Sunday, August 12, 2007

"I'm so glad I'm a Beta"

Brave New World, where all the babies come from test tubes, and the oxygen to their embryonic brains is carefully calibrated so that the majority will be happy doing the service jobs that make life easy for the few Alphas, who get all the brains and all the perks. The children in their color-coded uniforms say in unison, "I'm so happy I'm a Beta," or Delta, or Epsilon.

We can 't do that here: that would be genetic engineering, which is immoral, unchristian. We have to create our Deltas and Epsilons the old-fashioned way, by depriving them of words and thought. Welcome to No-Child-Left-Behind World.

I had a long and troubling e-mail from Pat Robinson, who has taught high school English for 15 years in Meeker, Colorado. Her job has been eliminated because she taught English by having her students read novels. No longer. Meeker wants its little Deltas and Epsilons to be happy members of the service world--they'll fight our wars, flip our burgers, make our beds. We can't have them reading, reflecting, thinking about the world they're growing up in. No English class in Meeker can include literature: that distracts the students from test-taking.

Pat says: This "is the Enron of education where we hiding the lack of knowledge behind good test scores. It is the easy fix of diet pills that loosing weight is good whatever the cost to the body. It is a disaster. The private schools will flourish and people with money will see that their children get a good education. I started in inner city San Diego and moved to rural Colorado with one driving force: to teach students (who may not have the wealthy background) to be great people and real students. I have been successful and have many awards but now test scores are all that count."

She adds that there are eight topics English teachers will be allowed to cover, and that reading will be limited to one-or two-page extracts which students read over and over--thus guaranteeing that they will not be interested in the written word. But they don't need the written word to go to Iraq, or McDonalds: they can be happy Deltas with their minimum wage jobs and no health insurance.

You and I don't need soldiers, we need readers. What can we do as writers, as important leaders in the culture of this world, to save kids in Meeker and elsewhere.

by Sara Paretsky

P.S. If you want to read Pat's full letter, e-mail me and I will forward it to you.

32 comments:

Rob in Denver said...

How very sad and disturbing. As much as I want to say, "Yes, please, forward her e-mail to me," I can't.

It will only piss me off more.

Jen said...

I work in the education system and am just as disgusted with the emphasis placed upon test scores as opposed to actual learning...In Illinois for example, the writing portion was removed several years ago from the state achievement testing (because it was not looked at under No Child Left Behind). Apparently, children need to learn their math and science but don't need to be able to coherently write about what they have learned or discovered....writing is being re-introduced this year, but again, teachers are being forced to teach for the test, not for the child's future.

Swanny said...

I think it's pretty backwards that if a school doesn't perform well enough in testing, their funding gets cut. Which, as we know, is a sure way to help them perform better... taking their money away.

Jennifer said...

This is very troubling. All the things that make our children (and future adults) well-rounded and knowledgeable of the world are cut in favor of checklists. Are we just raising a generation of good test-takers?

JenBin said...

And people wonder why I homeschooled my daughter....

Pete said...

This situation will become the latest public education abomination which I mention to my wife, prefaced by the phrase "Once again, I am SO glad you're home-schooling Maddie." (Maddie is our six-year-old.) There have been so many appalling incidents like this over the past few years that I've long since lost count. Our educational system teaches our kids how to take tests instead of teaching them how to think, while our intellectual capital slips further and further behind the rest of the world. Shameful.

Shannon said...

I put my son in private school because I wanted him to get a good education and I knew that was not going to be possible with No Child Left Behind. All we have gotten is a bunch of children who memorize wihtout understanding and can take a test. How is that teaching good citizenship? How is that teaching?

Barbara said...

I don't have the book to hand and so can't quote it directly, but I recall Jonathan Kozol had a moving passage in his book, Illiterate America. A kid from the Dorchester (or was it Roxbury?) neighborhood of Boston joined the army. They taught him to read and write because the Boston schools hadn't. It was a very effective program for its purposes. When he wrote a letter home, he could spell long and complex military terms. But he didn't know how to spell "friend" and other words that weren't necessary to the mission. (The book was published during the Reagan era, at the time of "A Nation at Risk," our last great reform movement.)

I cringe when I hear people say "we need to reform education so we can have an effective workforce." No, we need citizens who can feel, think, have compassion, be critical, speak up for themselves and others.

But that would be dangerous.

Maryann Mercer said...

Thankfully, when Catherine was in school, creative thinking was still encouraged, along with literature, art, music, and all the other things deemed unncessary to pass standardized tests. As a result, she is grounded in all of the above. Would I subject her to public school today, homeschool her, or choose private school? I'm not sure. To simply remove children from the school system doesn't solve the problem. It simply lowers funding, since most states get money based on how many children each school has (per day) At least that's the case here. To make any permanent changes, we need to remove those who allowed No Child Left Behind to become synonymous with standardized testing and elect people who care about more than their own salaries. Idealistic? Yep...but allowing those same people to continue to dictate educational policy at the expense of our country's children (ALL the children)is irresponsible. Whether we home school, private school, or public school our kids, involvement of parents on the local level is every bit as important as putting the right people in place. Instead of deploring the conditions, we should be doing what we can to improve them. Volunteer to read or mentor kids. Attend school board meetings(even if you home school). bombard state and local officials with concerns on the quality of education and don't take 'there's no money' for an answer. Yes, it's time consuming, but think of the benefits to the kids in the long run.

Steve Malley said...

My lovely wee Kiwi bride thought this post was some kind of monstrous joke. It seemed impossible that anyone would teach kids to read just well enough to manage basic tasks.

Of course, NZers have a 98% literacy rate, so I can kind of understand. She had the same problems with my uninsured parents' struggles with health care.

A lot of New Zealanders have trouble believing the awful truths about the land of my birth...

Michael Dymmoch said...

When my son was old enough for first grade, I elected to send him to a Montessori school--even though we lived in one of the "best" school districts on the north shore. It was the smartest investment I ever made. The tuition was $2000 less/student/year than what the public school was spending. My son was mainstreamed in junior high where he was the square peg for a while, but he entered Junior high knowing how to read, write, think and treat his classmates with respect. If I had Bill Gates money, I'd clone the school and the wonderful teachers it attracted.

Sara Paretsky said...

Maryann, thanks for the wake-up call--we do need to get rid of this pernicious policy--not least for Swanny's point, that schools lose funding if they don't do well on tests. Jenbin, Pete, Barbara, Michael, I would make the same private/home schooling decisions in your place--but would like to know what to do to make the situation better for those who don't have the resources to choose your solutions.

Libby Hellmann said...

When I worked at Burson-Marsteller I remember developing good-will proposals for after-school classes taught by corporate workers. Math, reading for specific groups, even social skills. I dont know whatever happened to that idea... you don't hear about it any more.. but it seems to me we need other private institutions and organizations to step in and supplement what the schools are (not) teaching. Clearly, they -- and the government -- are incapable of improving education on their own.

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