I have been a critic of education in America since my first day in first grade when I noticed my teacher treating kids from rich and poor families differently. My years as a student and parent and my studies in education and developmental psychology showed me the flaws in the system, flaws that magnified with the adoption of an industry-backed, no-child-left-untested paradigm.

What are we doing wrong? How can we rectify it?

Those questions have dogged me to read every volume I could cadge through interlibrary loan and question college professors, teachers and school superintendents — anyone who might have ideas.

I felt like I was trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with the central piece missing. Ever have that happen? Frustrating, isn’t it? For decades that central piece eluded me. One day I had a clue. It had to be so deeply embedded, so taken for granted, that even I was overlooking it.

Then, a few days later my missing piece was handed to me at the Maine School Management Association annual conference. Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, the National Education Association’s charismatic vice president and unwavering champion for educating the whole child, was giving the very powerful keynote speech. About the second time she mentioned international competition in regard to education, I realized that was the element that was so unquestionably accepted. That was the missing piece that brought the whole picture into focus.

I’m guessing many of you are asking what’s so wrong with competition in education. When it takes on the life or death significance it has now, I’d say quite a lot. It does not always bring out the best in folks. We’ve all heard the horror stories of administrators with erasers doctoring student tests to up the scores. There are also ways of making sure students who would depress school numbers don’t show up. Can we say zero tolerance and school-to-jail pipeline?

If it isn’t on the test, it doesn’t count. Suddenly subjects like the arts, foreign languages and physical education are seen as extras to be cut to make room for more test prep. The kids whose school days are most often reduced to basics are the ones whose parents can’t afford enrichment activities. Also, with rates of juvenile obesity and related formerly adult onset illness on the rise, can we afford to bypass recess?

We’re teaching kids to fill in bubbles on multiple-choice questions. It would seem that in a world facing many crises, we’re really in need of young people who can engage in deep reading and cognition, think outside the box, collaborate with a range of widely differing folks, ask the challenging questions, and act decisively and unwaveringly for what they see to be right and just.

A worldview centered around competition for finite resources does nothing for sustainability. Rather than a united quest for solutions, you have winners and losers, haves and have nots, and extremely rich and poor. You also have the stage for almost endless war.

There is a very powerful alternative to global educational competition. How about global educational cooperation? I envision a world in which people all over realize that the perils that face our precious planet need us all to work together for solutions.

In this spirit, education would change from memorization of facts to achieve high scores to hands-on, relevant exploration where students become movers, shapers and innovators enabled to develop higher-level and out-of-the-box thinking skills, empathy and the ability to communicate, even in difficult situations.

This holistic education would include the arts and music and, of course, a wide range of physical education options.

School cafeterias would serve healthful, local foods. School gardens would teach students how to grow food and prepare it.

Children all around the world, from Texas to Tanzania, would have free tuition and the books and supplies to acquire a meaningful education.

I am actually encouraged. I see promising signs every day. Schools are engaging students in real-world problem solving. My son, for example, as a Bangor High School student, will be looking at malfunctioning water filters used in Honduras. An increasing number of people are rebelling against the lockstep standardized test regime.

Remember this: The word education means to elicit, to draw out, to develop in each child his or her potential to be a happy, productive citizen. Anything less, in my mind, is inexcusable.

This is where I take my stand.

Julia Emily Hathaway is vice chairperson of Veazie School Committee and proud mother of three. She is also a writer working toward publication. You can catch her reading her poems at Orono Arts Cafe and soon other venues.