A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

lead_largeWe humans have a need to control our environment, to fix things that appear to be broken. All in all that is an admirable trait until it gets out of hand, which it often does. Then we become almost obsessive in our desire to find a kind of perfection in the world around us. We craft rules and laws hoping to improve everyone’s lives. Most of the time our motives are not evil or selfish. Our intentions are generally good but we sometimes miss the mark. Sadly we have a tendency to stick with our plans even when it becomes apparent that our ideas have not worked as intended. We change a little of this and a little of that, complicating our lives just a bit more with each new layer, refusing to admit that maybe we have been moving in the wrong direction all along.

For the vast majority of history only the most wealthy and powerful individuals were afforded the luxury of an education. The sons of royalty were taught to read and to cipher and once in a great while even their daughters had tutors to show them how to unlock the mysteries of numbers and words. Most of the great unwashed millions were illiterate which made them less likely to change their economic status from one generation to the next. Eventually there was a realization that societies might benefit from having a more educated populace and more emphasis was placed on providing youngsters with the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Still, the average soul never went very far up the educational ladder, especially if that person was a woman or a minority. Up to and including my grandfathers, nobody in my family had gone past the seventh grade in their learning and my grandmothers were both functionally illiterate.

The dawn of the twentieth century brought a whole new attitude about schooling in the United States. The Industrial Revolution had highlighted the need for a more educated populace than the more agrarian work of the past required. When the United States joined in the conflict of World War I it emerged from the isolation that had mostly defined it since its beginnings. Leaders of the nation imagined a better future for everyone and it began in the classroom. Suddenly there was an interest in education for all unlike anything that had come before. Even the poor and women were to receive the basics needed for a literate society. The debate over what knowledge and skills should be included in a publicly funded system began in earnest and it has been raging ever since.

At first it seemed as though the efforts to teach the children of the nation went fairly well, fairly quickly. More and more youngsters were reaching higher and higher levels of education. My own parents not only graduated from high school but also went on to earn college degrees, a rather amazing feat given the almost non-existent levels of education of their parents. Still there were numerous individuals within their generation who attended school only until they felt a need to drop out and begin working, sometimes as early as middle school. Blacks went to poorly funded schools that were segregated and rarely equal in the quality of supplies and books and programs being offered. There were still many reasons to note that we had not reached our goal of universally equal and excellent schooling for all.

By the time that I was in school the civil rights movement was in full bloom, highlighting the need for integration and fairness for everyone. More and more people began to take completion of high school for granted and enrollment in colleges began to increase. Nonetheless, there was a general feeling that we were still behind our counterparts from around the world. Educational research began in earnest and methods for improving schools were incorporated inside classrooms. We pushed not just to have bodies in the seats but to create real participation in the learning experience, to have teachers who inspired and created lifelong learners.

I mostly loved going to school. My teachers were dedicated individuals who had few supplies and little in the way of technology. They made up for the lack of such things with enthusiasm. I recall feeling relaxed in my classes and enjoyed the laughter that was always a part of the ones that were the most enjoyable. We had a few standardized tests here and there but very little mention was ever made of them so we took them without worry. Somehow they were a mysterious aspect of the school year that had no real meaning in our lives, at least that’s how it felt to me. It was only when we reached the moment of taking college entrance exams that we felt the pressure of achieving a particular score and even then most universities were less concerned about how we had done on a three hour test than what kind of effort we had demonstrated over the course of our four years in high school. In other words, my generation was somewhat spared the angst of continual standardized testing.

I became a teacher because I literally loved the magic of the academic process that had taken place in the schools of my youth. They made me feel happy in a strange kind of way. I wanted to help transfer my own joy of learning to the next generation. For a time it was a most rewarding way to earn a living but slowly the idea of measuring the success or failure of every aspect of education began to take a stranglehold on how things were done in classrooms. I initially supported the idea of requiring teachers to follow more stringent guidelines in the curriculum. As a result of such designs I received a more ready group of students each year. My job became easier because there were fewer gaps in learning than ever before. I believed that we were on the right track until the entire focus began to revolve around determining how well educators were sticking with the prescribed curriculum and that meant testing the students. Before long we were asking our kids to take tests to prepare for the tests. We had to throw out the fun lessons that took too long and push the students to keep moving forward even when we knew that they had not yet mastered the material. There was no time for lingering and sometimes not even for laughing. There would be a common assessment at a scheduled time. We all had to be ready lest we be judged to be poor teachers.

Now we seem to be stuck in an educational quagmire that is increasingly uncomfortable for our teachers, our students and even the parents. Every January campuses take on a sense of dread as the clock begins ticking in the countdown to the spring testing season. So much is at stake for everyone. Teachers will be appraised based on how well their kids do on the tests. Students know that the trajectory of their lives will move one way or another depending on their scores. Parents watch helplessly as their youngsters grow increasingly stressed. Administrators will rise in the ranks or be cast aside depending on the ultimate results of the children in their care. It is a situation in which few are happy and yet the insistence on adhering to high stakes testing continues unabated.

The cries for help are already appearing on the walls of Facebook and in blogs. A poet admits that questions on a seventh grade test about one of her works were too nebulous for her to answer correctly even though the words had come from her mind. A teacher recounts the horror stories that are pushing her out of the profession. A distraught parent wants to know why her child is so nervous and confused and why the teachers won’t slow down enough to allow her little one to master the materiel instead of moving from one topic to another at breakneck speed.

We have a sense that we have somehow gone astray and turned our educational system into a million dollar industry for testing companies rather than a place where learning is viewed as a pleasant experience. Our children have to be taught to think in a particular way so that they might beat the tests that they will take again and again and again.

We know that there are those among us who have the experiences that make them more likely to do well on those tests even without the instruction that they receive and others whose minds work differently who will overthink their answers and choose based on legitimate reasons that they are not allowed to explain on a bubble sheet. Our mathematics teachers are reluctant to give partial credit for answers that were calculated correctly but for one small error so that students who actually understand concepts are lumped with those who have no idea what they are doing. After all, the standardized tests will not differentiate between those who just need to check their subtraction on one step and those who have simply guessed and chosen the wrong response because they are clueless.

I don’t know what it will take to rid ourselves of this onerous situation which is forcing a generation of teachers, students and parents to become testing drones rather than thinkers. Perhaps instead of mounting a silent revolution with frustrated comments on social media we should all begin to insist that our voices be heard. Many groups are marching through the streets these days with their individual protests when the one cause that should unite us all is the education of our children. We should feel fervent in our desire to rid our schools of the plague that is killing the very liveliness and joy that should come with learning. It is in classrooms all across our nation that so many of the problems that trouble us begin. Our young women might feel more empowered if we quit subjecting them to tests that have been proven to favor their middle class male counterparts. Those who roam the streets of Chicago performing murderous acts might be more inclined to turn their attention to school if they were to find a more interesting atmosphere that is attuned to their needs rather than to constantly assessing how much they know. Our levels of poverty and unemployment will be greatly reduced if we work on providing our youth with real world skills that take note of their interests and talents rather than attempting to force them all to embark on STEM careers. It’s time that we demand that the lunacy of constant testing that is driving our entire educational system receive a major overhaul.

As the old saying goes, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Right now we are sending far too many minds careening over a cliff. When will we insist that we have had enough?