Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Mirror Held Up to Our System of Education

When I first arrived for work at an elementary school in the late summer of 2007, the thing that surprised me were the lines. In all of my life, I had never fully recognized the pronounced importance of an ability to walk in this specific way, one child behind the other, in order that a system designed to educate 500 of these creatures might function. At the time, I felt slightly as if I had been tumbled into a video documentary on the societal stifling of the Individual. I quickly learned, though, that 500 children allowed to prance the halls like merry goats, singing loudly by open classroom doors would not a tenable situation make. I began, in fact, within the months that followed, to experience enormous agitation at the sight of lines that were out of order, lines that an adult failed to properly constrain, loud lines. However, somehow the lines–the necessary, quiet, orderly lines stuck with me. Maybe this is why. Children–and the systems we use to instruct them–hold up a mirror, which if we dare look in, might show us who we really are and what we really value.

The mirror says we value order more than we say we do.

I am confused sometime. I am confused about worksheets. The way that some parents speak about them you would think that they were talking about crack pipes or dead rats. On the other hand, I have this child that is, perhaps dysgraphic, or for some other reason cannot make his vast mental landscape confine its wealth to the small line where a word or sentence must be written on his first grade worksheet. His work is pretty crappy, but he is capable of an ingenuity and imagination, a sort of corvine-like facility with his thought life that won't translate to the damn worksheet. It makes me hate worksheets. I want to gather them in a great pile and burn them like the library of Alexandria. Honestly though, how the Hell would would we be expecting all our teachers to teach without them–lessons aligned to standards, appropriate to each of twenty-five children in her class, all composed with the eight or so hours of planning time she has a week for teaching every subject she is responsible for? We don't give enough time for a teacher to thoughtfully create dynamic lessons, we don't provide materials that support it, we think it can be tossed off.

The mirror says we think education is a recipe or a science, when it is really an art.

I am also confused about standards. It keeps landing for me like this. I am 5'6. " Perhaps the standard for my age, decided on by legislators, is that I be 5'8."  I'm not. I'm just not. There is so much wrong with an education that is focused entirely on standards that it makes my head spin. I don't think you can throw them out entirely. I actually think that human beings become lazy quite easily, that we are happy to sit around, chewing gum and letting the kids have extra free time while we check our email. If we don't have a goal, a target, a ribbon to run through, then we often putz around. But the standards need to be based on each individual child. If you are 5'4" now, you might reasonably gain two inches and be 5'6" by the end of the year. That growth should be celebrated. A sixth grader who begins the year reading at third grade level and ends it at fifth should be congratulated. Within the system we have now, he is going to feel "low" no matter what. A fourth grade special ed. kid who I worked with one year was rewarded at the end with a certificate that said he had made "the most progress in creative writing," something of which he was extremely proud, but he was later confused and disappointed that he still had to attend summer school. "I thought I made the MOST progress, Ms. Adams!" How do you fix that situation? How do you even answer that question authentically?

The mirror says we want sameness, however much we say we celebrate diversity.

I am confused about what we are teaching. My child's sixth grade book report instructions read like the instructional manual for a washing machine. If one could only understand all the elements of fiction–identify the rising and falling action and regurgitate them into a bland essay, surely one could say one has mastered English. The writing he is taught is terrible. It is as if art were taught by instructing students to sketch a person, using the crosshatched lines artists compose to define space, and then leave the lines in place on the finished product. The writing is all schema. It lacks breath. Last Sunday, I stood in a room with four middle school students, two of whom are actors, while they were instructed, in pairs, to devise their own short skits illustrating a bias scenario that was given them on slip of paper.

"Do you want us to read it?"

"No, I want you to create a skit. Make it up."

"I don't understand."

And this went on for five minutes or so. Although incredibly bright children, all of them, they were more or less incapable of taking a known thing and translating it into something original.

The mirror says we value skills, but not knowledge or ingenuity.

My observation is that this isn't personal. This isn't specific to a classroom, to a school, to a district. It is suggestive of a society that has certain values.

The mirror says we are losing our way.


  1. These are some of my frustrations, too. You have so beautifully put the drawbacks of public education. One of the biggest and saddest facts, is that by many, education is viewed as business. A failing business at that. No "profit" in it.
    As long as our society undervalues real education, we will send our kids to school to learn how to stand in lines, fill in the blanks, take the tests, and work the system. It is at home that they will learn art, observation, experimentation, critical thinking.

    1. It is really so hard for me to capture what bothers me. There is still so much good in our schools, but it is all set about with some sort of inherent wrongness that emanates from dictates nationally, like a healthy body attacked by a virus. My struggle with children who are disabled and yet extremely bright is that they come home exhausted by school, so WHEN and HOW do I still teach all the art, observation, experimentation and critical thinking I want without further straining their resources? I think I do, but it is a a very fine line to walk.

  2. I agree with you TangledLou, finishing up my senior year in high school right now and looking back at my progress through school it makes me upset at how much it's changed, and definitely not for the better. It's just about getting the kids through the system and making a fool proof plan so they will get passing grades and move on. I thought this was beautifully written and it has definitely given me a lot to think about.

    1. We will see how I feel when my eldest, now an 8th grader, graduates. If by senior year, he has reclaimed a love of learning, a natural sense of inquiry and desire to challenge his mind, I will feel OK with what has come in between. I am sort of holding my breath and hoping that it all falls out OK.

  3. I notice that a lot in the schools my kids attend. They are forced to teach the standards and revolve their curriculum so the kids can pass a test. It doesn't matter whether they really get it. What matters is that they can memorize the answer and get the question right at that point in time with little difference whether they actual absorbed that knowledge to future use.


    1. ...and it should matter. We forget what we are forced to regurgitate quickly, but the rest, when we are asked to use it to think deeply, broadens our whole selves.

  4. This is a fantastic article, Tara. I live in India and the education system here is all about marks and grades and very formal education. It leaves very little room for people who don't fit in to the notion of 'clever' or 'normal' as described by our society! :(

    1. Corinne, I am so fascinated with the educational systems in other countries that are always held up against ours. Thank you for sharing this with me.

  5. You've articulated this so well.

  6. You have touched on so many things that are so discouraging about our educational system and our society as a whole. My kids were coming up through elementary school at the time that a lot of the standardized testing issues started taking precedence. Our district lost so many talented, devoted teachers during this period who were frustrated by "teaching to the test" and/or simply refused to do so and our kids and our community are poorer for that loss.

    Standardized tests don't tell us about the capabilities of our teachers and still less about the potential of our students--all they tell us about is a student's ability to take a given test on one specific day. That ability is influenced by a gazillion things--a touch of the flu, a powerful crush on the girl at the next desk, etc, etc--and still yet, so much emphasis is placed upon it. It's lunacy.

    There are no easy or pat answers, but it's nice to know there are people as eloquent as you asking the questions.


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