The debate about education is heating up again, with editorials from the Bangor Daily News (Sept. 13) and others suggesting ways to improve our public schools.
Some of the measures being discussed, including merit pay and more stringent teacher evaluation tools, already are being implemented thanks to financial incentives from the Obama administration. The expressed intent of these reforms is to make teachers “more effective” (Read: improve test scores).
The Augusta school board already has implemented a merit pay system with a maximum $4,000 bonus going to principals, administrators and the superintendent for increasing scores on high-stakes tests and making annual yearly progress toward the proficiency goals of No Child Left Behind, our federal education law.
Advocates of merit pay claim that if only our public schools were run more like businesses, with pay bonuses going to highly effective employees, then our schools somehow would produce children capable of grappling with the demands of our complex 21st century world.
But the research on such measures is inconclusive at best. In the 2010-2011 school year, my elementary school had a 30 percent turnover in our student body from September to June. What this suggests to me is an extreme level of instability in families who are struggling just to maintain basic human needs such as food and shelter. It is no wonder our school did not achieve annual yearly progress in 2011 because of attendance, never mind our students’ test scores.
Blatantly missing from the national debate on education is the passionate voices of teachers and parents, not to mention the children who have been suffering for too long under the oppressive testing regime that dominates today’s classrooms.
Ask the teachers and they will tell you that it is the culture of high-stakes testing that is the real problem. Ask the parents and they will tell you that their children are increasingly discouraged by the onerous pacing schedules and narrowed instructional focus of their children’s classrooms. But no one is asking us.
All children are born with the inborn capacity, indeed drive, to explore their environment, to make connections and to learn with joy. This is a biological fact, notwithstanding the myriad of birth defects, learning disabilities and health problems such as neglect and malnutrition that plague our children.
The arts are one of the few areas that have maintained the spirit of playful exploration and discovery in the classroom that is the innate, biological basis for authentic human learning. Sadly, many of our nation’s schools already have eliminated or greatly reduced the arts and physical education, another basic human need, in favor of “skill and drill” and test prep. Our children deserve better.
We need our children to establish habits of inquiry, to develop their capacities as creative and critical thinkers and to work collaboratively with their peers to solve problems. Some higher education officials are speaking out to say that our children are ill prepared for the rigors of college for want of these skills.
Children must be allowed to connect mind and heart as they follow their educational journey. It is past time for President Barack Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Congress to relegate No Child Left Behind to the dustbin of history. If we are truly committed to improving education for all children across our nation, we need to renew our respect for teachers and join in nascent efforts to remove the yoke of high-stakes testing from the backs and necks of our children.
Robin Brooks is an artist and art teacher who lives in Topsham with her husband, who also is a teacher, and their son. Her work can be seen at www.robinbrooksart.com.