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Friday, December 9, 2011

What Do We Really Want for Our Children?

What Do We Really Want for Our Children?
By Nelson Coulter

Imagine with me for a moment.

Suppose that we, as the citizens of Texas, decided that having physically fit children is collectively a worthy aspiration.  Certainly, current data with regard to health, medical, productivity, and absenteeism costs would support a decision that promotes physical fitness.  Suppose also we decided that, in order to ensure that all children in the state achieve minimum levels of physical fitness, the state must take the lead in making that outcome a reality.

In order to achieve those goals, suppose we decided to require the public school students of Texas to compete in a three-pronged “exam” each year consisting of:  1) 100 meter dash, 2) high jump, and 3) shot put.  To determine for us what an acceptable level of performance in each of those exercises should be, we would assemble an assessment team to set the standards. That assessment team would consist of some fitness gurus, some experts in each of the three events, a few manufacturers of stopwatches and strength equipment, and maybe some retailers of high jump mats.  

Our blue ribbon assessment team would determine “passing” or “failing” standards for each age level of student, student subgroup, and school.  Minimum expectations would be set irrespective of ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status.  The nutritional and exercise history of the students, the environment in which they live, their emotional state, the current state of their physical development, their natural physical “body types,” and other performance impacting elements will be disregarded in setting the performance standards.  Some exceptions may be granted complicating factors.  For instance, standards might be modified for a child that has only one, or no, legs (but only if their school doesn’t already have too many of these “types” of students).  Other than rare exceptions, ALL students will be expected to meet expectations for their chronological age group, as determined by our blue ribbon assessment team. Period!
(Note: the blue ribbon assessment team w ill be empowered to change the standards from one year to the next).  

Once those standards are arbitrarily set by our blue ribbon panel, each child’s performance in the individual events is measured, and each child is then labeled as a success or a failure accordingly.  Thus, a child that runs quite fast but cannot put the shot very far is deemed to have some sort of deficiency that requires focused attention and remedial work in order for him/her to eventually meet the arbitrarily set shot put standard.  A child that can put the shot very well but may have had some difficulty clearing the high jump bar must be required to spend extra time and effort to become a better high jumper (irrespective of body weight, height, coordination, muscle mass, etc.).  Finally, a few of the children may be known to be slightly delayed with regard to physiological development (not flawed, just delayed).  These children may not perform well in any of the three events.  Yet, because of poor performance they will be required to attend “boot camps,” to engage in extra training sessions, and to work with hired specialists in order to bring their performance(s) up to par.  No matter that their biological clock is ticking slightly slower than the “average” child in that age group.  (Note: It will be deemed reasonable and acceptable to medicate some low-performing children with steroids or other drugs to enhance the likelihood that they will meet minimum performance expectations on the prescribed physical fitness “exams.”)

All children that don’t meet standards (standards that are arbitrarily determined and that change yearly) will be made to feel that they are failures in some respect.  The adults that love them, care for them, and nurture them daily will be compelled to prod, push, coax, harangue, and cajole the children to work hard enough and long enough to improve their performances in order to meet the expected fitness standards (again, arbitrarily set standards).  An underlying assumption in this story is that the children, and their parents, and their respective communities should want and expect ALL children to be good sprinters, good high jumpers, and good shot putters.  Another underlying assumption is that if all the 9-year-olds in a community don’t perform at exactly the same acceptable standards as all 9-years-olds in all other communities, then the community itself is somehow flawed and must be publicly castigated. 

One more thing:  Any students who cannot master all three events to the minimum standards by the end of their senior year will NOT be allowed to receive a high school diploma.

You may be appalled at the absurdity of this story, as am I.  A student that doesn’t sprint well shouldn’t be made to hate the joys and benefits of running because some group of adults decides that the child must reach a predetermined and arbitrary level of sprinting proficiency.  Neither should children that don’t high jump or shot put very well be relentlessly driven to meet the arbitrarily set standards.  Adults who believe that general physical fitness cannot be sufficiently measured through a narrow menu of fitness tests such as sprinting, shot putting, and high jumping should not be viewed as na├»ve, ill-informed, and/or regressive in their thinking.

The fable you have just read is, I believe, a vivid analogy of exactly what we have done to the students of Texas (and nationally) in the cognitive realm.  Children that don’t write, do math, remember history, and understand science concepts as well as expected (against arbitrarily set standards) are made to feel less than the rest of us.  Our system of educational accountability has not only made each of these children feel like they are failures, it also indicts the homes, schools, and communities in which those children live.

Please do not write me off as one of those crazy “liberals” who believe in an anything-goes or standards-less education system.  I believe in a strong and sensible curriculum, I believe in measuring student understanding of that curriculum to inform how we (the schools) and our students are doing, and I believe those results should be made publicly available so that each community can assess how its respective schools are doing.

What I don’t believe is that students and schools should be stigmatized (even traumatized) by that process.  I do not believe students and schools should be labeled as failures by external entities (e.g., the state and/or the federal government) against standards that are dubiously set, via assessments that are suspect in validity.  I do not believe that a team of experts from outside a community can “fix” a school that is failing its students.

I do believe local communities should be empowered to determine the relative quality of their schools, and to change those schools if they so choose.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  We should, and do, provide a viable and rigorous academic curriculum.  But, what is happening in the cognitive fields (and would also happen in the physical fitness realm of our fable above if the same approach were taken) is that students are driven to a fear and consequent hatred of those disciplines in which we have deemed them deficient.  No lasting appreciation develops as a result of having been labeled, stigmatized, traumatized, and demeaned.

Zhao, in his book Catching Up or Leading the Way (2009), points emphatically to what has made American education a model to envy:  an embedded appreciation, assumption, and deep respect for individual differences.  He also insists that while the drivers of extreme homogenization and accountability are diluting that model, our primary global competitors (e.g., China) are moving in exactly the opposite direction.  Zhao asserts that we must commit (or, re-commit) to emphasizing creativity, global awareness, multicultural literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence as the primary components of our educational system (without forsaking attention to content-specific knowledge and skills).
Enough is enough!  When learning becomes viewed by the learner as a traumatic, toxic event, then it is time for us to re-examine what it is we (the adults) are doing and why we are doing it.

Some might dismiss my thinking as the disenchanted ramblings of an old educator at the end of his career.  However, I have five grandchildren who are now or will be attending the public schools of Texas.  What I want for them is something different than a system designed to press out technicians and automatons.  I want for them a system of schooling that focuses first and foremost on values, and that fosters reflective thinking, personal and social responsibility, a deep appreciation for and commitment to service, meaningful life pursuits, and (perhaps most importantly) a love of learning.  I want for my grandchildren an educational experience that makes them better people (not better test takers, and not haters of learning - or running, for that matter).  I am convinced that it is time for parents, grandparents, educators, and citizens of all stripes to stand up and take control of the direction of the education of OUR children.

I am extending to you an invitation to join me in re-setting the educational direction of our children.  If interested, email me at nelsonwcoulter@gmail.com.

Nelson Coulter is a father (of children who graduated from and now serve Texas public schools), a grandfather (of children who are and will be attending Texas public schools), a husband (of a retired Texas school educator), and an educator in Texas public schools (as teacher, coach, principal, superintendent, and professor).