Wednesday, April 4, 2012

High Tech or Well Rounded??

I walked down the aisle of the high school auditorium and settled into my seat to watch the school production of "Anything Goes."  As I waited for the lights to dim, the thought crossed my mind that this auditorium has changed very little since I was in elementary school over fifty years ago, attending "Children's Theater" productions two or three times a year.  The seats were scratchier then, to a fidgety little girl who enjoyed being away from my classroom much more than I enjoyed the play I was watching.  In high school I remember sitting through numerous assemblies and award programs, and as a mother I once again attended "moving-up" ceremonies and various other functions in this same room.  Being assailed by memories frequently is the curse/blessing of a "townie", who has lived her entire life in the same small town.

Throughout the evening, as I watched the talented young people perform, my mind wandered back to my educational experiences in this school district. Over the past several years, as politicians have tried to "improve" the educational system in this country, I have found myself increasingly at odds with their goals and methods.  It seems in their efforts to educate our children to compete in our high-tech world, they have lost sight of the value of a well-rounded education. While I agree that we must arm our young people with the technical skills necessary in this global economy, I worry that the strong emphasis on science and math, coupled with mandatory standardized testing at all levels is a detriment to our society.  

As declining federal and state aid and property tax budget constraints necessitate cuts across the board, it seems to me that funds for education are being targeted at an alarming rate, and we have forgotten that well-educated children are our greatest resource.  In this complicated world, we should be raising our children to think for themselves and giving them the skills to thoughtfully analyze the barrage of information coming to them constantly from the internet, TV, and social media.  Instead, it seems we are teaching them primarily the information pertinent to the tests they will be required to take.

Additionally, teacher accountability has become based more and more on the scores students receive on these standardized tests.  I feel this is unfair to the teachers, as well as to the students.  As I look back on my school years, the teachers from whom I learned the most were those who didn't always follow the lesson plan for the day.  They were the teachers who talked to us -- who listened and discussed ideas.  They made us think and defend our theories.  They gave us the gift of their time and knowledge.  Today, those same teachers might be hesitant to get "off track", because they must spend precious time teaching facts that will be on the required tests.  

Also, if teachers are evaluated based on student test scores, how is this fair across the board.  A student in a low-income school district where there is little parental support is unlikely to test as well as a student from a wealthy district where education is a priority.  Will the teacher in the low-income district be judged less effective?

I was a bright student who graduated with honors, but my strengths were definitely not in math and science.  I had maintained wonderful grades in math until I took algebra. My teacher was experienced and extremely competent, but even with the extra time she spent with me, I just could not "do" algebra.  For the first time in my life, I got a "C".  I was devastated.  Through the years I have learned that I totally lack technical abilities.  This was not my algebra teacher's fault, but if she was evaluated on my test scores, she would have been judged less effective. 

I realize that we are competing in a global economy which has become increasingly more technical and specialized.  Of course we need young people who are highly trained in math and science in order to maintain an edge in this economy.  However, I fear in our efforts to survive in our high tech world we are losing sight of our humanity.  In our nation there has been a place at the table for people with varying gifts and strengths.  Our educational system has produced great artists, musicians, athletes, and writers who have contributed to this humanity.  

I do not want to see our nation become filled with one-dimensional people who have been taught to perform their jobs with perfection and precision, yet lack the ability or choice to pursue their own bliss, or to think for themselves.  I want our teachers to be able to nurture the love of learning for its own sake, and to have the freedom and time to go into greater depth on a subject that sparks the interest of their individual students, rather than fearfully adhering to the limitations necessary to produce the highest test scores possible.

Most children can tell whether or not their teacher is a good teacher.  Most adults can look back and remember which teachers inspired them to learn and grow.  We don't need standardized test scores to govern our educational system.  We need competent, caring teachers who do not feel they are "under the gun" as they perform this most important job -- the job of educating our most precious resource.  

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