Obituaries can enlighten us

When I open the Sunday New York Times, my first stop is the obituaries. What better place to learn about the social history of our nation than from the lives of individuals honored in this section of the paper?

The first Sunday paper of 2015 included the obituary of education luminary John Goodlad, written by Tamar Lewin. I found the article irresistible, because the author grew up across the street from me in Cleveland Heights—her mother was my friend—and because Goodlad respected human diversity and advocated that children learn to read when they were developmentally ready.

To Goodlad, each child was unique. In his view, the practice of defining the typical learner by age ignored the reality that children learn in different ways and at different times. There is nothing standard about a sixth-grader, including when one will master a skill. In his 1984 book A Place Called School, Goodlad was critical of grouping children by age. Graded education, he wrote, is “an adult convenience for classifying, tracking, assessing, advancing and retarding the millions of students who move through it.” What a philosophical contrast to the straitjacket created for America’s public schools by today’s obsession with using tests to rank and judge children, teachers, schools and communities!

Standards and testing require children to acquire specific measurable competencies by a specific time. You are a failure if you don’t fit. These standardized outcomes ignore differences in development—not to mention differences in opportunity. One size does not fit all!

Rather than promoting more effective education, testing for accountability undermines success. It creates winners and losers instead of committed learners. By standardizing education outcomes by grade level, it ignores human diversity and sacrifices an essential education purpose: developing a curious and critical-thinking electorate of lifelong learners. It’s all wrong.

Testing as the driver of our national education policy ignores developmentally appropriate learning, undermines thoughtful teaching, and turns the classroom focus away from igniting the passions and interests of children toward performance on tests. Education for standardized test results is a dead end for the mind, for the inspired teacher and for meaningful and responsible participation in democracy.

Goodlad’s recognition that children can’t be forced to learn on a strict timeline resonates with my experience as an aunt and kindergarten tutor. My sister’s three sons learned to read in second, third and fourth grades—something that would define them and their teachers as failures. All of them became competent adults despite learning when they were ready, and the latest one to bloom went on to graduate from an Ivy League college!

For the last eight years I have helped kindergarteners at my local elementary school learn the sounds that go with each of the letters in the alphabet, a fundamental building block for reading. While early childhood experts say that reading in kindergarten is not developmentally appropriate, Ohio standards and the Common Core now require it. So we work with our kids.

The variation is huge. Some come unable to name any letters, and some arrive knowing them all. I’ve seen the light go on within a few weeks for some and, for others, after the whole school year. Almost everyone gets there, but those who take longer often exhibit self-doubt and fear. Kindergarteners don’t need their introduction to learning to include those emotions!

The expectation that all should be able to actually read before the end of the year is coming at the expense of developmentally appropriate free play, experiential learning and spontaneous pursuit of each child’s interests—the strategies that build a firm foundation for academic skills and the motivation to engage. They are being sacrificed to keep kids marching to the timeline defined by testing.

Testing has turned learning into a conglomeration of discrete skills that need to be measured. It is enticing to believe that by breaking learning into pieces and parts we can fine-tune the teaching machine. While I believe in high levels of achievement for all children, testing does not foster a love of learning, pursuit of big ideas or the exploration of interests—the key ingredients of engaged learning.

We need more from education than standardized achievement. Our policymakers have chosen to ignore reality to the detriment of student engagement and teacher professionalism. If only they would listen to educators!

Susie Kaesr

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 8, Issue 4, Posted 1:18 PM, 03.30.2015