The Nightmare in Our Schools: Part 1

Our students are the most over tested on earth. For some reason, our country, stupidly and unlike other advanced nations, has decided that competent adults can be produced based on specification of

Our students are the most over tested on earth. For some reason, our country, stupidly and unlike other advanced nations, has decided that competent adults can be produced based on specification of high test scores, as if that reflects a competent and intelligent individual rather than someone good at getting high scores.

In fact, the major college entrance exams have very little validity — the ability to predict differences in performance among students is somewhere around 15 percent. Fortunately, some colleges use many other criteria for selection and advancement.

Unfortunately, those criteria, when associated with one's educational history, become deranged. This is because education of the young has become deranged.

Now it's the very young, fourth graders and younger, who are being held to meaningless proficiency scores in order to advance. Not they, their parents or even their teachers seem to be able to stop such abuse.

Much more than college students, children are at developmental variance with each other naturally. One child might be anatomically ready to read by age 6, while another might not be ready until age 9.

A proficiency test at this age, then, not only has poor validity due to the nature of the exam but is invalid, a priori. And also unfair and abusive, a priori.

Despite such knowledge of development, too many of us, parents, teachers administrators and politicians alike, promote testing for advancement and classification of children. Worse, when we make such collective and institutionalized mistakes as educators, children suffer damages and loss.

The first loss is the loss of good teaching. Teachers who can maintain child-centered and developmentally appropriate educational techniques in the face of state demands for proficiency are more and more rare. Rather, the trend is for teaching methods to become irrelevant as long as they produce higher proficiency scores.

Opposed to this trend, longitudinal research and numerous studies indicate that what we need to nurture good, life-long learners is being bypassed by the current "back to basics" methods. Less encouragement of the innate learning and development of children is thus another loss.

The hit list of practices creating bad education by the teaching-to-standards movement is spelled out by Alfie Kohn in his unusually well-referenced book, The Schools Our Children Deserve: grades and privileges attached to grades; societies or clubs based on grade point average; standardized tests, especially when scores are published; academic contests; frequent evaluations of student performance, especially when public; rewards from gold stars to scholarships; the segregation of students based on performance or alleged ability; the current criteria for and sometimes mistaken beliefs about college admission; and teaching that values error-free assignments and right answers more than real thinking.

Collectively, the above list describes an "anti-learning environment," says Kohn, and the research backs him up. In fact, studies show that even using grades, much less piling on advancement tests, produces students who seek the easiest solution, prefer not to think and wind up having little true and sustained interest in learning.

What education then becomes is a chore. By usurping the ability of the child to construct his/her own understanding through projects, a relaxed environment and the joy of learning rather than the anxiety of achievement, we create boredom and stress. The achievers, regardless of score height, tend to be among the chronically dull, smart but neurotic, bright but desensitized, or simply prematurely ambitious.

The hidden danger here is that many brilliant children take the path of resistance, not achieving their potential. Many loving and bright children are put at risk for school lives of apathy or rebellion.

On top of our abhorrent methodology, as if to broadcast our true but hidden intent to abuse, the environments we provide for education are even worse than our misguided attempts at educating. Here's where the damages become palpable: Where else in society do we ask people to tolerate atrocious air quality, bad lighting, crowded conditions and unhealthy food and tolerate all of it while being ordered and even marched from place to place on a schedule with minimal exposure to the outdoors, recreation, music, art and relaxation? The "where else" is prison.

Children forced to learn new abilities under such stress are more prone to disease. Just think about the rapid increase in childhood illnesses like asthma and attention deficit disorder, not to mention depression.

The situation in schools is abnormal in other ways as well. Put 20 to 30 children in a room and expect them to act the same. Don't allow too many differences. Don't allow anyone to stand out too much, unless it's standing out by beating a classmate at getting grades or scores. Enforce conformity. Don't distinguish between boys and girls. Approach children with fear, but also as if they're the cause of and solution to such fear.

Our collective fear underlies a view that our current problems can be corrected in the future through the institutionalized rearing of children via a relatively drastic mold. We no longer trust the inherent good and innocence in children, allowing them to develop on this basis. Rather, methods appropriate to high-school-aged reform school students are now finding their way down to first grade as standard discipline. Don't shout, certainly, but don't laugh too loud either. Don't pee more than twice a day. Don't play on the grass — confine yourself to the pavement where we can keep a close eye on you. March, run, sit, walk and shut up.

The number of schools that are places for fun, growth, development, experiment, trial and error and nurturing mentality as well as spirit has dwindled. This movement, like a latent virus, is spreading in city, suburban and private schools. The full sickness resulting will leave most of us appalled at our ineptitude within 10 years.

Virtually all of what schools were intended to be, as regards true learning, is being replaced by the all-too-sad, plebeian concept of proficiency as measured by standardized testing. Since these tests don't measure intelligence or the ultimate learning ability of children, we should see just what's being provided — the production of scores to justify the existence of a childhood nightmare while benefiting the material needs of adults.

Take Cincinnati's school system. Most of our funding goes to teacher and administrator salaries, with around $7,000 per child per year being spent — 75-85 percent of which funds the needs of adults.

This imbalance extends to facilities. School buildings are in shambles, while the new administration building is state of the art.

Consistent with the daily immobility found in corporate cubicles, the most important activities for childhood development — recess, gym, art, music and foreign language — also are in shambles. In some cases, kids get 30 minutes for lunch and recess, art and gym once every two weeks and music once a week.

Teachers in such environments find themselves beset with difficulties, and many struggle along as best they can, often with confusion. Others know good teaching is being destroyed while children are hurt. They leave the system or take Prozac.

Ominously, there are those who always had an inwardly vicious feeling toward children in the first place. This group essentially feels, deep down, that putting a child in a closet with a candle and pile of textbooks, then using a cattle prod when test scores, class work or homework isn't adequate, is legitimate teaching.

This group's power has grown of late. As test scores increase at all, no matter the cost to human relationships or lack of significance of the increase, the teacher doing severe mental, emotional, spiritual and vicarious physical damage to children is often promoted, recognized unofficially or even given public awards for teaching. Some of these teachers have been in the system for decades.

Perhaps we can now broadly define abuse as the social and institutional negating of one's person. In the case of the young, their lack of development has been viewed, even by our illustrious Supreme Court, as opening them up to almost any action on the part of teachers and school administrators short of obvious corporal abuse resulting in sustained physical damage. Examples would be a severe beating causing post traumatic stress disorder, a machine accident leaving one paralyzed or murder.

Mental cruelty, breach of contract, emotional pain and suffering, as well as other standard legal concepts, don't apply in our schools. There are some rules for the handicapped and disabled, more in public schools than in private. But here's the point: Legally, human rights don't apply unless your child becomes handicapped or disabled!

Adults, on the other hand, can sue to help themselves — which is why the air quality system in the new administration building is top-notch, while children in most school buildings are forced to breathe a disease-creating biological and chemical soup. The physiology of education is completely ignored. Fixing physical environments has been on the back burner for 40 years.

In addition, since most of our educators, administrates and politicians have ignored the research findings that our back-to-basics actions are misguided, we have no valid measurements for our chosen direction of educating, abusive or not. Fixing educational methods is not just on the back burner but willfully being pushed backward.

When will we see what we're doing? Let's have an independent research group follow this system for the next 20 years, starting with first graders. We can see how current first graders end up at age 26. We can then measure their health, happiness, learning ability, sense of achievement and overall balance as people. We can see how many are on mood-altering medication. We can see if any of them will still sit down and read a classic novel or write their own poetry. We can see if the majority do anything more than click a button to get to the latest hyperlink providing the latest tiny piece of relatively useless yet sadly prophetic answer to nothing.

Of course, we'd have to follow a school system that's listening to reason for the same period of time. But we currently would have to find that system outside of our city and maybe outside of our state. Soon, for a humane, pre-college education, we might need to start talking to other countries where children are children and where standardized tests are recognized for what they are: research tools.

Here's a financially creative solution: "Our friends the Canadians, let us barter. We'll train one graduate student, free of charge, for every three grade schoolers you all take under your wings.

"Subsequently, we'd need to give an entrance examination to see which two of the three get to come home. After all, there'd be one graduate school spot filled by a Canadian. One of our children will have to stay with you until your system brings up his or her test scores on our exams.

"We will then gladly welcome the child home with open claws."

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