The Kids Albany Doesn’t See

In a supermarket in Quincy, Mass:  a man checking out ahead of me was wearing a school-bus yellow tee shirt emblazoned with the slogan: “The Revolution Will Not Be Standardized.” The image on the back was a No. 2 lead pencil X’ed out in red.

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Last week, in a school in north-central NY state, my great-nephew started first grade.  Ever since kindergarten let out last June, he has been anticipating this momentous occasion.  First grade. The big time.

This little man–all of six years old–boarded the school bus excited. He was sporting his brand new sneakers and toting a superhero backpack. He was going to buy pizza for lunch and do twenty jumping jacks in gym. He was going to write about getting his own library card during summer vacation.

Two days later, this same child was deflated. After some questioning–plied with a few oreos and some milk– he confessed to”failing” first grade. He had sat for a “pre-assessment” and he couldn’t answer the questions; it was all about things he had yet to learn. His teacher very gently tried to tell him it was OK, he wasn’t supposed to be able to answer the questions. But he knew better.  It wasn’t OK.

He doesn’t know that in a month,  by Thanksgiving, by the spring, he will be answering those questions without hesitation. He doesn’t care.  Children live in the present. Tomorrow is important only if it’s someone’s birthday.

My niece is rightfully concerned that her previously happy little boy has developed unexplained weekday headaches and stomachaches.

As adults, we know he will get over it.  We know this first grade angst will pass. Yesterday fades for kids.  He doesn’t know that, though. And today, he is sad.

We are told this is the most expeditious route to education reform. Local and federal politicians, often removed from the day to day process of raising and teaching kids, assure us testing will yield what we need to know in order to make children stronger students, better citizens.  The data will inform instruction and teachers will be better able to effectively meet the needs of students.

That may be true.  I’m just a teacher, neither a seer nor a politician.

I wonder: have we taken testing to the extreme? Have we reduced children to raw scores and percentile rankings? Are we taking the thrill of discovery from this generation of kids?

My niece does not see her son as a number on a grid. Reducing a child to data may look fine on paper, but kids are people.  Every child in every classroom is someone’s most precious possession. Mitchell is my niece’s first born. He likes tractors and working on the farm with his dad and uncles. He is protective and proud of his little sister even when she torments him as little sisters like to do.  And now he thinks he has failed first grade.  How effective will his teacher be able to be when this kid feels so bad about himself?

What ever happened to the true joy of teaching and of learning?

And this is not just in here in NY. This article in the Boston Globe suggests that the so-called success stories of education reform in Massachusetts, the tales that have been used to give New Yorkers hope and patience for similar progress across our own state, may have been altered in the retelling.. This article reveals pressure in kindergarten where kids even younger than my great-nephew are feeling let down about the things they are being required to do and their teachers are having trouble finding the simple joy in coming to school.

To achieve real education reform,  we need to reconsider what constitutes education and how we would like that to be measured. We need to remember the ways the in which our children grow and learn. Do we want our kids to be life long independent learners, intellectually curious, wiling to risk academic risks or do we want good test-takers?  There is a difference.

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The man checking out ahead of me in Quincy, Mass left  with his groceries before I could ask him about his tee shirt.  But the slogan has been playing in my mind: “The Revolution Will Not Be Standardized.” But I want one of those shirts.