Monday, January 05, 2015

Readin' and 'Rithmetic and 'Ridin' the Bus:
A School Reform Debate

OK, I am pretty sure the anti-testing debate has just jumped the shark.

During the 9 o'clock hour every morning, I invariably end up changing from WBEZ, our Chicago public radio station, to WXRT, for the simple reason that a call-in talk show occurs on WBEZ at that hour and I cannot bear the insipid things that people say. Even some of the "experts" on this particular show tend to be local heroes at best, who could use a bit more expertise. Today, I was in the other room doing other stuff and the 9' o'clock hour got going with WBEZ still playing through the speakers, so I was privileged to hear an "expert" (about Chicago, school boards, local policy, something, who knows?) responding to a (teenage?) young lady about what is being taught in schools in low-income neighborhoods, specifically responding to the point of whether it was a good idea to be teaching Mandarin Chinese when students' main problem on any given day is getting bus fare together to get to school and they have no intention of ever traveling to China.

(And yes, I realize there are SO many problems with the logic of that question that it's hard to know where to begin: it's not an either/or thing, education is a process of learning how to learn, languages are helpful for brain development, how do you know China isn't going to take over your neighborhood, you don't need to have travel plans to benefit from learning a language, kids should not have to worry about bus fare at all because they should be walking or biking or on a freakin' free yellow school bus for the love of goodness sakes alive... etc.  But that's not even the point. It's what happened next.)

So this "expert," who ends all of her sentences? and clauses? with an upward intonation? that sounds really freakin' stupid and annoying??? tells us about how the mayor is definitely concerned with this issue and about the importance of being sure we are teaching life skills in the classroom and not just (and I quote!) "reading and math" and other things that are on the standardized tests.

Oh - my - !@#$%%^* - god - are - we -ever - doomed.  Yes, yes we are.

To paraphrase Mr. Keating*, we don't learn math and reading because they are on standardized tests. We learn math and reading because they ARE the skills of life and the essential functioning needed to participate in human society. (Or, really, even if you want to drop out of human society, so that you can produce your manifesto and whatnot when you go psycho and also to calculate your requirements for feeding yourself when you're off the grid. So, yeah. Math and reading.)

*I refer, of course, to Dead Poets Society, when Robin Williams' character tells his students: "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race."

And we will use math and reading to do things throughout our life. Some of us will use math and reading to do truly great things, but even those of us who are not DaVinci, Jefferson, Curie, Hawking, et. al., can also do wonderful things during our lives because we are educated. We can make the world better, and we can make ourselves better.

I understand that the whole school testing thing has its issues. The main one, however, is not that we are testing our students once a year. (Even six-year-olds!) The issue is that society, in its perpetual love affair with statistics, thinks it can boil everything down to a number, and that it can then make all decisions about whether a school is "failing" based on a number which is based on a bunch of tests' numbers, instead of using standardized tests to, you know, compare students to a standard and check out what sorts of basic things have been learned/not learned.

Really, there is more to say about standardized testing than is going to be said here in one blog entry, but rest assured, I am a language teacher. I am a HUGE proponent of recognizing multiple intelligences and teaching things using visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and other interactive methods. This is not about that.

This is about the fact that people have so thoroughly lost their minds at the very notion of testing that they now, without batting an eyelash, jabber on the thoughtful public radio program about whether we need to rethink our emphasis on math and reading and those other pesky aspects of life that also happen to be examined on standardized tests.

And Brian wonders why I insist on changing the station to 'XRT mid-morning?!  Please, society. Touch that dial.

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