In which I struggle to make a coherent point about how children do not need to be broken like wild horses, and how Walter Dean Myers made me cry, and how it’s all related

In Texas right now, it's testing season. Children from 3rd grade through high school are subjected to hours of bubbling in answers on standardized tests. In elementary schools the walls of hallways and classrooms are required to be stripped of all work, and bulletin boards hang empty. Everything from drawings to starred essays to maps are taken down. The walls are laid completely bare. Specials (PE, music, art) are canceled during testing. Some schools allow children to bring in books to read when their tests are complete, some schools don't. Basically, our schoolchildren are on academic lockdown. The school year up until this point has been about whether or not the kids can accurately answer test questions. And often, the teachers – rather than concentrating on teaching concepts and connections – are forced to concentrate on teaching children not how to discover answers on their own, but how to properly answer questions so that their tests will earn high enough scores.

When my son was in the third grade he was chastised for adding dialogue into a paragraph about a fun day he'd had. "It sounds like you're making up a story. Just tell details about that day. That's what you need for the test."

Are you kidding me?

And so this is what school in Texas has become. A sickening dance where talented teachers try to impart an education upon their students when the state – and thus funding – demands that they teach children how to robotically answer questions during high-stress, high-stakes hours and days in April.

It is a travesty. It is a disaster. It is a disgrace.

And maybe that sounds like hyperbole, but I don't think it is. In fact, a lot of people know it's not hyperbole, and we are struggling to figure out what we can do about this. Because Texas is not alone in this hideous trend, not by a long shot. Do we "opt out" of testing? Refuse to let our children take these tests? Well, we can try, but what does this accomplish? It doesn't change curriculum. It doesn't change how the teachers are forced to teach throughout the year. It doesn't change what our children learn in the classroom. But it does skew the metrics, which in turn punishes the school. It's not the school's fault these tests are so awful. It's not the fault of our teachers', either. It's the fault of our legislators. 

It's so easy for lawmakers to legislate these tests – looking for an easy way to get metrics on whether or not schools and administrators and teachers and children are "successful." But what they're missing is that a standardized test cannot measure the full extent of a child's education. Ever.

On Sunday I was at the International Reading Association Conference, and was lucky enough to hear Walter Dean Myers and Katherine Paterson speak. The entire ballroom was nearly full with librarians and teachers who rushed the front of the room with cameras and iPhones and managed to delay the beginning of the session with their fangirl/fanboy enthusiasm. It was one of those moments where you sit to the side and do your Julia Roberts laugh because the moment is so surreal and wonderful. (And never fear, I took pictures, too. They just turned out super crappy – though I have a nice closeup of the chopsticks in the lady's bun who was sitting in front of me.)

At one point, Walter Dean Myers starting talking about the difficulties in being the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Children aren't reading, he said. And they aren't being read to. He flat out stated, "It is a national disgrace. The children in this country are being failed by education, and by the country. We must talk about it, not ignore it." And this next quote… this is the one that stopped me cold. He said, "Equal opportunity doesn't mean a darn thing if you aren't equal."

What he meant by this was that children who have no books, who are incarcerated, who are homeless, who are abused, who do not have the simple luxuries of breakfast and shoes that fit – they do not walk into a classroom on equal footing with other children. He talked about what makes up a child's education. Certainly, it's the classroom, but it's also just walking down the street. It's the child's experience with his or her parents or lack thereof. It's his or her experience with safety on the streets. It's his or her firsthand knowledge of hunger, of violence, of need, of basic necessities. These experiences make up a child's education just as much as what happens in a schoolroom.

When a teacher has to spend so much time teaching children how to take a test, she has limited time to teach other things. And one point Mr. Myers made was that while teachers are able to tell students, "Read so you can live; read so you can grow up and have a better life," children believe it's true for somebody, but not necessarily for themselves. They see how it might work, but have no examples for how it might work for them.

But when a teacher has the time and the resources to sit with children and read aloud to them, the kids are finally given an opportunity to see how these statements are true. They see real examples of how the world opens up. They see kids who overcome obstacles. They see kids with the same skin color, the same tribulations, the same clothes, the same feelings, and they see them breaking through to the other side.

Children are being failed because they don't have books at home, and they have prescribed books at school. They are being failed because they are not being read to at home OR at school on a regular basis.

This is when Katherine Paterson jumped in and said, "How can you believe that books are wonderful if you don't know how wonderful they are?" And what she was referring to is how can children believe their teachers when their teachers tell them that reading will expand their horizons and teach them innumerable things and open doors for years to come – if these students never have a chance to hear what books have to offer? You can put a book in a fifth grader's hand, and you can tell him or her it's about a shipwreck or basketball or a dragon or whatever, but that's as far as you get. When you sit with a class and read out loud about the shipwreck or basketball or dragon, the children immediately become part of the story.

Ms. Paterson's eyes got very bright and she curled her hand into a fist and she told the teachers and librarians, "This is the rebellion you can take up – reading out loud instead of teaching kids how to scribble marks on tests." I thought the roof would come tumbling down from the response she got.

Teachers want to teach. They love their students and want to grow them into the adults that will propel our country and our world into the best possible future. They want this. They are desperate to do this. But they are hamstrung. Sure they can buck the system here and there, but if it means the test scores go down in their school then a litany of repercussions take over.

So… do parents care about testing? Most of them loathe it. It stresses out our kids, it requires handouts and boring work starting in the youngest grades. Do teachers care about testing? They HATE it.

What does this mean, then? It means lawmakers are so obsessed with metrics and "accountability" they have forgotten what schools are for.

Schools.
Are. 
For. 
Learning.

Can you imagine what would happen if, in Texas alone, the billion dollars that goes to the testing corporation went directly to the schools instead? Can you imagine what children would learn and experience if their schools had the actual resources to teach them? And I don't just mean teaching them to read and write and add and subtract, but teaching them how to think critically, and how to interact in the world, and how to draw conclusions from whole concepts that cross over from reading to writing to adding and subtracting and social studies and physics and everything combined and in between.

"But how would we measure success?" the lawmakers might ask. "How will we know if the teachers and administrators are doing their jobs?" "How will we know that the students know the fundamentals?"

How?

You will know when the world doesn't implode in 30 years. You will know by the leaps in science and engineering. You will know by the future works of art and literature. You will know by the cures for cancer and world hunger. You will know by lowering rates of incarceration. You will know by the plummeting rates of drop-outs and teen pregnancy. You will know by future diplomatic successes. By new inventions. By the protection of our own goddamned species.

Those metrics might not easily be taken now, I grant you that. But taking a ten-year-old, ripping his creative work off the classroom walls, sitting him in a desk for four hours, telling him he can't have music class today, forcing him to answer endless arrays of questions – the metrics that result from this? The only thing they measure is how successfully you can break a child, and then how well you can train him. Is that what education is? 

Katherine Paterson is right. It IS time for a rebellion. Walter Dean Myers is right. Children's educations span so much more than what is inside a school room.

"Children who are being given up on understand that they are being given up on," he said.

And while this may sound dramatic to those of us whose main testing hardship is getting up early enough to fix pancakes on testing mornings, for children in different circumstances, it's so much more than that. School for these children is a safe haven. Yes, in the United States of America there are children who only eat when meals are provided at school. The only time they are read to or hugged or hear "I love you" or are given a book is when their teacher does these things. Don't you think these teachers – shoot, our country as a whole – can better serve these children by not concentrating nearly all of the curricula on standardized testing? Children do not have standardized living arrangements. They do not have standardized worldviews. The do not have standardized life experiences. 

Katherine Paterson told the room that "when you are safe and happy you can learn." Schools are sanctuaries for many, many children. This means they are sanctuaries for the future of our country. 

And what are we doing about that? How are preserving and supporting and protecting these sanctuaries?

We're slashing budgets. We're ripping artwork off the walls. We're firing librarians, and when we're not firing them, we're teaching them how to be test administrators. We're undermining teachers. We're asking them to buy their own classroom supplies. We're giving them ultimatums that don't solve any problems.

This is a disgrace. It's a failure. And it is going to haunt our future if we can't figure out what to do about it.

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4 thoughts on “In which I struggle to make a coherent point about how children do not need to be broken like wild horses, and how Walter Dean Myers made me cry, and how it’s all related

  1. I know, and I’ve experienced this all too well. So now… we’re investing in private military education in Alabama. If the boys come back to Texas, it will be private religious education. My oldest Michael will probably be most fit for private liberal arts education and we just aren’t getting any help in this area from the public school system. The real tragedy is that there are those who don’t have any other options, and their kids are subjected to this mind-numbing foolishness which isn’t really teaching children to reason or think at all.

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  2. Kari, your post was great, and as soon as I read it I contributed to two art projects on Donors Choose. Art was my favorite subject in my school years, and it disgusts me that art has been cut so much. For millions of students, formal instruction in art happens only in public schools, and they get so very little of it now. The subject of standardized testing is a disgrace on so many levels.

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  3. This was my favorite part: “This is the rebellion you can take up – reading out loud instead of teaching kids how to scribble marks on tests.”
    We homeschool, but I still have to continually remind myself to put the priority on reading aloud instead of worksheets/workbooks that feel more measurable. But reading aloud is one of my favorite parts of the day.
    This was sent to me by someone in Texas w/ kids in the public schools, so I can’t say I identify.
    But here’s another rebellion to consider: homeschool your kids. Say no to this system.
    I know it won’t save all the kids, but it might save yours.

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