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First, do no harm

Last weekend I went to an educational conference held by the California Association for the Gifted. The conference is for educators, psychologists, and parents of gifted children. It’s heavily weighted toward public school teachers, but in general there’s something for everyone in the field.

One morning I sat down with my wonderful publishers, Jim Webb and Janet Gore, to chat, and we ended up sitting next to a teacher who struck up a conversation with us. I didn’t get her name or the district she works in, but her story is, right now in California, a very common one.

She told us that she works in a heavily Latino district, and that most of her students are English language learners. Everyone who has studied ELLs knows the facts: On average, they take a few years to come up to speed in English. Their test scores during this period are awful, of course. Then eventually, if given the right educational opportunities, their knowledge of a second language becomes an asset. Please notice the big “if” in that sentence.

This teacher told me a story that I’ve heard in my home district as well. Labeled by No Child Left Behind as a “failing” school, they were put under the ill-named “Program Improvement.” Under PI, all control over what happens in the school is taken over by the state. Teachers have no choice in what to teach when – they actually have to follow a script each day.

These were things that I knew, but here are some more things she told us as we listened, horrified:

Teachers at her school have been ordered to remove all art from the walls. No creative work is to take place in the classrooms. They are directly forbidden from teaching any sort of drama or visual art. They get unannounced visits by the principal and others to ascertain whether they are following the script. Her students, who live in an insulated, Spanish speaking community, come to school knowing not a word of English; yet they are only spoken to in English only.

This teacher told us that she has one goal in her teaching: Not to directly hurt her students. Other teachers in the school, she said, place no such restrictions on themselves. She tries to make her classroom a happy place, and whenever possible, she tries to “sneak” real learning into their day.

She told us with some irony that her students get great test scores – she does her job well. But she knows that she is not able to educate them, just to prepare them to fill in bubbles. For personal reasons, she really needs her job and can’t take the risk of moving. She said that the older teachers in her district are retiring and being replaced by young teachers who have never known anything different than this script-based classroom.

Why, you may ask, was she at a gifted conference? Clearly, although giftedness transcends all racial and socioeconomic barriers, she was going to get no support from her principal to teach to those students.

She said she was gathering ideas that she could “sneak” into her script, things that would look enough like test prep, and wouldn’t resemble creativity in any way, so that she wouldn’t get in trouble with management.

I hardly knew what to say. She spoke very simply and eloquently about her situation.

“You need to start an anonymous blog,” I told her. “People need to hear these things. They need to know what’s being done to children in service of test scores.”

She pondered that, seeming like she was interested in the idea. Then she got the clouded look of someone who lives under Big Brother. “I’m sure our district tech guy would find me out,” she said. “I can’t afford to lose this job.”

And that was that. She went off to gather little bits of inspiration to brighten up the days of her creativity-forbidden students, and I went off to learn more about what we can do to serve all the needs of gifted children. Or rather, what we could do, if we actually cared enough.

Our society doesn’t care enough. Sure, I hear lots of parents complain about the tests. And I know a lot of parents who have escaped testing by choosing private or home school. But I have to wonder why we aren’t doing anything about this in any meaningful way. Why are we allowing politicians to make decisions based on advice from businessmen, faulty assumptions about why children do and do not succeed, and political convenience? This is a democracy. Why aren’t we all complaining about this? Why aren’t we instructing our children to go to the tests, sign their names, and then sit on their hands?

I know the answers: We support the politicians for other reasons. We figure they’re only doing this stuff now, but that they really do agree with us that it has to change. We support our individual schools and our individual teachers because they are, by and large, people like this woman, their hands tied by policy made by non-educators. Sometimes the best you can do is to do no harm. Sometimes the best you can do is crouch in the one corner where the telescreen can’t see you and write in your diary, “Down with Big Brother.”

Another teacher at a different time this weekend said to me, without irony, “We know that No Child Left Behind was designed to destroy our public schools.” She didn’t ask my opinion; she figured that anyone who had looked into the situation had to agree. What other possible reason could there be for it? A hundred years from now, looking back at this period in history, how will students of history be able to construct any other narrative?

It is clear that what is happening in classrooms across our state – and our country – where students don’t perform well on tests is nothing like education. Educators, neurologists, and psychologists actually know what works to create well functioning, educated people, and reading to them from scripts is not it. What’s being done to these students is some sort of peculiar torture that we as a society are accepting, condoning through our silent acceptance.

Shame on us. And thank you to those teachers who are trying, against all odds, to do no harm.

Posted in Culture, Education.

7 Responses

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  1. Parmalee says

    I’m nearly speechless! But you know what I believe in –local control of everything to do with education: money, curriculum etc. Aaaaaagh!

  2. Peter Lydon says

    Teach to an actual script. How could any parent allow their child in such a school.

    • Suki says

      Given the language barrier, the parents probably just hope that their kids will come out OK. I know someone who teaches in a similar school, and she says that no parents ever come to talk to her. Intimidated? Afraid of talking to a government employee due to immigration status? Used to authoritarian control in their country of origin? There are probably many reasons. Our public schools were created to “save” poor children from their “ignorant” families (and prepare them for a lifetime of working in a factory). This model doesn’t fit the 21st century, but somehow we persist with it. Schools should be using parents as resources, but many schools make sure that parents feel unwelcome. It’s a sorry state of affairs.

  3. Linnaea Avenell says

    This sounds like the kind of stories you used to hear decades ago out the Soviet bloc countries. …How surreal that this is the United States of America now. What kind of police state are we preparing our citizens for? On a more personal note, it breaks my heart – for the teachers, the students, and the future of the nation….

    • Suki says

      You’re right – I hadn’t thought of it that way. As I mention in my other reply, our school system was created in a time when we were moving from a largely agrarian, rural society into an urban, industrial society. The idea was that the children of the poor had to be able to read, write, and do basic math in order to work in factories. So the system was created, and we keep adding layers on top of it instead of questioning the basic premises behind how it was created. I am reading Alfie Kohn’s “The Schools Our Children Deserve.” It’s so right on and has been around for a generation of school children, yet things just seem to keep getting worse.

  4. Lara says

    Hard to know full picture because the details and converging evidence not available since particular school and teacher not identified. Here is a recent santa cruz sentinel article to give some additional perspective on failing to educate our children:

    • Suki says

      Here are a bunch of teachers who were willing to sign their names to their stories. The stories are horrific, and I have talked to teachers who tell me that similar things are taking place in Santa Cruz County: There is plenty of evidence every day that our students, teachers, and school systems are being damaged by NCLB, but for some reason, parents just go along with it.

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