Dear School, Eff Your ‘F’

Our education system is killing learning, one standardized test at a time

For a long time you will say I am not listening, not paying attention. You will insist I do not care, that I am lazy. At best, a daydreamer.

A neurological explanation will be found. You will give me cures: Here is extra time to complete the test. And a calculator. And medicine for your daydreaming brain. You will feel good about yourselves: See how we have accommodated, how kind we are, how helpful and understanding?

And I will wonder how very awful I must be. They gave me extra time, gum to chew, notes to view and still, I can’t do better than before. Where there was only suspicion (Am I stupid?) now there is proof: my scarlet letters, Ds and Fs. You don’t make me wear these as an armband or sewn onto my shirt, but I can’t take them off, either. They’re mine for good.

"Try harder. Work harder. Pay attention. Sit still. Stop drawing. Stop humming. Begin again," you say.

Sometimes I get a B, even an A. But I hate those, too. I see how they cause your dark, dulled eyes to spark and catch fire: “Look! He can do it. He simply wasn’t trying before. Hooray!” I fear your excitement. Like a giant bird, it clutches and carries me too close to the sun. Others cheer. But I am not happy. I do not want what comes next.

The fall.

I don’t like your As or your Fs. Beneath the height of one lies the abyss of the other.

Not all fall as I do, but all fear it. Those with a string of pearled As fear it most. I, at least, have made this place my own. I’ve hung your anxiety above my bed like a college banner. (Go Anxiety!) Your lack of faith is here, next to mine, folded neatly with my logo-less T-shirts. I wasn’t sure where to put your disappointment… it might be somewhere on my desk under a pile of mail, just ads and coupons, no acceptance letters. Sorry. As for your dreams of who I could be… a lawyer, one of those successful business people, a famous somebody. I’ve got those dreams right here and I’d like for you to have them back. They’re yours, after all.

My turn to hand out letters. I am giving you an F.

Your curriculum is bloated with minutiae — it’s designed for test-taking, not life beyond the classroom.

You fail to see that my intelligence is an ever-changing river, not a puddle for you to stand in and frown. Your yardstick measures the length of your reach, not the depth of my abilities. There is no "me" for your standards to assess, there is only the act of my becoming. How can you measure such a thing? I come to you in chrysalis form and you hurry or delay me, never do you simply let me emerge. It’s either, "Hurry! You aren’t reading or counting in time!" or "Stop! You fail to meet standards."

No, I do not fail. You fail when you make me choose (from your multiple-choice answers) what the poet means when she says this, or breaks her stanza there. Bring her to me. I’ll tell her what her poem means to me and she’ll tell you (and your secret scorekeepers) that I am correct. I dare you. Go get her. Her name is Sara Holbrook. You used her poem to measure my intelligence, and you measured wrong.

Your education factory assembles each student in the same order, first this piece then the next. Units are assessed as they move down the line; the standards are high with little room for deviation. Those who fail inspection are stalled in production, the ones who pass are given certificates and sent out to market.

What happens to the defected units who fail your algebra inspection? Or those who wither from Common Core English requirements that demand repeated, tedious analysis of technical, figurative, and connotative meanings of isolated passages:

“Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text” (Common Core RL10.1)

You get an F for killing learning. We arrive at your gates with insatiable curiosity for reading and puzzle-solving, for crayons and their power to create the worlds we imagine. We want to learn magic, how 26 letters of the alphabet can be rearranged to tell as many stories as there are people in the world. We want to work with others on problem-solving activities. Instead, school is rigid: “Sit down and be quiet.” “Finish your worksheet.” “When you’re done with that one, there are 50 more waiting for you.”

There is no learning by doing—no brainstorming ideas together, applying, failing, and trying again. Occasionally, projects are sent home. If our parents have time and money they mostly do them for us, so we can get As. Those of us without those kinds of parents do the work alone using stuff we find at home. At school, we see that our project is stupid and ugly compared to the others. We hate it, and ourselves. Projects should be student-led in class, not parent-done at home. But teachers have no time for project-based learning in class because collaboration, ingenuity, and leadership are “not on the test.”

You get an F for stealing time from teachers by giving them mountains of test-driven content to shovel. Under your regime, teachers have no time to engage us with creative lessons designed using their knowledge as professional educators — as experts. Would you, the non-expert, do this to a doctor? A firefighter? A pilot?

Why not make Betsy DeVos Surgeon General of the United States? Or let her land the Boeing 747 your eighth grader is taking to D.C. with 23 of his other classmates?

Class time shouldn’t be spent prepping for standardized tests that are written and scored by private testing companies earning billions off the mandates of corporations and public officials. You get an F for yielding to their lobbyists, and another F for driving talented teachers into retirement by forcing them to drill questions like this one:

“Released” question from Grade 6 Language Arts Exam. Source: Engage NY Common Core Standards

The correct answer (as any sixth grader can tell you) is: F**k Lightning Safety.

Will this be on the test?

By the time you’re done with us we want nothing to do with school-related things like reading, and verifiable facts. (Remember those, America?) Could the current apathy toward civic engagement, disinterest in truth, and low voter turnout be the result of your manufacturing facilities? Years of mechanical bubble-filling and rote learning killed our interest in everything but sports and Netflix. We’re barely interested in maintaining a democracy.

Your textbooks (produced by “a mysterious panel of experts”) have us memorizing that the Sumerians rose up with the Third Dynasty of Ur in the late 22nd century B.C.E. Someone needs to tell these experts about the invention of indoor plumbing, and Google. We’ve all got iPhones in our pockets now, ask us something thought-provoking — something we can’t Google. Test our reasoning, not our memory. We came to you curious, inclined to gawk at the mistakes and glory of others. History is a lit fire. We’re naturally drawn to its heat, and you smother it with bricks of drudgery.

You’re losing us. Worse, you’re shortchanging our humanity. Two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is. We’re living in an era of rising racism and anti-Semitism, but yes, do test me on random, ancient Babylonian edicts: If a man steals an ox he must pay back… was it 30 times its value? 40? Your curriculum is bloated with minutiae — it’s designed for test-taking, not life beyond the classroom. If you want to raise compassionate and knowledgeable citizens, get rid of the state’s “bargain bin” of disposable information and let the teacher deliver the gold. Elie Wiesel’s story about his survival as a teenager in Nazi death camps — is gold. If you give her time, she’ll have us read the book in class, not at home, otherwise we’ll huff Cliff Notes (a known neurotoxin). Then she’ll draw us into a circle and listen. We’ll have questions far better than any test could ever ask.

I’m sorry. You were saying? Something about an ox…

A national U.S. Department of Education study found that 80 percent of high school dropouts cited their inability to pass Algebra I as the primary reason for quitting school. Why aren’t there alternative math pathways? I can no sooner master trigonometry than you can conduct the L.A. Philharmonic. You have no aptitude for it. All the growth mindset in the world won’t help you hold your own alongside Gustavo Dudamel. Less than a quarter of U.S. workers use math beyond basic fractions and percentages during the course of their jobs. This idea — that learning high-level math is necessary for career success, is baseless. Membership to the Church of Isaac Newton should be optional, not mandatory. If your point is to train the brain to think critically through sequencing skills, let us master sudoku, chess, or writing sonnets in iambic pentameter, or for those whose thinking is sharpest when they’re in motion — offer a more full-bodied approach. Plenty of disciplines require students to dig deep and solve problems.

Your one-size-fits-all pre-requisites for academic success are a set-up for failure.

Requiring all students to master the ability to “write square roots with negative radicands in terms of "i” regardless of aptitude and career ambition, is like requiring all students sing the arias of "Die Fledermaus" in perfect German before they can become business administrators. Your one-size-fits-all pre-requisites for academic success are a set-up for failure. A 2013 study by the National Center on Education and the Economy found that “the mathematics that most enables students to be successful in college courses is not high school math, but average middle school math, especially arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations.” Algebra and calculus are proven roadblocks, especially for low-income students. Stop acting like snobs and make them electives. Take Harvard Professor David Perkins’ advice and ask: “Is this lesson lifeworthy? Is it likely to matter, in any meaningful way, in the lives students are expected to live?”

The least you can do is give us an on-going personal finance education. What’s a dividend? How does compound interest work? We have no idea. We’re too busy slaving over word-problems designed for the cravat-wearing gentry of the 19th century: “Given that a man chosen at random has two children, at least one of which is a boy born on a Tuesday, what is the probability that he has two boys?”

The answer is: We hate you.

The time for radical change was yesterday. (You’re late. Here’s a tardy slip.) Technology is advancing at breakneck speed and you’ve got us sitting in grandpa’s iron school desk drilling flashcards on an iPad. You’re being demoted. We don’t need more reformers, we need innovators. You know how the Lorax speaks for the trees? Ted Dintersmith speaks for the students. Read what he says and watch his highly lauded Sundance film. You’ll see what happens when school is transformed, not reformed. Teachers are allowed to teach their passion. Students come alive — gone are long lectures, gone are grades. There are meaningful long-term projects that require revision and collaboration. Kids are active operatives, not passive receptacles. The school featured in this film ditches the factory curriculum and the result is thrilling! Students here are not processed in bulk. Mathematical and verbal intelligence are considered only two of many kinds of intelligence. It’s beautiful to watch kids thrive in a school that values growth over achievement.

If the young Achilles lived today, would you call his parents, King Peleus and goddess Thetis, to discuss the problem of his left heel? Or would you, wisely, build his innate strengths and develop his potential to be the greatest, most courageous warrior? We all die in battle eventually, let’s not squander time arguing shortcomings.


“Fails to Meet Standards”

Columnist for Human Parts. I believe in Dog. @IWorryAboutYou

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