a 5th grade level, well he’s probably doomed to a life of….well you know…bad stuff.
Lets carry the conversation a little further. These numbershave led us to only focus on the exceptional. Just getting on the honor roll is not enough. A child needs to be working on a cure for Ebola or finding a way to structure a community on the moon in order for us to pay attention. It used to be that every school had a collection of kids that were considered the brains while the rest of us just kind of squeezed by and learned the business of life. That doesn’t work in todays world. The tables have been flipped. You need a school full of brains with just a few squeaking by.
Here in lies the great lie. I may get grief for it, but somebody has to say it. Its alright to strive for exceptional-ism, but the truth of the matter is, most of us are going to live quite ordinary lives flecked with moments of exceptional-ism. That’s not a bad thing and in fact its been pretty damn good to me over the years I’ve never walked on the moon, I’ve never stopped a plague and I’ve never been financially secure, but I’ve had a life well lived. Its the kind of life I’d wish for my children. Well maybe without the years lost to addiction, though a life without challenge is never full. The point is, we teach teach children that the only thing that matters is rigor and high performance and they completely fail to learn what makes life worth living.
The pursuit of the measurable leads to a falling away of the immeasurable. A child loses the opportunity to appreciate the sound of a French horn. They never get to experience the emotions of looking at a Bosch painting. “Reading Still Life of a Woodpecker” just because it makes you laugh and ponder is sacrificed because well…we need those data points. I hate to admit some of the best lessons I ever learned in school came when I was goofing off. I know three reformers just lost their wings. School was always a laboratory for me though. Lessons learned in the classrooms and in the halls. Lessons that have served me well in adulthood.
We always seem to forget when designing education policy that the children of today will become the adults of tomorrow. Further segregate our schools and the future will be further segregated. Create schools that are all about the individual child and you shouldn’t be shocked when our world is populated by people that think the world is all about them. Teach children that anything less then exceptional is failure and that life demands more rigor, don’t be surprised when we have adults incapable of living well adjusted lives. Its easy to forget that children become full grown people when you begin dehumanizing them at an early age.
When my first child was born, I told my wife all I wanted for her was to learn to tell a story and not be afraid of life. I stand by that. If you learn to tell a story, math and reading will become part of the equation because you’ll develop a thirst to improve the tale. you’ll also understand that life is a narrative filled with multiple chapters. If a child is not afraid of life they won’t be crippled by fear of failure and they’ll seek to understand the unknown. They’ll understand that failure is a path to knowledge and not a tool to be used for punishing those they love.
If we were serious in our pursuit of what’s best for children,the tests and surveys we administer would include how many meals did you eat yesterday? Do you have your own bed? What’s the educational level of your parents? How many days were you here last month? How often have you moved? How many tests have you taken this year and what are the cumulative results? Who are your friends? These are just a few of the questions we should ask. If we did we might be able to address the actual needs of the child and not just satisfy our needs. Education should be about growth, not constant measure and rank.
Earlier I mentioned that you hear the craziest things at school board meetings. There was a women that was waiting to speak right before me. Her child attended the school that was up for conversion consideration. She was very nervous but very angry. She understood the numbers but she also understood the challenges. She was very adamant that she was not turning her child over to the school just to learn to read and add at a high level. She wanted a place that would love her child and provide a safe and nurturing place for them to grow to maturity. It was important to her that her child understand their place in a community. All the things her child was currently getting at their public school.
I’ll be honest. Her speech was not exceptional. It didn’t flow like the Gettysburg address. There were probably as many grammar errors as there are in this piece. She stumbled over words and had long pauses. However, it was effective and it demonstrated courage. It put a lump in my throat and humbled me. I applaud her and wish that we would create schools that did the same. Places that celebrate the effort as much as the exceptional. Places that truly address a child’s need to grow and not just an adults need to measure.