Last week was back-to-school night. A former student of mine, now a senior, showed up with her younger brother.
Seven years had passed since the senior had been my student. But only last week she had sent me a sweet note remembering my birthday and passing along an even sweeter bar of dark chocolate. She had recalled it was my favorite. And I remembered her. Even back in fifth grade she’d wanted to be a dentist.
“No,” I replied.
A frown appeared on her face.
“What about rockets? Do you still do water pressure rocket projects with plastic bottles and bicycle pumps?”
I shook my head. Her eyebrow furrowed, her frown grew.
“What … umm … what about letters? Do you still have the kids write letters to celebrities?”
“And newspapers. You got newspapers for all of us every Friday. I loved that.”
“No, we don’t do any of those things any more. We can’t.”
She sat down and said, “How sad.”
That conversation has reverberated for a few days now. How sad, indeed. The culprit is the education reformist wave. A movement devoted to testing, drive-by evaluations and the privatization of public schools.
A disturbing and ironic event occurred at my school in the same week. A private evaluator required by No Child Left
Behind observed that she had not seen rigorous engagement in classrooms. That she would say that is frightening because it means she has no clue. It means she does not understand that teachers in public schools in areas of poverty have no autonomy. There is little room for us to be engaging, independent or daring. We teach what is prescribed and mandated by non-educators, politicians and the latest whim of publishing companies.(New, shinier standards are coming out in 2014 under the pretentious moniker Common Core. These new standards are supposedly bonafide-grade A better than the old ones — for sure.)
Teachers have to conform, huddle in painful, time-wasting meetings to discuss how we can make scores go up, which subgroup needs more work to make scores go up. A fellow teacher asked me, “How can the kids’ scores go up so much from the previous year when they don’t know squat when they start in my class this year? Do you think the teachers cheated on last year’s test?”
“No, but I think we have all been cheated. The kids aren’t being educated. They have learned how to take tests.”
Ten years have passed now and in bites large and small No Child Left Behind has worsened what it was supposed to improve — the gap between minority performance and Anglo/Asian performance. Instead, it has sterilized, neutered, and destroyed our public schools. Creativity and innovation have been replaced with required scripts, and new stringently absurd teaching methodologies (which vary from district to district, consultancy to consultancy). Private firms gut our finances and impose conformity. We teach a reduced curriculum focused on math and reading. In some schools, science and social studies are integrated into language arts or the teachers teach it on the sly. Integrated means squeezed.
How sad for those poor kids under the microscope of No Child Left Behind in the public schools in areas of poverty.
How sad, indeed.
Paul Karrer teaches in Castroville and writes about education for this page.