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The Disservice of a 'Rigorous' Education

Ohanian Comment: I don't know anything about the Calhoun School of which Steve Nelson is the head. But I like their mission and philosophy, which you can read at the bottom of this piece. It's nice to know that there are some rich people who want their children to have a progressive, non-competitive education:

Lower School/74th
3's (half days) $21,370
3's (extended day) $23,450
4's $33,155
Kindergarten & 1st Grade $34.365

Lower School/81st St.
2nd–4th Grades $35,200

Middle School
5th–8th Grades $35,950

Upper School
9th–12th Grades $36,950

by Steve Nelson

Tests, standards, accountability, economic competitiveness, managers, vouchers, data, metrics... does anyone actually care about children?

Public discourse about education is unbearably impersonal. Nearly all the heated rhetoric suggests that children are nothing but small units of future production, especially in the saddest precincts of South Central, Baltimore, Harlem, Cleveland, Detroit and the other abandoned parcels of our divided nation.

In several remarkable books a few years ago, Jonathan Kozol described the lives of children from America's neglected corners, particularly the dark and deteriorating neighborhoods of New York City's South Bronx. In Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, he quoted Mother Martha, a reformed lawyer who served as pastor of St. Ann's Church, in a particularly desolate section of the Bronx. "Peter's dog ate Jefferson's cat." Peter and Jefferson are cousins whose pets had an unpleasant encounter. Both boys were among a handful of often-lonely boys who found companionship and solace with Mother Martha.

Kozol described Jefferson as he sat on the church steps at dawn, cradling the remains of his cat in a cardboard box, aching to talk with Mother Martha about cats and death. The pastor and her colleague helped Jefferson place the cat in a cookie tin, say a prayer, sprinkle water and bury her. Mother Martha said, "I think that he was pleased, because he kept on bringing people out to see the grave. He dug her up three times to show his friends."

While multi-billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates and Eli Broad talk about tough management and data-driven reform, real children languish in abject poverty. That's unfair enough, but then we also rob them of their childhoods. Everything is about money, even their small lives. Social scientists talk about poor kids' education as an "investment" and act as though the worth of children is in their development as resources for the competitive marketplace.

Kozol wrote, "Advocates of children, most of whom dislike this ethos, nonetheless play into it in an effort to gain financial backing from the world of business. A dollar spent on Head Start will save our government six dollars over 20 years in lowered cost for juvenile detention and adult incarceration. It is a pretty dreadful way to have to think about 4-year-olds."

Since Kozol published these words, America has doubled down on the obsession to prepare children to serve some future economic use. Schools are increasingly characterized by "rigor," longer days, summer remediation and high-stakes tests. As Kozol observed, "Burials for cats somehow don't fit into this picture." The aggressive imposition of high-stakes education isn't ruining childhood for only poor kids.

In affluent neighborhoods just a few miles south of St. Ann's Church, the stressful tests are for private school admission and the summers are for accelerated work instead of remediation. Children in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Grosse Pointe, Mich., Marin County, Calif., or Darien, Conn. and other affluent communities are treated like precious gemstones to be polished hard on the grindstone of their parents' ambition. Burials for cats don't fit into this picture either.

Jean De La Bruyère, a 17th century French moralist and philosopher, once wrote: "Children have neither a past nor a future. Thus they enjoy the present -- which seldom happens to us." In the South Bronx or in Grosse Pointe, children are too often deprived of the present. At each end of the economic spectrum, we are pressing children harder and harder in the service of a "rigorous" education. It is not mere semantic coincidence that the word "rigor" is most often paired with the word "mortis."

As De La Bruyère wrote, the present seldom happens to us. But the present is all that children have. Kozol wrote movingly about another of Mother Martha's children. "Mariposa is not simply 37 pounds of raw material that wants a certain processing and finishing before she can be shipped to market and considered to have value. She is of value now, and if she dies of a disease or accident when she is 12 years old, the sixth year of her life will not as a result be robbed of meaning."

It's heartbreaking to hear administrators and politicians talk about children as raw material to be crafted into productive cogs in the global economy. If they bothered to know the children about whom they talk, they would find fascinating, creative, imaginative and passionate small humans who yearn for real relationships with us and each other. They were born to learn and will learn, in good time, if we love them and don't extinguish their curiosity and squash their spirits with misguided policies. But instead we march them from class to class, dress them in little uniforms and cluck unhappily over their failure to meet our sterile expectations.

We are doing this to our children because we think we have to. Perhaps Bloomberg, Gates, Broad and others would like children to have fun, but they seem to believe we don't have that luxury. Strict discipline, rigor, standards and accountability just don't leave time for an indulgent childhood. But this is a false choice. Children who enjoy the present, children who fritter away the summer in imaginative play, children who bury cats and dig them up to show friends -- these children will also be our poets and visionary entrepreneurs, our scientists and our leaders. That's what so-called reformers claim to want, but it is not what they will get with current policy.

Steve Nelson is head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan.

Calhoun School

Mission & Philosophy

Mission Statement

Calhoun's goal is to inspire a passion for learning through a progressive approach to education that values intellectual pursuit, creativity, diversity and community involvement.

Educational Philosophy

The goal of a Calhoun education is that all students fully develop their capacity for learning, oral and written expression, scientific and artistic pursuit, critical thinking, thoughtful analysis, true scholarship and compassion. We prepare them with all the practical skills needed for further developing these qualities beyond their time at Calhoun. We encourage skepticism, we insist on the discipline to present arguments based on careful research, and we expect evaluation of all available evidence. We seek to cultivate (or restore!) the innate curiosity and passion in every child.

Our focus on progressive education assures a student̢۪s lively engagement in learning through active experience. Current research in cognitive science confirms that rich sensory input and a high level of active engagement result in broad, deep learning. Specific skills are effectively and consistently developed within the context of this rich learning environment.

We recognize the various ways in which each child is a unique wonder, consistent with contemporary understanding of multiple intelligences and rich individual and cultural differences. While we appreciate traditional notions of academic potential and achievement, we equally recognize and celebrate each child̢۪s physical abilities, creativity, compassion, sense of social and economic justice, ability to perceive and create beauty, capacity to feel and express empathy, good humor, and strength of character.

We hold a broad appreciation of the uniqueness of each student̢۪s development, learning style, and way of being in the world. Such an atmosphere fosters the ability to take academic risks and to value differences and strengths in others. We sustain an atmosphere of high challenge and mutual support, not one of competition and comparison. Calhoun supports each student̢۪s aspirations for life, rather than distilling childhood into a competitive race to a specific college choice or vocation. Our mission is to guide and challenge our students so that they will emerge as sensitive, healthy, thoughtful, well-prepared citizens of the world community.

— Steve Nelson
Huffington Post


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