Anyone with a sibling or with two or more children knows how different children are. Within the same family there are differences in interests, aptitude, personality and temperament. These differences are among the things that make young children unique and special. That is, until they get into the public education stream. Standards set by local, state and now federal officials create a mold each child is expected to fit into. Not unlike a raw material fed into one end of the school factory, the children are expected to come out the other end as a defined product. Teachers are the assembly-line workers with strict product specifications their students are expected to meet with the teacher’s rate of pay increasingly dependent upon the students’ performance. Quality control is the high stakes, standardized testing that has increasingly been encroaching on instructional time. Too often lost in the process are the special qualities of children that allow them to sing and dance with great success; to use their hands and minds to create, repair and assemble; or to ponder, write and imagine. These skills simply do not fit onto a fill-in-the-bubbles answer sheet.
Schools virtually close down instruction this time of year for the annual standardized tests. Anxiety rises for children who can no doubt sense it from their parents and the school staff. The race is on to prove the impossible of having everyone be above average. No space is left for the individual child for, under the current system, every child as an individual is left behind.
I am not alone in my beliefs. Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education who helped put together the No Child Left Behind program has written a book titled, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” Richard Rothstein’s new book, “Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right,” argues that the current focus on basic skills is narrowing the curriculum, allowing schools to get higher test scores without supplying better education. Linda Darling-Hammond, in her book “The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future,” reviews what the top-performing school systems around the world do to get results. She concludes it is building a strong, experienced staff with an emphasis on a rich, well-balanced curriculum in the arts and sciences. Finland, the highest performing nation, does not rely on testing.
Increasingly, testing has been a relatively cheap and quick way for politicians to say they are working for better schools, but the system they have built is faulty and does not encourage future learning or creativity. Reforming many of the past reforms would not lower our expectations; it would re-direct them to ensuring that every child was a successful learner who would be able to succeed in a changing world.