My granddaughter Maddie is five and just started kindergarten. She loves her doll Molly, her several kitchens, her playhouse, her little brother, her parents, her grandparents and lots of other people and things. She is an energetic, curious and loving child.
Thinking about Maddie, which I do quite often, has made education reform even more personal for me. My passionate objections to current policies and practices had not been quite as intimately felt as they are now that Maddie is in kindergarten. It feels very personal now.
I viewed two experiences through this perspective.
One was an email that I and thousands of school administrators received from Pearson, Inc.
NCS Pearson, Inc. (Pearson) offers the opportunity for schools to inform the advancement of education and receive educational benefits to support student growth and learning. Educational benefits such as iPads, Kindle Fires, and Nook tablets. This exciting opportunity involves your school’s participation in the Equivalency phase of one of Pearson’s products, AIMSweb.
AIMSweb is a universal screening, progress monitoring, and data management system for grades K-12. AIMSweb utilizes general outcome measurement, a form of standardized assessment of basic academic skills that predict year-end proficiency and are highly sensitive to change. Measures are time efficient, easy to administer, and produce accurate charts of student growth over time.
It may seem innocuous enough. You know, just another promotion for standardized assessment, data, metrics, digital devices, outcome measurements, time efficiency, accurate charts and all the other things that children need in the 21st century.
As I read the message I conjured images of my tender, funny, enthusiastic, affectionate granddaughter in a room with digital devices, being measured, prodded, poked, predicted and standardized. I visualized all the AIMSweb inputs and outputs, the evaluation of her phonemes and recognitions, her readinesses and her deficiencies. I saw her report in my mind’s eye, with bar codes and flow charts, with standard deviations and EKG-like graph lines charting her past and predicting her future. (Yes, I know my images are a bit dramatic, but my progressive early childhood kept my imagination intact!)
I imagined the UPS driver dropping off a huge container of Nooks (no crannies), iPads, and Fires at her school, so that they might be delivered to small children like Maddie to remediate their phonemic awareness weaknesses and digitally fertilize their literacy and mathematics growing edges.
My sense of revulsion was palpable. I silently screamed, “Keep your metrics off my Maddie!”
More recently I had the intensely unpleasant experience of watching a video produced by one of America’s leading charter school chains. It purported to be an example of best practices in reading instruction, apparently professionally made for promotional purposes. The reading lesson was for children who appeared to be about Maddie’s age. The teacher appeared to be angry and the children never smiled. There was a stern behaviorist aura to the proceedings. A premium was placed on posture, sitting still and looking attentively at the teacher. (Maddie seems to learn best when in motion or upside down.)
The teacher was emotionally distant and overbearing - perhaps two ends of the same teaching continuum. The children seemed to be far too tense to experience pleasure or understand the story. It was hard to tell who enjoyed the reading lesson less - the kids or the teacher. This is what they deem “best practices.”
The constant interruptions to correct posture or to stop any sign of life arising in the children made the story unintelligible, even to me, and I love a good story. Maddie loves a good story too, but if I told her to sit up straight or keep her eyes on me, she would get up, change Molly’s diaper, and the two of them would go out to her playhouse.
Fortunately, Maddie is in a lovely, loving Montessori school. They don’t do quarterly reading-readiness evaluations or otherwise subject young children to meaningless and harmful assessments. There are no metrics, no rubrics, no Nooks (lots of nooks and crannies), no deficiencies, no remediation, no arcane edu-speak, no proficiency measures and no anti-child gimmicks to establish grim adult control over everything in the environment.
I’d like to be professional and eloquently articulate all the reasons that these are not healthy approaches to learning (and I could), but I’ll simply suggest that any adults who treat small children in either of these ways should not be in the education profession.
All children should be free to enjoy childhood, to learn naturally and joyfully and not be subjected to measurement, assessment, diagnosis, intervention, judgment, control, rigid compliance or conformity. Nor should they be used as fodder for predatory publishing and technology companies.
The current state of education reform, particularly for poor children of color, is not only ineffective, it is abusive. When I think about this in terms of my privileged granddaughter, it makes me furious that other peoples’ children and grandchildren are being treated this way. It’s not a political debate. It’s a national shame.