STAMPEDE TO THE TOP: A RACE TO RUIN

Several things happened this week that gave me pause:

First I saw on CNN the story about a little fourth grader in Texas who hung himself in the school restroom.  The child psychologists all attributed his death to depression and the economy and the pressure he likely felt as he made his way through school.  But he was nine.  And while depression may be on the rise (like obesity and diabetes and other childhood illnesses) it hardly explains such an extreme response.

I wondered…  what was it about his school that added to his hopelessness?  Or what could have been different for him?  Were his talents and interests nurtured?  Or had he been reduced to a test score and a proficiency level?

Then I started my class at USD on Tuesday.  I am teaching a course on Education Reform.  In an attempt to introduce the students to El Milagro, I shared an I-Photo slide show of our kids over the years.  It captured the spirit of children dancing and singing and celebrating.  Talented.  Diverse.  Exultant.  But there were no pictures from this school year.

So I wondered… what kind of climate have we created for the children of El Milagro lately?  Is it a refuge from the stress of their struggling families? Or have we pushed ourselves too far out on that assessment ledge… and in the name of someone else’s definition of accountability… hung our toes over the brink?

Then I listened to President Obama talk about his vision of education in the State of the Union.  In it he said:

“This year, we have broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. The idea here is simple: instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform – reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner-cities.”

I wondered… isn’t that a frighteningly narrow definition of “school success?”

So then I started reading Yong Zhao’s book entitled  “Catching Up or Leading the Way where he states that China is going the opposite direction as the US right now.  That they value outputs and student achievement for sure, but they value the inputs too.  Zhao urges American educators (of which he is one) to rethink the preoccupation with testing and national standards:

“America is at a crossroads. We have two choices.  We can destroy our strengths in order to catch up with others on test scores, or we can build on our strengths and remain a leader in innovation and creativity.  The current push for more standardization, centralization, high-stakes testing, and test-based accountability is rushing us down the first path.  What will truly keep America strong and Americans prosperous is the other path because it cherishes individual talents, cultivates creativity, celebrates diversity, and inspires curiosity.”

I wondered…What are we doing for our children?  Are we handing them musical instruments to play their hearts out on, inviting them to dance, coaching their teams, encouraging community service, investing in their health, encouraging them to think, inspiring them to invent and innovate, handing them a camera to capture their youthful energy in photographs?  Or are we drilling them on test taking skills?

The Race to the Top may actually be a stampede over the edge of the cliff.

I wondered… what have we learned from that tragedy in Texas?

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6 Comments

Filed under El Milagro, gifted children, innovation and change, President Obama, public education, school reform

6 responses to “STAMPEDE TO THE TOP: A RACE TO RUIN

  1. The end of this kid’s life is so tragic, but bound to be repeated more and more as the push to score well on testing accelerates.

    Sad commentary on life in schools today.

  2. How true!Test preparations sell very well for me — to both teachers and parents. Sometimes parents will buy three or four books for their children to finish in one week. One parent was expecting his son to finish four workbooks in one weekend. I feel sorry for these children, and I try to encourage parents to allow their children a bit of slack, but they want to make sure their children score well. I get a bit depressed when I think of children who will spend their weekend preparing for standardized tests, and probably a good part of their summer free time.

  3. Kevin, life is too complex even at age 9 to attribute the suicide to school. I’m sure home and social issues also played a role. I do agree however that the downside of standardized testing as it is implemented today narrows students’ learning. Standards should be broader with alternative tracks. I agree with Zhao that we should encourage creativity and diversity. That also means giving some kids an “out” via vocational school. We complain that the monolithic approach to edu delivery does not work; primarily because kids have different learning styles, pace and abililities. Some are suited for math and science and some are not. We need the same diversity in edu delivery and metrics of success.

  4. It scares and saddens me to think about what it will take to make society understand that children will never be a “score” or a “number”.

  5. Patty

    I had almost forgotten about the emphasis on testing in schools…living overseas and interacting with other school systems has really given me a different perspective than the one I was so intricately a part of teaching in the U.S.

    Hard to believe that this poor child’s reasons stemmed solely from school pressures;however, we’ll never know. It makes me angry to wonder whether anyone, in school or the community, had reached out to him.

    I enjoyed being a part of my students’ lives, probably the part I miss the most about teaching, knowing that I was making a difference in their life. Darn.

  6. Cindy

    Being a 4th grade teacher at El Milagro I wonder, could this little boy have been my student?

    I am so glad that we (at El Milagro) are finding the way on our path…. so we can “build on our strengths and remain a leader in innovation and creativity.”

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