The downfall of public education

From the Huffington Post by Arnold Dodge

May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Just over 50 years ago, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring (1962) a damning indictment of the chemical industry’s passion for DDT spraying to destroy insects. Here is the opening paragraph to a chapter entitled, “And No Birds Sang.”

“Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song. This sudden silencing of the song birds, this obliteration of the color and beauty and interest they lend to our world have come about swiftly, insidiously, and unnoticed by those whose communities are as yet unaffected.”

Carson’s plaintive cry seems eerily familiar to what many of us have been saying about the changes we see in our schools. The classrooms in our nation have grown “strangely silent” where once they were filled with questions, laughter, spontaneity and, yes, noise. This change has come about “swiftly, insidiously and unnoticed” by communities who have been fed lies about a new accountability that promises to improve our schools.
We learned from Carson’s well-researched work that when a toxic substance is introduced into a natural environment there is a kill that occurs. Educators have learned from their own well-worn experience that toxic threats producing kills are not limited to birds or fish in the natural environment, but are also found in toxic elements in schools that kill children’s spirits.
When standardized tests — promoted by big business interests — take the place of teacher judgment, when teachers’ evaluations are reduced to numbers, when scripted learning is the norm, when fear and intimidation are more prevalent than love and compassion, when obedience trumps the freedom to question, a poisonous atmosphere is created in our schools. We notice the silence in the joyless and lifeless places that our classrooms are becoming in the wake of a fugue of destructive educational policies designed to satisfy the mandates of Race to the Top.
Fifty years from now, when educational historians look back on this period, they may be honoring those who, Carson-like, exposed RTTT as the educational equivalent of DDT in its attempt to silence a generation by its widespread use of agents that stifle creativity and marginalize imagination. Maybe in their review they will be baffled by the policy makers of this era, posing a litany of questions to the erstwhile education czars: What were you thinking when you decided that a one size fits all, a punishing, severe and unforgiving approach to the care and development of children would work well? Were you hoping for obedience to reign over all other responses, for a triumph over the messiness of growing up, for silence in the school? Did you ever meet a child?
Here is Carson’s last paragraph from the same chapter:

“Who has decided — who has the right (Carson’s italics) to decide — for the countless legions of people that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power; he has made it during a moment of inattention by millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature still have a meaning that is deep and imperative.”

Who indeed has decided that schools will be lifeless, mechanistic and ungraced by the arc of a child’s natural development? Who would have the life of a youngster calculated and parsed so there is no more mystery to childhood? The decision is that of the temporary authorities emboldened by a staggering lack of opposition from a seemingly anesthetized public.
But there is a stirring. Little by little, folks are starting to wake up to the reality that children need recess and the freedom to make mistakes, and to be artistic and messy and difficult. They are new human beings trying out their humanness. To silence them by harsh rules and punitive sanctions is to rob them of their childhood.
Those of us who have been fighting against the corporatizing and standardization of American schools might do well to borrow other iconic symbols from the protest movement of the ’60s. The widely disseminated message “War is not healthy for children and other living things,” might be updated to “Schools are not friendly to children and other growing things.”
Some may claim this dire profile to be hyperbole, an exaggeration of the effects of the new education reforms. For those of us who spend our time in schools, asking students and teachers about the changes, these claims are not an exaggeration. They are a sad reality.
As we close out a year that saw an unprecedented incursion of standardization and business-model accountability in our schools, we wonder about the future. When will we say enough is enough? When will we reclaim the territory that is rightfully the sacred ground of our children?
As we look to next year in our schools, let’s all agree that we will not stand by and witness another silent fall where children’s voices are outlawed.
What can we do?
Make some noise.

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