I hope that my daughter Sadie, who is now 13 months old, will have a wonderful schooling experience that will help her realize her potential. I fear that public education will stifle her curiosity.
My wife and I are both products of suburban public schools and we are intent educating Sadie the same way. In my hopes, I envision a kindergarten class with about 15 kids, a smart, experienced teacher (or teachers), and a range of activities. I see lots of time to play and figure things out. I imagine that if Sadie is learning something quickly— say, her numbers from 1 to 10— then the teacher will notice and help her learn about numbers up to 100 and beyond. If she’s having difficulty with a concept— like pronouns— the teacher will notice and give her some different strategies and extra attention to help her get it. I want her teacher to model curiosity, kindness, and passion for learning.
Basically, when I think about Sadie’s education, I think about her classroom: who’s in it and what’s going on in it.
Standardized tests only come into my vision when things turn fearful and nightmarish. That’s when I imagine overstuffed classes where students get lost in the shuffle. It’s when I think of Sadie being in the care of an overstressed teacher who can’t give individual attention to students. I fill with dread when I think of Sadie being taught by someone terrified of losing her job and falling into economic ruin over high-stakes test scores.
As I follow the debate over education reform in America, it’s staggering how far so much of it strays from the (what should be) the ultimate priority of preserving classrooms as treasured learning spaces. The ascendant orthodoxies of privatization and measuring student and teacher achievement via high-stakes test are totally out of sync with protecting life on the classroom level.
I want Sadie’s teachers to be career educators, not dilettantes who are in and out of the door in a couple years. I want Sadie’s time in school to be about learning, not basic skills standardized assessment. And I think most parents would say the same.
Fortunately, there’s already a model for how to dramatically upgrade a national school system: Finland has it and we should want it. (Samuel Abrams’s excellent piece in TNR lays it out concisely.) My hope is that we could move in this direction.
My fear is that long-held selfishness, short-sightedness, and racism will prevent us from following Finland’s lead. As I type this, New York City, is preparing to slash as many as 20,000 teachers. Important words like “accountability” and “achievement” have been co-opted into swords od Damocles, constantly hanging over the heads of educators.Reformers touting high-stakes testing are embraced by both political parties as visionary celebrities. The rich are getting greedier, and the middle-class more scared and tight-fisted. Segregation is the norm in America.
I hope that Sadie— and every other vulnerable kid in America— will have a nurturing kindergarten classroom. I know that because of our lack of will to fix the root issues of our cruelly unequal system, many won’t.