Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Longer school year? Try fewer wasted school days

    The children are out, frolicking in the green — summer stretched before them like the promise of youth.

     And some people want to shut them indoors again, want to batten the hatches, pass out more sheets with bubbles, return them to their crouches.

     Those people would include the nation's top dog on education matters, and any number of policy makers who just can't keep their grubby hands off our schools.

    In this case, they call for a longer school year.

    "Summer learning loss" is the problem, and it's "devastating," says U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, making it sound like polio or tuberculosis. I'm thinking a young man named Kerry Martin would beg to differ. I bet he'd say the loss of summer vacation would be far more devastating.

     I'm only guessing what Martin would say, because we haven't met. I've only read a great piece of commentary he wrote in the Denver Post about insanely test-heavy school policies. He's a student at Cherry Creek High School. His complaint was about resources and energies squandered.

    "Colorado education struggles to pay for the bare necessities and must choose some necessities over others . . . The whole time, the massively wasteful CSAPs still drown out everything that is actually educational in  schools: science, history, art, sports teams, teachers."

     CSAP is the state standardized test, Colorado's end-all, be-all, a condition sadly replicated across the country in the cult ritual called school "accountability." The young man's point was that for good students like him, and even for average students, it's a waste of time.

     No one every thinks about how standardized testing is a lead weight around the ankles of students, particularly those already at or above grade level, those who could and would use their brain power and time better in becoming the scholars and leaders we need to thumb-wrestle with China in the global economy.

       Tragically, much of these bright students' time, and that of their teachers, is spent on state tests that are really motivated and engineered to assess those below grade level, as is all of the emotional energy behind the school "accountability" movement.

        How much time are we talking about? A master teacher in a Texas grade school complained to me that 16 full days of instruction time were lost to standardized testing and benchmark testing (school district tests to see if the teachers keep up with the state's essential elements.)

        A comparable drain is experienced in every state, thanks to the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Some people like Arne Duncan wax poetic in praising standardized testing. People like that master teacher and a great student like Kerry Martin call it the worst thing that ever happened to education. I'm with them.

        If anyone would listen, they'd understand how standardized testing is a drag — not just the boring sort, but the sort that drags students down, causing them to shoot low, or at least for the mean — passing — rather than shooting high as their creative energies take wing in vibrant classrooms.

         Kerry Martin knows the state test isn't there to help him learn more. It's there to put the hammer to teachers and administrators and to bring the bottom quartile of his classmates up to someone's idea of competence.

         Those who talk about "global competitiveness," if they think today's "accountability" is their principal weapon, don't know what they're talking about. Standardization isn't education. Competence isn't excellence. And today's state tests can demonstrate nothing more. By definition, they're for everyone, and not everyone is Kerry Martin.

      Without question, some children need extra schooling after it gets green. Summer school is a valid concept for those with special needs. But . . .

       Kerry Martin might, as would I, consent to a longer school year if it actually meant real education, rather than more time for testing and test prepping.

       As it is, the school year is obviously long enough, because states find so much time to stop just about everything to tell children to hunch over their desks and fill in bubbles.

        Take away the promise of summer for that?

         John Young writes for Cox Newspapers.

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