Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#103, September 5, 2000


by Marylaine Block

This election does not bode well for kids. Both Gore and Bush are hammering the issue of teacher "accountability," and want to use student test scores to measure the effectiveness of teachers.

I can't imagine anything more destructive. We all know it's harder to teach children who haven't been read to all their lives, or children who didn't grow up speaking English, or children from dysfunctional families. How many teachers will be selfless enough to teach THESE children when their pay depends on their students' test scores?

If teachers have no choice about which students they get to teach, don't you suspect they will teach test-taking, rather than math and reading? And that classes will turn into drill sessions of mindless rote learning? Are you really going to be surprised when teachers are caught giving students the answers to the test questions, or erasing the incorrect ones and filling in the right answers, as happened in New York and Texas?

It would take a whole separate column to discuss the substantial flaws in the tests themselves -- the evidence that they don't measure what they say they measure, the errors in test grading that have incorrectly kept students from advancing from one grade to another or even from graduating from high school, or the question of whether success on tests has anything at all to do with success in life (if it did, George W. and Al Gore, Congress, and every CEO, would be bragging about their SAT scores).

Those things bother me, but not as much as the fact that the focus is now on measurement instead of learning . George W. says, "We all want our children to get good test scores." Not me. I wanted my son to get a good education. That's not the same thing.

Education means "lead out from," which means both leading the child into the light of learning, and bringing out the child's inborn talents and curiosity. Children are born question machines, perpetually asking why, demanding that the universe explain itself to them. They are delighted and proud when they learn something, or master a difficult skill. Look at any kindergarten class, anyplace in the country, however blighted, and you will see excitement and eager curiosity in the children's eyes. Good teachers use the kids' enthusiasm, keep it going, re-ignite it when it flags. IF they are allowed to, that is.

I'm willing to believe both Bush and Gore genuinely like kids, genuinely believe they matter. I just think they've forgotten what it's like to BE a kid, knowing that for eleven more years, you will be required by law to spend every day at school. To a six year old, that seems like a life sentence.

That won't bother kids who easily master what's being taught. Nor will it bother students whose inspired teachers shape their lessons around things their students want to find out about, and make learning a shared adventure.

But students who aren't taught what they want to know, and don't understand why what IS taught is supposed to matter, are angered by having to serve that sentence with no chance of parole. That life sentence will frustrate the students who can't keep up, the students who don't get the help they need to master the subject matter, the students for whom every day is another failure, another occasion for self-hatred.

It will bother even competent students who are drilled and tested daily on things they do not care about. Kids who on their own time easily master reams of rock music lyrics, create computer programs, write music or poems, or learn everything there is to know about dinosaurs or galaxies, may act like resistant dolts in such uninspiring classrooms.

We have two models of teaching here, one that clearly works, and one that fails miserably. And we have virtually guaranteed that schools will choose the worst one, because we have chosen to trust machines rather than humans to assess what students know. We are effectively telling teachers that if they want to keep their jobs they must treat kids like Strasbourg geese, sticking funnels down their throats and forcibly stuffing facts into them. If the technique destroys the goose's liver, what do you think it does to kids' minds?

Education presidents, either of these guys? I think not.

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