Monday, June 7, 2004

This is a test, this is only a test....

I just got a link that speaks straight to my heart from An Old Soul, a diatribe on American education from The Vast Dairy State Conspiracy. In her post "Testing Everything, Achieving Nothing" Stacie questions the validity of testing for judging teaching or public education. Why? Because the well-fed, library at home, parents read to them, curious, natural test-takers make their teachers/schools look good while the students whose lives are at the other end of the spectrum make their teachers/schools look bad. That's sort of like planting two cacti - one in the desert and one in a swamp, and then denigrating the one in the swamp because it isn't growing well.

This brings into question - are the issues with American education an educational system issue? Or a social issue?

One reason that is so close to my heart is that I was bored OUT OF MY MIND in public school. I was the youngest in the family by seven years - a family that prized intelligence. Like Stacie, I can't remember a time when I couldn't read. By third grade I was dragging my brother's geometry book around, proclaiming that I could teach myself geometry faster than they would ever teach it to me in school. My mother tried to get them to skip me at least a grade ahead but apparently southern Mississippi was too provincial for that. By seventh grade I convinced my parents to send me to a private school. The first one, Coast Episcopal, was pretty good. At least I got to learn some Latin. Then I moved to Alabama and started eighth grade at St. Paul's Episcopal. Mid-year my educational pursuits came to a screeching halt with the following conversation in Chemistry class(me in italics):

    "I thought we were supposed to memorize the whole table of elements."
    "No, just the first ten. We'll do more later."
    "Why didn't you just assign them all at once? I memorized them all over the weekend."
    "Susan, we have to teach to the lowest common denominator."

Really, I thought. My father is paying through the nose so that you can teach me to the lowest common denominator? If I'd been in public school I wouldn't have had that last thought. But I had already given up on public schools (at least the ones I was near) giving me the academic challenge that I needed. Now I had to give up private schools. When I mentioned to my mother recently that most people can't understand how my parents could let me quit school so young (13) she said wearily, "They didn't know you, honey. They just didn't know you..." Obviously just remembering the curious, headstrong girl that I was made her tired. They tried to pull that truancy trump card on me, so I brought them code citations proving that there were no laws forcing me to go to school. So, as Mark Twain said, "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."

More's the pity for the schools. They lost one of their premo test takers while I took my sabbatical. (My mind is perfectly geared to school tests - I learn quickly, memorize quickly, and then after a short period my brain purges all information, like a neat-freak cleaning out a refrigerator. This is in contrast to my husband's brain, which is more like a neat-freak organizing their CD collection. The stuff he can remember makes my brain hurt.) While on sabbatical I did a lot of reading and art, and tried very hard to get my writing career off the ground. By the time I was 15 I had a pretty good collection of rejection letters. By 17 I took a bunch of tests and started college six months ahead of my "class".

What I've taken from this experience isn't that we need to do more for the smart people. I feel that we need to value ALL of our students/children for their unique talents, interests, situations, and desires. I'm not saying I know how to do that, but obviously someone does because those are the teachers that get stories written about them and movies made about them. If "education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire", then those are the teachers who know how to light those fires. From what I can tell it doesn't have anything to do with tests, structure, and systems. It has to do with faith, passion, and dedication.

But it's also true that all the faith, passion, and dedication in the world can't make a cactus grow in a swamp.

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