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Turning schools into robot factories

Posted: 2010-09-29

This from Washington Post Answer Sheet, Sept. 29, 2010. The public comments on this piece are enough to make one forswear from ever looking at such a space again.

By Joanne Yatvin

I never miss reading the newspaper comics. Not for entertainment, but because I think their creators are some of the most intelligent and well-informed people on the public scene. As a group, they have mastered the subtleties of language, politics, philosophy, and human behavior.

Right about now I am struck by how many comics are dealing with the beginning of the school year and how uniform their messages are: Children arenĂ¢€™t happy about going back to school.

This is not good-natured humor. It reflects pretty accurately the feelings I hear expressed by my grandchildren and the other children I meet.

Although the excitement of new clothes and school supplies seems to soften the blow, the thought of being confined all day to over-crowded classrooms and hard seats and allowed to speak only after raising one's hand is not a pretty prospect. Unfortunately, this picture gets uglier every year as demands for more and harder work increase, and the old respites of recess, art, music, and physical education disappear. By law, adults get breaks during their workday, but not children.

As a teacher educator and educational researcher, I have been visiting classrooms for years, and, for the most part, I don't like what I see. Many of the once excellent teachers I know have been reduced to automatons reciting scripted lessons, focusing on mechanical skills, and rehearsing students for standardized tests. The school curriculum has become something teachers "deliver" like a pizza and students "swallow" whole, whether or not they like mushrooms.

Kindergartens that used to be places for children to learn social behavior, songs, dances, and poetry; how to build cities with blocks, play store, and express feelings with crayons and paint, are now cheerless cells for memorizing letter sounds and numbers. In one kindergarten I visited last year, children recited all the words in their little books without ever recognizing that they were part of a story.

In a first-grade classroom, I watched children march in circles at mid-morning, waving their arms because there was no longer a recess to refresh their bodies and spirits. Still, there was time enough for them to shout out the sounds of letters in chorus everyday and to memorize the words "onomatopoeia" and "metaphor."

In the upper elementary grades I saw both English and math taught by formulas. Students were given a list of the parts of a standard essay, told to use them in order and to begin with a question or a surprising statement. They were also taught the formula for dividing by fractions (as if anyone ever does such a thing) and the Pythagorean theorem (useful whenever you want to know the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle).

Many school districts have also adopted summer homework policies, usually requiring students to read a prescribed list of books. This past summer my grandnephew, who is entering 9th grade, had to write a legal brief defending or condemning Martin Luther, although he had not been taught anything about that writing form or that famous man in 8th grade.

With the new Common Core Standards, created by experts who will never be tested on them, school life will grow even more onerous.

Algebra has been moved down to the 8th grade, and geometry, always a tenth grade elective, is now required of all ninth graders. Wordsworth's "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads," which I read as a graduate student, is on the 9th grade recommended reading list. Although, the knowledge, skills, and books in the standards are, on the whole, academically valid, they are scheduled to be taught to students two to four years too young to understand or appreciate them.

All this has happened because the politicians who now control America's schools have adopted the worst aspects of European and Asian education, which were designed to maintain social class boundaries in those societies.

Out of a misguided belief that students' test scores represent a country's economic health and, perhaps, out of wounded pride; our leaders appear determined to convert our once great public schools into robot factories and to extinguish the brilliance and imagination that have fueled our country's greatness for more than 200 years.

Joanne Yatvin, a longtime public school educator, author and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, is now teaching part-time at Portland State University.

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