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Standards for everyone!

I didn’t need any more convincing that Alfie Kohn is one of the clearest thinkers about education out there. When my son was in first grade, his teacher handed out a copy of his article on why homework is unnecessary. I’ve been a fan ever since.

A friend pointed me to this article that he wrote for Education Week about national education standards. As usual, he’s right on the money. This is his summary of No Child Left Behind:

Today, we survey the wreckage. Talented teachers have abandoned the profession after having been turned into glorified test-prep technicians. Low-income teenagers have been forced out of school by do-or-die graduation exams. Countless inventive learning activities have been eliminated in favor of prefabricated lessons pegged to state standards.

And here’s what he says about imposing more of what preceded that wreckage:

Advocates of national standards say they want all (American) students to attain excellence, no matter where they happen to live. The problem is that excellence is being confused with entirely different attributes, such as uniformity, rigor, specificity, and victory.

I’m not a great believer in the conspiracy theory of education that some homeschooling advocates cite: They’re actually trying to make school dumber and dumber to get kids to become more compliant adults who will churn out widgets in Mr. Big Man’s factory. Mr. Big Man, of course, went to fancy prep school and Ivy League college, so he has no stake in public education except in that it churns out his perfect workers.

Perhaps I would have believed that theory in 1958, but now? As we all know, America needs more creative, scientific thinkers and more entrepreneurs. We’re importing those people in scores while we bore our children into submission in our test-driven schools.

I think what’s happening is that people who are well-educated are just completely out of touch with what got them there in the first place. They all think, ‘I did well on standardized tests so that’s what it means to be educated.’ I have to admit that I was one of them before my kids forced me to open my eyes. I always knew that I had largely hated school, that high school was a big waste of my time and I ended up dropping out. So why was I so focused on my kids going to “good” schools and getting “good” grades?

Before I had kids, I figured our local neighborhood school would be fine for them. When I saw how incredibly boring it was going to be, I started to look at alternatives. My son’s first grade teacher introduced me to the idea that even public school didn’t have to be boring. Learning about homeschooling made me focus more on what education really is.

Let’s face it: every child is different. A child can’t be tested for efficiency like a condom or a stapler! Each child has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, things that excite him or her and things that are just plain boring. Our job as teachers is to encourage the strengths and excitements, and to gently address the weaknesses and lack of interest.

My son now goes to one of the best private schools around. “Best” in my definition, of course. We just had a meeting with his fifth grade teacher. His teacher told us that he figures his first semester job is getting to know the kids, helping them form a community in the classroom, and gaining their trust. Yes, that’s what he does for the entire first semester.

The second semester is all about gentle encouragement (i.e. pushing) to remedy their weaknesses and to encourage them to expand from their focused passions. My son’s school does standardized testing in a few grades, but they aren’t testing whether the teacher is doing a good job. The test of the teacher is that grown-ups who had him when they were in fifth grade are still starry-eyed about what he did for them. The test of the teacher is that my son, who was at the top of the standardized test scores and has achieved the learning goals for fifth grade, still wants to go to school.

Here’s the problem with a standardized nation: how would my son’s teacher look as represented by numbers to someone in an office in Washington D.C.? Frankly, he had nothing to do with his students’ test scores. My son went into fifth grade at the top of the curve. My son’s test scores are largely reflective of his parentage, our parenting, and the whole of his school career. Standardized tests can’t measure whether his teacher has him fired up to learn and be a good, concerned citizen.

That’s what school needs to do: excite kids, teach them how to build on their passions, remedy their weaknesses to the point that they can become functional adults who contribute to our society. Not all kids are going to be proficient in all subjects. If they were, what a boring nation we would have! All those scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs who are snapping up our green cards don’t want to be here because we are “proficient” and “standardized.” They want to be here for the passion, the opportunities, and the grand vision of this country. That’s the only standard that I want.

Posted in Culture, Education, Homeschooling.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Learning to read – Avant Parenting linked to this post on February 28, 2010

    […] have a vivid memory of how reading was taught in my son’s first grade classroom. His teacher had returned to the classroom after working as a homeschool teacher, and had brought some pretty unusual (from the perspective of public school, that is) ideas back […]

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