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Dinosaurs

Column: 
Dream Big:  Read

Last week, I saw the new report cards that many schools are sending out. It was a four page booklet, where each subject was represented by a set of boxes and each row was labeled with the numbers and letters for each Common Core strand.  3.RIT.5 was going to be a bear for my students to master. I have seen the future and it looks like computer error code.

Report cards and test scores are abstractions; we pretend they are talmudic texts when they are about as meaningful as a Happy Meal Box. In the beautiful world where the parents sign permission slips, show up to meet the teacher, and help with the Algebra project, the report card affirms what they know about their child. All of those checks, numbers, or letters pat them on the back and reassure them that the paths to happiness and success will remain clear, dry, and gently uphill. 

Since the meteor landed and the recent reform efforts have started clouding the sky, schools have been sending out test scores several times a year. The key word in the Education Business is Data. We compile Data from our test scores, interpret that Data, then create an action plan to address challenges revealed in the Data. Then we give ourselves a pat on the head and pretend as if we have done something.

In English (or Language Arts), we might line the students up in rows, hand them #2 pencils, and then ask them to read a short passage from Jane Austen without writing on the test. Then, they would fill in the bubbles for ten questions before moving on to test section on a recycling pamphlet. All of those bubbles make data.

This data is not being collected to help the students. Very few schools look at the failing data, then assemble the parents and help them come up with new homework strategies.  Instead, the data gets massaged into tables and charts that always seem to cross their arms and scowl. Clearly, we have not been teaching reading correctly if 3.RIT.1 is trending below the state norms. Time to rejigger the comprehensive curriculum and evaluate the delivery systems. It’s time to bring in the new teachers; it’s time to exterminate the dinosaurs.

The dinosaurs, for all their faults, know something. Students can’t be evaluated until they are twenty-five. We would like to pretend that we can see the arc to their lives early on: that we can divine their lives from the data that we can collect. However, their lives are far more complicated than the tests we give them. One boy goes to a community college, waddles around between classes, until a physics class engages him and he is off. One girl scores high grades in the toughest classes from the best teachers, graduates a good college soaked in the pride of her parents, then spends the next two years locked in her own bedroom.

By the time, someone reaches 25, they have spent some time in their own darkness. At least one dream has gotten shoved into the mud. At the same time, another dream has walked along side and has offered a hand. At age 25, they have broken a few hearts, cashed a few paychecks, missed a few opportunities, and snatched at least one victory from the snowfall of defeat. Does he have a job? Is he living on his own? Are there people in his life who are happy to see him? Can he take a punch? Can he lend a hand? Can he go into the corner and come out with the puck?

The bubble tests can’t foresee this. To their credit, they can point out the holes, dings, and flakes in their education. For all our diligence, our children play in fields littered with land mines. They could be lazy teachers, toxic friends, indifferent parents, or something metallic in the water or culture. Bubble tests can show the damage early on. If Johnny can’t read, perhaps we can get him some help before he turns 25 and the future runs away from his cashier.

In our modern world, this help gets measured by rubrics, parceled out in rehabilitative curriculum, then re-evaluated in a series of bubble tests. Rinse and repeat until he fits the mean. We measure our children as if they were cellphones. We wear our special static free clothing, isolate them in the lab, place the chips in carefully, test them, and send them out sealed and secure. Maybe the Education Business at Foxconn will work better than the old methods from the Pleistocene. We will find out when they turn 25. Or 40.

I have taught long enough so that my first students have advanced well into middle age. They have mortgages, ex-husbands, and juice boxes in the back of the fridge. Some have grown rich, some have grown happy, some have grown bellies. I don’t know if they continued on the arc that their SAT’s described for them. They grew up in the time of the dinosaurs.

Until recently, teaching hadn’t changed much since cave painting and mammoth hunting. Give me a piece of chalk and a spot on the cave wall and I can do what I have always done. I am a dinosaur.

We were divas then. We fought in faculty meetings and shouted at school committee members. We wrote angry letters to the principal, superintendent and newspaper. We weren’t good team members. We didn’t collaborate well. We ran with scissors. And, when the classroom door closed, we taught. We arrived early, stayed late, then carried the papers home.

I taught with a man who threw out his curriculum, then taught his students to read Stephen King, Clive Cussler, and Maya Angelou. He stayed after school for hours helping kids read and write. Years from then, they still read. I taught under a department head who bought dozens of copies of “How to be Your Own Best Friend” then proceeded to spend the month of April teaching it to her seniors. I worked under a Vice-Principal who brought the most troubled and most hurtful kids into his house for months at a time. He would give them detention, then take them home.

These teachers could not reach for the top. They deviated from our management approved path. No doubt, The Stand and How to be Your Own Best Friend would be struck from the Kommon Kore Kurriculum and replaced with something more committee friendly. And, perhaps, the test scores would improve and the data would look better.

So much of what is learned is never taught, evaluated, or numbered in the common core. The best teachers, the ones with sharp teeth, big scales, and cold blood, taught life skills. They loved reading. They believed in stability and hard work. Their lives got smeared across their chalkboards. The dinosaurs use calendars for rubrics.

Hundreds of those old students crashed through twenty-five and have landed in their forties. They have done well and are muddling through. No data can support this, but the Vice-Principal's homework projects own plumbing and construction companies. The readers of The Stand and Vixen 03 have become lawyers, doctors, and rocket scientists. Finally, many of those seniors did become their own best friend and continue to be fathers, mothers, nurses, and cops.

We need to use the bubble tests. Schools have never been perfect and those tests can show the holes and dents of the American education. However, they only work as a rear view mirror; they show us where the student has been. We need to look forward with Pleistocene eyes and try to aim for the decades ahead when nobody uses number two pencils and the bells don’t ring.

Bob Barsanti's first novel, Milestone Road, appeared in summer, 2012.  Sand in My Shoes, his book of essays, was published in 2008.