The Great Divide in Education
Until a recent long-term illness forced me to resign, I was a high school teacher in the public school system. Over the course of seven years, I taught English to hundreds of students. I put my whole heart into teaching. I called my students, even the six-foot-tall boys, my babies. I enjoyed everything about teaching, especially the creative projects that would make students really think and even enjoy learning. However, over the course of that seven years, those projects became more difficult to do. More and more, demands from the state and federal government forced teachers to focus on test scores and paperwork rather than on student success. Like many teachers, I began to feel frustrated and longed to do more for students than I was able to do.
The reason that I went into teaching was because I loved literature and reading in general. It got me through some tough times in my life, and I wanted to share this with young people. The love of reading and learning in general is innate in some children, but in most there must be something or someone to find a connection between learning and what means something to them personally. It is about tapping into that inner desire to learn and grow that will last long after they have left your classroom. It’s about inspiring creativity and helping a child find out what they are passionate about so that they have a goal to work toward. Most importantly, it is about helping them to believe that no matter where they are today, they can achieve their dreams if they work hard enough.
Not every child is meant to go to college, but every child can achieve success. Good teachers know not every child learns the same, not every child is meant to go to college, and not every student is good at taking tests. They also know that intelligence cannot be measured by standardized tests alone. Therefore, the increasing focus in education on test scores rather than on individual student strengths can only lead to a society of the very educated and, ironically, the “left behind.”
Society needs responsible adults with creative ideas and diverse talents, not just test-taking skills. I don’t know about you, but when my plumbing backs up, I thank my lucky stars for vocational schools. When my outdoor storage shed caught on fire and nearly burned my house to the ground, I thanked God for firemen. Every occupation is important, and isn’t it part of schools’ responsibility to prepare students to become upstanding, working members of society? Education must include individual attention and guidance when needed; it takes time, insightfulness, reflection, and creativity to truly educate a child.
At the beginning of every year that I taught, I saw more and more pressure placed on states, schools, administrators, and teachers to push each student to conform to the government’s idea of success (i.e. passing standardized tests). Paralleling that trend was an ever increasing chasm in schools today between the so-called “ideal student” and the “problem students” or “students at risk.” Many people blame other factors for this alarming trend. I have heard teachers, administrators, and others claim that students just don’t care about school as much as they used to. They blame video games, the internet, texting, and other distracters. They point out that more students are disrespectful these days and that there is less parental support because both parents, or in many cases one parent, have to work to make ends meet. Perhaps these factors contribute to students’ lack of focus, but kids, especially those in middle and high school, have always been difficult by nature and have always had a lot of demands on their attention; today’s demands are just more technological. In addition, parental involvement will always vary. True, parents have less time at home now. However, more and more schools are placing homework assignments and grades online, sending out automated calls when a child is disciplined, and requiring teachers to contact a parent when a student begins to fall behind. Therefore, parents’ loss of free time is counteracted by advances in communication by schools. Therefore, the only factor that we are left with that has truly undergone drastic change is “the system.”
When the Bush Administration initiated No Child Left Behind in 2001, they claimed that the purpose of the new policy was to make teachers and school systems more accountable for student success so that all children would thrive academically. Though in theory this sounds like an ideal solution, the reality is that No Child Left Behind and the state policies resulting from it have forced teachers to rush through lessons and teach to the test. As a result, teachers, even those who truly care about every student, don’t have time to reach out to those who are slow to learn lessons, students who show signs of “trouble” at home, students who have no one else to talk to about something that is obviously bothering them to the point of distraction. There is little or no time for creative lessons, addressing individual needs and most importantly, for lighting that spark that will ignite a lifetime love of learning. The consequences are that some students become bored, some don’t catch on and give up, and our next generation of leaders does not learn to think creatively and astutely.
Just to be clear, there are so many wonderful teachers who still do their very best to go above and beyond to help students every day. There are also students who have the tools to excel, and they thrive under just about any circumstance. There are also students who try and try and just cannot learn in traditional ways. What is undeniably true is that all students learn more when they have time to take what they have learned and do something creative with the new information. The ever growing focus on mandated testing and on measuring student, teacher, school, and state success on this alone is hurting our children because it is taking time and focus away from this type of learning. Quite simply, it is defeating its own purpose.
Parents, grandparents, and anyone concerned about the problems in education do have ways to make a difference. One course of action is email or snail mail senators and members of the house of representative on both the state and federal levels. Another is to make sure that you know candidates’ views on education before voting for them, especially in gubernatorial, legislative, and presidential elections. Become involved. What affects today’s youth affects everyone’s future.