What IS Left Behind?
We have reached a critical crossroads in our educational and national history. As NCLB’s reauthorization or expiration takes center stage in Washington, American citizens who care about the future of our public schools and our democracy must be heard. Our shared future is not an abstract political possibility but, rather, one that breathes in every son or daughter, every niece or nephew, every grandson or granddaughter, every neighbor’s child, and every one of our own students who enters the schoolhouse door.
While Secretary Spellings and legislators from both parties stubbornly proclaim that NCLB is working—despite of all the empirical evidence indicating otherwise—and as politicians boast that no child is being left behind, let us pause to consider what has been jettisoned. Let us take a moment to think about what has been left behind, what has been dumped, what has been pushed out the door because there is no longer space or time for it in the school day.
Now if your school still has some of these things, I say congratulations. At the same time, however, I say beware. Beware, because the unattainable goal of 100% proficiency that is the bedrock of NCLB makes it most likely that over the next seven years, your school will join the 30% of schools today where these crucial elements of school have already been left behind.
As American citizens deeply concerned about the health of our democratic republic, we are, of course, concerned and horrified that the social studies have been left behind. In Florida and other states, social studies teachers, afraid of losing their jobs, are lobbying for social studies to be tested, so that their work will survive.
The emphasis on math and reading tests has meant less geography, civics, and government, which leaves children ignorant of how public decisions are made or where their community fits into state, national, and global contexts—or even that there is a context beyond their street and TV screens. Children are left, in effect, stranded on lonely islands of ignorance, without the impetus or skills to have their voices heard in ways that make the world listen.
History, too, has been left behind, making it assured that this next generation will grow up more likely to be swayed by the mistakes and misdeeds of the past to which they remain clueless. What is a democratic republic and where did it come from? Sorry, that’s not on the test, either.
And economics? While children in wealthy communities, the ones without AYP worries yet, play stock market games and learn about hedge funds, the economic education of children in schools under the testing gun consists of collecting “Scholar Dollars” that they trade in for bags of Skittles, a pittance of pay for a meaningless labor whose significance remains a mystery to them.
Health and physical education have been left behind, too, leaving children out of shape and subject to diseases associated with obesity and inactivity. At the same time, children are left in the dark about the importance of healthy foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, the kinds of foods that are scarce in the small stores of poor neighborhoods. And left behind, too, is information about the hazards of a never-ending diet of Taco Bell and McDonalds—because that's not on the test, either.
Art and music have been left behind, leaving in their crossing wakes an imagination gap, a creativity gap, and expression gap, an aesthetic gap, a souls gap. We can add these gaps to the achievement gap that parallels a widening economic gap – despite years and years of increased testing and accountability in those schools where the economic gaps are at their deepest points.
Diversity of thought has been left behind. What remains in failing schools and the ones teetering on the testing bubble are collections of remote and desiccated facts that represent not even a single culture, but rather, an anti-culture that has essentially eradicated cultural values as a discussable issue.
Science has been left behind, too, and thus the primary tool for understanding how the modern world is organized. Where science survives, it is where it is tested, and the kind of science that remains is the kind that can be fit into a multiple-choice format, not the kind that exercises children’s ability to think, solve problems, conduct experiments, and make good decisions.
Literature has been left behind, and with it the love of reading and books and the curiosity that is spawned and kept alive by the life of the imagination. Stories are now substituted by the measured mouthing of nonsense syllables and the framing of comprehension responses that the children who utter them do not understand.
Recess has been left behind in a third of all American elementary schools, and as the percentage of failing schools increases, we may expect that number to rise. Play, itself, then becomes left behind, and along with it one of the most useful skills of all—to think as if, what if, as in what if life were somehow different than, or what if there were a choice beyond a, b, c, or d?
Nap time has been left behind in kindergarten and even in pre-K, as teachers focus on replacing dream time with skill practice time for a future of testing.
Field trips, holidays, and assemblies have been left behind unless they can be used for test preparation, or unless they come after the test, those short precious weeks when smiles may be seen to return to teachers’ lips and to students’ eyes.
The love of the teacher for her craft has been left behind in so many schools, replaced by the burdensome regimen of the pacing guide and the production schedule and the script. And time for teacher-led discussion, exploration, reflection? There is only time for teachers to learn their lines, trying to become good actors in a very bad play where the audience is compelled to participate. And time to weigh the results of the practice tests in order to get ready for the real tests.
Left behind, too, are teacher autonomy and professional discretion. Now whole hallways of fourth grade classes are on the same page of the same scripted lesson at the same moment that any supervisor should walk by, supervisors who are identically trained to look for the same manifestations of sameness, from bulletin boards to hand signals to the distance that children are trained to maintain from one another as they march to lunch, with their arms holding together their imaginary straightjackets.
Most troubling, however, of all that has been left behind is the teacher’s nurturing care, the teacher whose advocacy for and sensitivity to every child’s fragile humanity has been a trademark of what it means to be the teacher of children.
With the current laser focus on avoiding test failure, even as expectations become higher with each passing year, the child who cannot do more than a child can do now becomes viewed as the stumbling block to a success that is increasingly elusive.
Instead, then, of being viewed as the reasons we have schools to begin with, the needful child who is, indeed, behind, becomes the obstacle to a proficiency that becomes further and further out of reach. When this occurs, as it surely does every time teachers and principals fall prey to the pressure, children become the burden that must be reluctantly borne, obstacles to a success that their own disability, poverty, or language issues complicate— and that even the best teacher can never compensate for.
Students, then, come to be seen as complicit in creating the failure that, in fact, no one, teacher or student, can remedy, because there is a monstrous system that has made child failure and, thus, school failure inevitable, a monstrous system that has traded and treated this generation of children as a means to attain a political end—a political end that, in fact, threatens our future as a free people who are able to think, to solve problems, to care, to imagine, to understand, to have empathy, to participate, to grow, to live.
So as you listen to the growing debate this fall in Washington, please do not leave your political responsibility behind and your good sense with it. Go online tonight and order the Linda Perlstein book, Tested. . .. Read it and, as you do so, keep in mind that the horror that she so ably describes occurred in a school that is considered a success, a “lighthouse school.” Think, then, of what it must be like in the thirty percent of American schools that are now labeled failures.
Recently, a quote by Cal State professor, Art Costa showed up on one of internet discussion groups, a quote that is horribly relevant today: "What was once educationally significant, but difficult to measure, has been replaced by what is insignificant and easy to measure. So now we test how well we have taught what we do not value."
Call and write and visit your school boards and your Congressional delegation. Remind them what you value and what you believe to be significant for now and for our future, and what you know that now and finally must to be left behind.
A similar version of this commentary was delivered September 27 at Monmouth University. It will be posted on YouTube a few days hence.