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Voices: Presidential campaigns dismiss education

Author Angela Engel faults Obama and Romney for ignoring education on the campaign trail, and she urges Obama to revisit the nation’s obsession with standardized tests.

Throughout the presidential election, very little has been discussed about addressing the needs of children in this country. In fact, the subject of education has come up only briefly. Gov. Mitt Romney’s education plan for vouchers and privatization has already failed at the higher education level, costing more and creating sub-standard colleges and ill-prepared graduates. President Obama’s performance pay plan tied to Race to the Top funding has failed in research studies and models throughout the country, costing more and creating sub-standard schools and ill-prepared graduates.

Both candidates endorse policies that standardize and centralize American schools. President Obama and Gov. Romney have called for the adoption of a national curriculum, which I believe is corporately driven. They consider standardized testing tools as a primary and valid measure of student learning and a teacher’s success. While they claim to “love teachers,” both advocate for sanctions and punishments as a solution to addressing the school struggles that are most strongly correlated to poverty.

While most of the political conversation has focused on issues outside of education and children, America’s public school system holds the key to international relations, budget management, environmental protection and social progress. The answers literally are great people because great people do great things and we simply need more of that.

I first started teaching as the standards movement was coming into fashion. My district had always operated with a curriculum, but in the early ’90s a new education trend emerged with the goal of defining student performance outcomes called benchmarks and standards. Three years into teaching fourth-graders, I converted my classroom from an integrated project-based approach to standards-based. I was eager to demonstrate to parents, colleagues and administrators that I could get all of my students to demonstrate performance on the prescribed standards. Everything from curriculum, assignments, instruction, assessments and even parent conferences were matched to these standards. At the end of the year, my students had a huge portfolio of work with the reading, writing, math and science standard attached to the top. Here it was … proof I had taught the standards and my students had performed them.

Something else happened too. I watched as my classroom went from a vibrant place of activity to a sterile room of boredom. If you walked in, you might think, “Wow, these kids are busy at work.” They were busy at work but they weren’t busy at learning. I noticed the curiosity and enthusiasm gradually drain along with their questions and inquiries. That next year, high-stakes testing was introduced and the culture in my classroom shifted further to fear, uniformity and subjugation. I started asking myself, “What was happening here? Why wasn’t this working? Had I done something wrong?” The answer hit me like a kick to the gut.

I – we – had stolen these children’s learning. This version of reform had turned their education into an exercise in accounting. Standards had robbed them of finding the answers to their own questions and pursuing the ends to their own understanding.

When you step outside or inside, often you can feel the “deadness” in the world today. We are feeding this deadness in our classrooms with the wrong values and the wrong policies. Our challenge is to stop trying to bring life to the dead things and to breathe vitality into the living. Standards are dead, curiosity is alive. Tests are dead, imagination is alive. Accountability is dead, children are alive.

Real education is not regurgitating standards and shading bubbles. Real learning is reading books – the whole book; writing on topics that reflect individual interests, experiences and ideas; answering problems that connect to actual things like solving and saving, budgeting and building; and experimenting with scientific principles where the answers differ and the results are dynamic. Quality education engenders a responsibility for one’s own learning. It is not standardized but personalized and meaningful. Most importantly good education recognizes the unique differences in how children learn and honors their very brief childhood. As human beings we learn innately, joyfully, and for our own purpose. To impose outcomes and control performance is to hinder human development, cultivate dependency and kill the natural curiosity that lives in each of us.

Both President Obama and Gov. Romney share the vision to shift control of teaching and learning to corporate education publishers and private hedge funders. Both are wrong. High-stakes standardized testing is a mistake, and decisions to expand tests, raise the stakes higher and misuse these measurements as tools to punish and sanction teachers and students violates the intention of public education.

In a democracy, the power must ultimately reside with the people. In this week’s post-election speeches, both President Obama and Gov. Romney shared one thing right – we must work together. We must all work together to protect our children and those public institutions of learning where opportunity and freedom first begin.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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