Saving a few, sacrificing the whole
When I first heard of our president’s plan, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), I was excited.
As a performing artist who visits schools all over the Midwest, I have seen students written off as losers just because they wore dirty clothes, spoke with an accent or behaved like, well, children. If teachers were going to be forced to put their prejudices aside and work as hard, maybe harder, with the disadvantaged, how could I not shout for joy?
Unfortunately, like the shiny used car on the salesman’s lot, NCLB is not what it appears to be. In the same way some politician argue that a minimum wage raise hurts the poor and punishing a company for bogus products denies an individual the right to choose, the new emphasis on national standards and testing only pretends to help failing students. NCLB distrusts teachers and has a political agenda that fears the arts and higher-thinking skills. In a nutshell, instead of helping the bottom 5 percent, NCLB under serves the top 95. A generation ago, they called it Back to Basics; like its predecessor, this new initiative is all about mind control.
The emphasis again will be on math, science and writing. While obviously important, these subjects do not complete a child’s education. The arts, literature, foreign languages and physical education enable students to gain perspective on their own lives and our nation. They are the tools for an informed citizenry. Since current NCLB budgets propose to eliminate these subjects, I have to conclude that NCLB fears open debate and critical thinking. What if students come to question our nation’s leadership? What if dialogue leads to doubt?
In addition, many children do not blossom by studying only the basics. Different student personalities respond to different educational stimuli. To eliminate the aforementioned subjects would automatically leave many students behind, making NCLB proponents hypocrites at best, mind police at worst.
I blame much of the problem on testing because testing pretends to measure what may in fact not be measurable. Testing has taken on such icon status that most teachers are afraid to even discuss their concerns in public. Part of the NCLB doctrine is: If you are not a believer, you are part of the problem. When I have brought up the subject in teachers’ lounges, people glance around nervously as if we are telling dirty jokes.
Fear is the motivating factor. Teachers fear their wards will get poor scores. Students fear they will be held back. Both fear their schools will be shut down. By necessity, education becomes a pragmatic calculation: Get it right or be eliminated. Horacio Algers appears a contemporary role model and last year’s concept of “life-time learning” archaic and out-of-touch.
Creative teaching is a liability. Lesson plans must relate to The Test or be tossed. Conformity passes as omnipotent because The Test predicts the future and sets the standard for pertinent questions. As if divine, we make offerings and ask for its blessings. In time, we may be asked to kneel and pray.
Emphasis is on facts, not analysis. The mediocre teacher triumphs because conformity guarantees that only one answer is applicable and ambiguity is synonymous with indecision. Education becomes a regurgitation process, inspiring only those who enjoy spelling bees and waiting in line. History reads like the nutritional guide on the side of a box of cereal and the arts — if allowed at all — are reduced to a bubbly core-subject attachment.
In this world, there is no room for debate or new ideas, and to suggest that NCLB needs a tune up is a sacrilege. Schools are to teach children what to think, not how to think.
If we are honest, we must admit the current education system has its flaws. The best teachers often quit, and certain bad teachers hang around like leeches with a cat’s nine lives. Good behavior takes priority over a student’s potential, and the reward system (grades and scholarships) makes the average student feel that no one cares.
Yes, these problems must be addressed, but the solution is not a stoic return to boring classes, limited choices, larger class size, nervous disillusioned teachers, and a curriculum that reduces complex ideas to a listing of facts. That formula makes education an obstacle to overcome rather than a reason to excel. Bright students are stunted and late bloomers never flourish.
Some things do not change. The best teachers are still those who command their material and care. These masters teach children when to draw outside the lines and how to find answers in hidden places. They provoke a passion for learning and self-improvement. They challenge rather than placate, the only skill that guarantees fewer student dropouts.
Sometimes when I visit a school for the first time, a student will see me preparing for my play performance and ask if I am a magician. “Yes,” I answer, “but I will be using your imagination to create the magic.” NCLB advocates might say, “Oh yeah? How will you measure that?”
Fincken has toured the country performing his original one-man plays in schools, parks, libraries, festivals and universities throughout the United States. For the past seven years, he has performed in Chautauquas in five different states. He recently portrayed the character of Christopher Columbus in the 2005 Enid Summer Chautauqua.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES