I was one of the many people who felt extremely disturbed when I read The Washington Post’s article on Harley Avenue Primary School in New York. The school sent this letter to parents last week:
April 25, 2014
Dear Kindergarten Parents and Guardians,
We hope this letter serves to help you better understand how the demands of the 21st century are changing schools, and, more specifically, to clarify misperceptions about the Kindergarten show. It is most important to keep in mind is [sic] that this issue is not unique to Elwood. Although the movement toward more rigorous learning standards has been in the national news for more than a decade, the changing face of education is beginning to feel unsettling for some people. What and how we teach is changing to meet the demands of a changing world.
The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.
Not only do they saturate the letter with justifications of vague, nationwide bureaucracy (“Don’t blame us! It’s the world we live in today! We’re victims of circumstance! It’s happening everywhere! For ten whole years!”), but they actually believe cutting a kindergarten class’s play is going to help these students get into college in 13 years. And don’t get me started on the writers’ apparent lack of understanding where syntax and capitalization are concerned (their Facebook page and website are far worse; spare yourselves).
What disturbs me most, though, is that if these kindergarteners remain in the hands of educators like these, they will grow up in a school system like mine (more on that soon). Very quickly they will learn that everything they do is ultimately a step to get them into college. They will become a generation of excellent “Jeopardy!” players and test takers. But what happens to the kids who want to earn a vocational trade or go into the military? What about the students who are intelligent but suffer from test anxiety?
After my K-12 education in a public school district, my overall outlook on the experience was that school administrators either cannot or chose not to care about students’ well-being.
This started in elementary school, when an inordinate amount of hype and pressure was placed on us as fourth-graders to pass the WASL, or Washington Assessment of Student Learning. Fortunately, I had a wonderful teacher who somewhat successfully assuaged our fears (particularly when she played the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” song before we took the test). For those who are unfamiliar with it, the WASL (in the years it affected me) was a statewide standardized test taken in fourth, seventh and tenth grade. We were tested in reading, writing, science and math. In eighth grade we took a science-only WASL. As middle school students, we were told the grade after us (the class of 2008) and all subsequent grades would be required to pass the tenth-grade WASL in order to graduate. While this took the pressure off of my class, the message sent by the administration was clear: your thirteen years of academic achievements will amount to nothing if you don’t pass this one test.
I was indignant. To varying degrees, I was almost always indignant as a student, even before I knew the meaning of the word. I just knew I hated the idea of just being a number, of not being treated like an individual (I think this influenced my later gravitation towards poets like Szymborska). Nearly all of my school principals – from elementary through high school – received letters from me, complaining about some injustice or other that we lowly students faced, and demanding the situation be changed. To be honest, I no longer remember what most of these injustices were. But I was not having it.
On top of the WASL mandates, my grade became the first class in our school district to complete four full years of what became drudgingly known as Small Schools. We heard rumors that this program was executed because our school district was one of the worst in the state in terms of dropouts, pregnancy, etc., but I’m not able to confirm this (although, for the record, I do know that from freshman year to graduation day, my class shrank from 550 to 333 students). Bill Gates swooped in to save the day by dropping buckets of money on us – provided we become guinea pigs for this new school system. The high school became divided into seven small schools based on interest. In reality, you chose your small school based on whichever elective class your eighth-grade self enjoyed and wanted to take more of. Some of us know this concept as “college.”
High school should be when students figure out the subjects they are most passionate about, what career path to pursue, etc. Small Schools removed those options. Rather, at age 13 we had to chose what path we would be immersed in for the next four years. I chose Culture and Performing Arts, meaning my electives had to be music- or theatre-related and my foreign language had to be French. For the sake of keeping this post at blog length, I’ll refrain from launching into my personal experiences with the Small School years.
As a junior I enrolled in Running Start, which allows high-school upperclassmen in Washington State to take community-college courses. Immediately I recognized the program as my saving grace out of the limiting Small Schools program. For once I was in a place where I was being educated for the sake of education, not for the sake of being tested or being part of an isolating experiment by the state. I was being educated as a student, not as an investment opportunity. I went to the high school for choir and the school musicals, and the college for the rest of my classes. Finally I had the best of both worlds – the arts and a quality, well-balanced education.
But college was a shock to me after the school system to which I’d grown accustomed. No longer did I get As and Bs for showing up on time, taking tests and not sassing the teachers. I was not automatically one of the smart kids; I had to prove it. I had sizable amounts of homework. I was 16 years old and had never been properly taught how to take notes in or out of class. Until that point, being a student meant being spoon-fed assignments and regurgitating specific facts on tests. For this reason, it took two years of being a student at Whitworth University before I thought, “Maybe I really am smart enough to be here.” I am more proud of my Cs and Ds (and yes, even that F in Jim McPherson’s class) that I got at Whitworth than my As in high school. That’s because in college I got an education. In K-12 I was taught at. I was a memorizing machine, a test-taking superwoman. My path was laid out nicely in front of me and all stones were removed to ensure I wouldn’t stumble.
Over the last several years, my dad has taught machine shop, wood shop and architectural drawing at the middle-school level. At his last school, the administrators decided it’d be best for the seventh-graders who failed the writing portion of the WASL to have to take two English courses the following year, losing their only elective. This makes sense, because, naturally, if you struggle in a subject, the best way to improve upon it is to take it for twice as long per day and eliminate the one class you enjoyed.
At the time, my dad was teaching at a school where some students were living in cars and others had parole officers. He had students who would only come to school to take his shop class, because they learned – imagine this! – a hands-on skill, and then skip the rest of their classes. But the district’s seven assistant superintendents decided vocational classes just weren’t necessary, and Dad’s class sizes started to dwindle. They had an industry-experienced educator and a state-of-the-art shop. They didn’t seem to care about either. Dad left about 10 years ago, and as far as I know, the shop is still collecting dust. They never hired a replacement, but I bet they – and their students – are just thrilled with their test scores.
Yes, some students thrive in a highly academic, test-centered atmosphere. But there are seven learning styles, as classified by Howard Gardner of Harvard: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, music intelligence, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Given this, schools that follow the testing-first philosophy cater to a fraction of their students, while making the rest feel – perhaps permanently – that they are hopelessly unintelligent where academics is concerned. Well, I’ve done enough complaining. It’s only fair I offer a solution. I’ll even put it in bullet-point format for easy transfer to your next board meeting’s PowerPoint slideshow. School administrators:
- Reach out to your students.
- Believe them when they say something isn’t working.
- Let them make mistakes. They’ll figure out what to do.
- Cultivate their intelligence and curiosity, not their ability to be give the “right” answer.
- Encourage them to question, not blindly memorize for the test.
- Get them intricately involved in solving educational problems. My classmates and I had to fight to get our voices heard, and even then, I never truly felt they were. If you, as an authority, go out of your way to ask them their opinion, they will respect you for it. They will feel more personally invested in fixing the problem than if a solution or the newest educational craze is thrown at them, and as such, they will work harder to keep things running smoothly. They may not have PhDs, but they are a hell of a lot more intimately aware of what’s going on than anyone else.
Give them a voice, but let them speak for themselves.