Several years ago there was a letter to the editor of the Mobile Press Register from a youngster defending a teacher's right to corporal punishment of misbehaving children. I was so appalled that I wrote an article that ran as a column in the paper under the banner "Your Word," which was a free local opinion space at that time.
The premise of my article was that a better educational system has been here, literally, in this place, all the time, if only people would give it a chance. The last sentence, referring to the unfortunate boy who felt students at school deserved all the spankings they could get was, "Every child is worth the effort, even those who have already been damaged by a system that celebrates authority."
This was written before the catastrophe of the Bush administration's educational policy called "No Child Left Behind." This policy focuses on the children who are bringing down the curve of those test scores and clearly ignores the middle- and upper-range intelligences who could benefit by teacher attention and special projects. The latter students are simply given more books and expected to educate themselves by reading more.
In the "Your Word" piece in 1999 I wrote, "Today we all but worship test scores. We reward children for memorizing the answers that will assure passing grades." Today I would have said, "the answers that raise the grades of the class as a whole and the teacher's reputation."
Some people's brains are wired for test-taking. They can scan a chapter in a textbook and spot the points that will be on a test, memorize the list, and score high. They have always been the teachers' darlings, and of course they usually are very intelligent people, but the test itself only says so much about them: they were able to memorize and retain and regurgitate a great deal on a certain subject on a certain day. They were the "A" students, and they grew up loving the system.
Others may have had many talents, and even greater reasoning ability. None of these things can be measured by any test. This is the reason that Marietta Johnson suggested that the system do away with tests and concentrate instead on teaching the children. "But how will we know if they've learned anything?" people cried. "How will we measure?"
There is no doubt that even if she came on the scene tomorrow, Mrs. Johnson would be ahead of her time. Her answer to that was simple. "All grading, marking, and promotion tend to develop double motives...The whole question becomes what are are needs of the body, the mind and the spirit? The new education is committed to answer these questions. In the measure that the institution provides activities and exercises which tend to bring about a sound, accomplished, beautiful body, an intelligent, sympathetic mind, and a sweet, sincere spirit, it is educational. In the measure that it does not, it is not educational -- no matter how informational it may be."
The "No Child Left Behind" program clearly leaves all children behind. The idea that more testing, more "benchmarking," more stress on children and teachers alike is not working. What is needed most of all is common sense about the nature of children.
Children are born learning, and their learning should not be equated with their answers on test devised by adults in a research facility somewhere. Their learning should be a natural part of their life, without measure, without fear of failure, without competition, learning for its own sake and with its own reward.
When you see children happy at school, it is because they are safe, they are respected, and they are really learning. It will take an organic approach to education to provide this to all. As we have learned in Fairhope, it works.