The Missing Voices
Discussions about quality education and adequately preparing students for the future have become deafening. Yet the voices from those on the front lines - teachers, students and parents – are often missing. What would they be saying if we could hear them?
In the documentary Race To Nowhere, those in the forefront shed light on how the current dialogue on education reform. Its narrow definition of achievement and myopic one-dimensional focus on test scores and competition is holding up a one-size-fits all approach to reform that is having crushing, unintended consequences. Kids everywhere, regardless of their background, are under a new kind of pressure to perform, the kind of pressure that impacts physical and emotional health and hampers their development.
High-stakes testing has taken the place of meaningful teaching and learning. The tests satisfy the desire for a simple, quantifiable way to measure our schools, teachers and students. But the scores tend to reflect parental income and zip codes rather than how our schools are doing, and the tests have the effect of narrowing the curriculum and the way it is taught. Testing encourages a type of thinking that trains students to seek quick results and only a superficial knowledge of the material. It ignores those subjects not tested and creates students who have been trained to look for the right answer instead of developing problem solvers.
Teachers are pressured to teach to a script rather than to teach for engagement and understanding. They are forced to cover a broad range of material quickly and without regard to what they know as professionals about education and the developmental needs of the children. Many are feeling unsupported and leaving the profession.
Testing also ignores the importance of active and engaged participation of students in the learning process. Motivation to learn for pleasure or even to continue in school at all is also impacted. As our classrooms have been turned into test prep centers, an increasing number of students are becoming disengaged, checking out and dropping out.
And this environment promotes fear within young people preventing them from taking risks and from involving themselves with learning. Today’s students need room to make mistakes—mistakes provide important opportunities for growth.
A toll is also exacted on the health and well-being of our youth. There’s an epidemic of young people who are anxious, depressed and sleep deprived, exhibiting psychosomatic symptoms, abusing performance medications, and compromising values because of the pressure to get the grade or simply to get through the quantity of material.
Accustomed to a regime of memorizing, cramming and regurgitating information, many enter college lacking effective problem-solving or thinking skills. Over 40 percent of college freshmen have to take remedial courses. And mental health offices on campuses are overflowing.
Business leaders tell of young people who lack the skills needed most to thrive in the adult world –working together cooperatively, communicating and solving complex problems. Having been trained, instead of educated, in such a narrow manner, young people are afraid to take risks needed for innovation and they also lack the creativity of previous generations. Industry is spending billions retraining these graduates.
Much of the attention given to improving schools has focused on raising standardized test scores and promoting the latest program, keeping students in school for longer hours and increasing time devoted to homework and studying. Rather than doing more of what we’ve always done, improving educational success must be grounded in a deeper understanding of how schools can be restructured to make learning more relevant and engaging, to provide access to quality education for all children, to provide opportunities for experiential learning, to allow time for meaningful relationships between educators and students, and to better prepare young people for their future.
A paradigm shift is needed. It requires that we radically transform the way we think about childhood, education, human capacity, learning and even standardized testing.
We must begin by working in partnership - teachers, parents, administrators – students themselves – to make school a place that emphasizes the whole child. A place that offers physical education, showcases the arts, fosters talents, develops citizen skills, develops lifelong learners and encourages individual growth of students and teachers and a respect for both. #
Vicki Abeles is a New York attorney turned documentary filmmaker whose film, Race to Nowhere, is screening in theaters, schools and community venues nationwide. Race to Nowhere will play at the 92nd Street Y, Saturday, Nov. 13 at 7PM and will be followed by a facilitated dialogue with Abeles.