Why Our Education System is UnjustSocial Justice — By Pamela Rivers on November 1, 2006 at 12:00 am
It was about 2:00 in the afternoon when Jake raised his hand, right in the middle of my explanation of the spelling assignment. I was trying desperately hard to make my 10 year olds understand the difference between the long “u” sound and the long “oo” sound. I had even demonstrated moving my mouth with each sound and trying to get my students to follow along.
When I saw Jake’s hand, I sighed in my head. Not out loud, even 10 year olds know what that means. I called on Jake and was not disappointed when he asked this question. “Miss Rivers, not to be rude or anything, but we haven’t done anything fun this year. Could we do some more fun stuff?”
What? What was he talking about? We do fun things. We play literature games every couple of weeks. We were going on our one and only field trip in another month or so. I do a fun problem solving game with them at least once a week. We even managed to do some projects on the computers a few times during the year.
My first reaction was to get angry. I mean this little 10-year-old boy had just essentially insulted my teaching. I’m sure my face turned red and I stopped for a moment, thinking about the question that he had asked. I don’t remember what I said to Jake, but I do know this–it didn’t take me long to realize he was right. We hadn’t done anything fun, at least outside of the few hours of activities I’d listed above in nearly a year of school. And it wasn’t an insult to my teaching. It was a commentary on the state of education in low-income, program improvement schools where test scores reign and teachers have no control over the curriculum taught in their classes. And this insightful observation was made by a ten-year-old boy.
Whether or not you believe that learning should be fun, I believe that this child was making another point. Not just that learning wasn’t fun in my class, in my school, but that learning was monotonous, boring and not designed to inspire or ignite a fire in children, but designed rather to try and make up a few points in test scores. Children know these things. Jonathan Kozol writes in Shame of the Nation that students have a way of knowing when they are being manipulated and may choose then to become difficult or unfocused, essentially saying to their teachers that they will not learn from them.
During the four years I had been teaching at this low-income, low performing school district, I had seen more and more restrictions placed on teachers and teaching. One program after another had been adopted in an attempt to raise test scores, and one program after another had been discarded because it didn’t make phenomenal improvements within a one-year time span. All of this disruption is in an attempt to improve test scores, to get out of program improvement and to meet the ridiculous requirements of No Child Left Behind. Although it may seem that way, this is not just another rant about No Child Left Behind.
My issue isn’t just that I don’t like No Child Left Behind. My issue is the impact it has on mostly minority, poor children who happen to live in the areas where these kinds of schools exist. There are lots of fingers to point the blame as to why test scores are low in these areas. That’s not the point. The point is, every year more and more schools are being labeled “failing” schools and the result is that we subject students to the kind of education Jake was complaining about.
Most people have never set foot inside the schools that I’m talking about. I don’t teach in the kind of schools Jonathan Kozol wrote about either. My school has money, the kind of money that comes from being program improvement–the kind that comes with strings attached. The bathrooms work, most of the time. There is air-conditioning, plenty of textbooks and brand new computers in most of the classrooms. It’s easy to look at my school and think that we are doing a good thing for these students. In fact, at this paragraph, some people might stop and wonder what exactly I’m complaining about.
I’m complaining because the kids can’t do it for themselves. No one’s jumping up to make changes because Jake said his classroom isn’t fun. But I understand what he means. I understand that what we are doing to this group of children is shrinking their worlds by limiting their learning to rote English and Math. Children like Jake, children all over the state of California and beyond, spend their days hearing scripted curriculum, doing worksheets, and practicing math drills. They spend little if any time in Science and Social Studies. Art and Music have been all but eliminated. Last year, at my school there was no time for festivals, reading time or even projects that weren’t specifically outlined in one of the curriculum programs. Field trips were limited to the last month of school, after testing was over. And parties? Even a last day of school party? Banned all together.
If all schools were moving in this direction, I would still be unhappy, but my complaint would be different. Last year, I sat through endless lectures from consultants from the state who told us that children in these low-income areas learn differently and that’s why the instruction they receive is so different than that of the upper and middle class students just a few miles away. They need more focused math and reading instruction. They apparently don’t need science, social studies, music and art. I teach fifth grade and was told that the only thing I needed to teach in science was the periodic table, because that’s what would be tested on the standardized test. Apparently, it’s not important for our kids to know the three states of matter, or about the solar system or the systems of the body. Only the periodic table needs to be taught–a standard I learned in 10th grade chemistry, by the way.
There are lots of injustices I could point out about schools in low-performing, low-socioeconomic areas–the bullet holes in my computer lab that weren’t repaired for weeks after gang-members decided to take shots at my school, the class sizes in 4th and 5th grade that make it next to impossible to truly reach every child, the restrictions placed on my teaching that mean even if my class is engaged in a great discussion about a piece of literature or an event in history, I have to move on to what’s next on my schedule because I might get written up for being off my time schedule. All of these things make me scratch my head and wonder how this could possibly be what’s best for children. But the biggest injustice, the one that made me throw up my hands and say ‘enough’ is the focus on test scores to the exclusion of everything else.
At some point in the middle of the last school year, our state consultant told the teachers at my school that we needed to start spending our science and social studies time on test prep. The little time that we had was now being taken away. We also were asked to review a list of our students and their test scores. We were given the magic number 350 and told to look for students whose test scores were just below that number. We were asked to choose the 7 or 8 students who were closest to that number and start working with this group of students everyday in a small group–in the only small group time we had. If we could boost those students’ scores in every classroom, perhaps we could raise the schools’ test scores and no longer be considered a program improvement school.
I hope that sounds as wrong to you as it did to me. I had 32 children in my classroom. All of a sudden, my focus was to become 7 or 8 students who could help the school by meeting an arbitrary number that a bunch of bureaucrats chose to mean “proficient.” If I had to pinpoint a day that I decided to leave that school, it would be the one when I was asked to choose 7 students to teach while ignoring the rest of my class. Perhaps that sounds like an oversimplification. I don’t think so. The culture of many schools under the umbrella of program improvement is test scores to the exclusion of kids. Mine was one of those.
It’s easy to ignore the problems in public education. If you don’t have kids, or if your kids go to a good school where learning still trumps test scores, this may not seem like a big problem. Or it may seem like someone else’s problem. But this is an issue about the kind of society that we are willing to live in–are we really okay with offering students a lesser education because of their zip code? Jesus said “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” Well, Jake and the rest of these students are the least of these. What are we going to do for them?