As a teacher and a parent there are core philosophical questions that I have to deal with on a daily basis. Paramount among these questions is the one of appropriateness and necessity in the imparting of lessons, morals, or skills. Constantly, just as parents and teachers have done since the beginning of time, we have to adjust our perspective in dealing with our children and ask “How are they going to use this in their lives?” or “How is this valuable to them?” in effect “How am I better arming this child to navigate the world?” In my lifetime these questions have become watered down, or have been forgotten entirely as we have focused—and not without good reason—on children’s self-esteem and their feelings, rather than preparing them for the harsh lessons of the world with good coping skills.
This is not just an emotional failure on our part, but also an academic one as many of the math programs children are exposed to are not realistic or practical in the way that they attempt to broach “multiple entry points” or offer “differentiation” (jargon for alternate strategies to understand and solve problems) that would never work in real world situations, and hardly work in the classroom. In large school systems like New York City’s not only are these systems seemingly ineffective, but they are not enacted with any sort of consistency.
Math and reading programs change like the tides, so students aren’t even taught the same processes and strategies throughout their elementary school careers—and to a high degree this isn’t the fault of any individual school or school district because we are in a society that believes airplanes can be built while in the air. Measures and standards that are being passed down from the higher ups change so often that the programs have to change too—meaning programs have to be bought, examined, and coached several times in the course of a student’s six-year run through elementary school. That also means that the standardized assessments have to change often to reflect the changes in standards and edict, and also to reflect the nature of the programs (some may argue that the programs reflect the nature of the test but I don’t see the difference—both are changed often so that curriculum materials companies can make money hand over fist anyway).
The newest ploy in changing the tests comes from the completely useless activities of the Department of Education in New York where they have decided to ban a list of 50 words and concepts from these tests based entirely on the emotional response that students might have based on the word. For example, “dinosaur” may offend creationists, while Jehovah’s Witnesses may be offended by “birthday”. Diseases are barred because, hey, might have died one time. Likewise “divorce”, “Halloween”, “poverty”, and setting computers in the home are all taboo according to the city. Schools Chancellor Walcott seems to think that this is a proper and politically correct thing to do, and that it is a responsible expectation for test writers. It is not.
This kind of thinking is symptomatic of “test taking” mentality, and is pretty clear evidence that test scores, rather than knowledge and education are the driving goals of the Department of Education. Instead what we are doing is creating an academic environment that is going to be completely removed the world that students are going to be inevitably and violently thrust into once they leave the school grounds. Perhaps we should remove all instances of war from history class because war is unpleasant? It might be a good idea, while we’re at it, to ban dissections of even worms from science class because it is yucky. Even better, shall we give everyone a trophy at the end of sports competitions—oh wait, we’ve been doing that for over a decade. So now, students will not be accustomed to losing and the many valuable lessons of persistence and perseverance that this provides…but they are also to be protected from unpleasant concepts, many of which are germane and relevant to their everyday lives or interests?
If the idea is that students are going to be emotionally impacted by the lexicon that tests employ, maybe they should be exposed to more of it in order to better prepare them for the harsh world full of “celebrities”, “expensive gifts”, or “junk food”? Perhaps students might even feel comfort in the idea that if a character in a reading test is dealing with “loss of employment” like their father is because that is normalizing, rather than marginalizing. Is it possible that including “religious holidays” like Ramadan, or Yom Kippur might be relieving for that only Muslim or Jewish kid taking the test? The politically correct business goes straight out the window because instead of being inclusive or reflective of the society and the multi-cultural world students reside in, it is instead completely exclusive from any shadow of a world these kids might be walking around in.
It makes you wonder what exactly the world looks like to Dennis Walcott, and what he expects students are learning. It seems that he feels that kids shouldn’t be asked any question involving politics, rap or rock-and-roll music, terrorism, slavery, violence, war or bloodshed, weapons, witchcraft of the occult, poverty, religion, sex, crime, bodily functions, disasters, or evolution. What world are we preparing these children for if these concepts are untestable? It isn’t being sensitive, it is downright irresponsible. Each concept has a place and time in a well-developed education that prepares students with skills and knowledge to navigate our society.
If we are so concerned that these words might derail the norms of a standardized test, we might consider that these tests aren’t very good indicators, that the stakes are too high, and that our students are far too stressed out by them as the very mention of the terrible blight of “Christmas” may send them off the deep end. It is no wonder that “children dealing with serious issues” is a banned concept as well—because it seems as if we aren’t preparing students to deal with serious issues at all. Banning these 50 words is essentially a vote to ban the whole world students live in from the test.While the Chancellor is banning words from questioning he might think to ban some from questions aimed at himself, while he is in a particularly Orwellian mood: hack, misdirection, dodge, red herring, and scam. Come to think of it, while he’s coming up with concepts to ban from the education system he should try tackling: overcrowding, privatization, inequity, underfunding, under resourced, hiring freeze, and classroom trailers. It might go a little further in preparing students for the world with a quality education.