I am not a bit surprised. It has always been my belief that the NCLB assessment strategies are actually causing our kids to become dumber. That’s right, dumber. I do not make this statement lightly, and understand that many of my colleagues, particularly those entrenched in policy making, would disagree. I truly believe that we are reducing our children’s intellectual capacity by focusing so much effort and attention on the tests that currently create the educational landscape of public schools. I have seen this dumbing down of American kids first-hand as a mom, teacher, and school leader.
When my own two children were young, they truly loved school. They attended a variety of public schools in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Florida. I have always believed strongly in our public schools and was very pleased with the education my children received - until the 2001-2002 school year, when my son was a senior. There was a palpable shift that particular year that seemed to start a downward spiral in the quality of education in our own community. Suddenly there was a great deal of attention on test scores, and the alignment of the curriculum with the tests. Teachers had to stick to the text books as never before, proving they were “on track” so kids could digest as much as possible before the tests, which occurred in the spring. School districts began adjusting their calendars so they could start earlier in the year. One year, several districts actually began the school year in July to get a leg up on other districts. Teachers seemed beaten down, and abandoned practices that would engage and excite kids, so they could meet the myriad of requirements from the feds, state, and local district. For many kids, school was becoming something which needed to be endured, rather than something that should be embraced. My son graduated right as this was happening, but my daughter still had two years to go. We soldiered through her junior year, watching as she steadily lost interest, motivation, and intellectual curiosity. We then made an unusual decision to remove her from public school during her senior year. Instead, she completed a couple of courses online, and took a couple of courses at the local university. While, she was angry with us at the time, this was the right decision for her. We watched her regain her love of learning and saw her strive to develop her skills.
As a teacher and school leader, I also felt this shift. During this time, I was working for a wonderful organization called AMIKids, serving at-risk youth. The heart of education for these troubled kids was experiential learning. Since its inception in 1969, AMIKids integrated academic skills with water and wilderness activities to provide an exciting context for learning. The kids loved it, many becoming academically successful for the first time in their lives. But, many states and local school districts began to shut down this type of learning in our programs. I created a common curriculum for the programs, which were located in eight states and the Cayman Islands. This curriculum was closely aligned with each state’s or country’s standards, so I thought it would be readily accepted, and even embraced by our educational funding agencies. I could not have been more wrong. Although policy makers and legislators intuitively understood that experiential learning could be exciting to kids, they only wanted kids working toward the state tests. In many places, our educational success was being evaluated purely by our students’ performance on these tests. This made absolutely no sense, since our students were only with us for a short time, and came to us at different times throughout the year. Even if a student only arrived at the program a couple of weeks prior to the annual test, we were tied to those results. I left the organization in 2002, feeling completely impotent in my ability to positively impact the educational quality of the programs.
In 2003, I started a private school called Renaissance Academy, and finally felt like I could provide the kind of education that kids really needed. With a focus on the arts, the school encourages kids to think critically, create fearlessly, and embrace their intellectual curiosity. It was at Renaissance Academy that I finally understood what kids need to be driven toward high school graduation and success in college and beyond.
So, how are we doing? Not very well. Our nation’s high school graduation rates are not increasing, and it looks like college completion rates are decreasing. We are seeing greater disparity among ethnic groups in educational attainment, employment rates, incarceration rates, and every indicator that tells us of the health of a demographic group. It is time to make school a place where kids are challenged, inspired, and motivated to become the brilliant leaders needed in our world.