Wednesday, November 10, 2010

We Are Not Cookies

Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored!" Have you ever wondered what makes Americans special? I know, I know, I'm starting to spout platitudes like a school teacher. Please forgive me. Every now and then I have to drink some water from the fountain here at the Vo-Tech, and they put platitudes in the tank.

What makes Americans special? Let's not dwell on the negative here -- our conquer, conquer, conquer mentality. That's not particularly unique to America, although we are good at it.

My name is Anne Johnson, and I am going to write this essay about what makes Americans special. Americans are special for three reasons. First, they come from many countries. Second, they are creative. Third, they come from many countries. This is why I think Americans are special.

Forgive me again. I'm making fun of my students. But look at that paragraph above. I'm supposed to teach writing -- essays based on platitudes or nebulous topics like the state school budget. Why do I do this? So my students can pass standardized tests, like students in China, and Japan, and Korea, and Switzerland.

Trouble is, we are not a "one test fits all" nation. Look at how we rail against the kind of life the Religious Right would have us live! It's not only an abomination for Pagans, it would be unacceptable to the vast majority of Americans.

Have you ever thought about why students don't do well on these standard tests here in America?

Start with this.

I have a student who might not pass the standardized test. Recently he turned in a short writing sample. It started, "I remember going fishing with my grandpa. That is when I lived in Vietnam."

Reader, this high school freshman has traveled farther in the first 14 years of his life than I have in all my Phi Beta Kappa 51 years. He's bilingual. Not only is he bilingual, but he knows a valuable language for American business and industry. He's kind of a jovial kid, but underneath that, he wants to work hard and succeed. Talk to him one-on-one, and a very serious side emerges. The joviality masks his insecurity about his difficulties with English.

When did we become a nation of cookies, cut by some machine, rolling along the conveyor belt in perfect rows?

That kind of homogeneity sounds repulsive to all but a handful of Americans. You're always going to have some people who want everyone to look, think, and act like they do. But most of us find the variety of experiences in this country just simply fascinating. I know I do. Who called it "Rugged Individualism?" I like that term, even if I'm not all that rugged myself.

Given America's lack of homogeneity, why are we expected to do well on standardized tests?

There's some kid out in Montana whose family has been here since 1800. In this kid's spare time he raises Angus beeves for 4-H contests. He's blonde and Cacucasian and Christian and Republican. Tiny high school 45 miles away from home.

Then there's my student. Right off the plane from Vietnam, living in Camden. Likes to tinker with electronics. Good in math. Asian (duh). Don't know if he's Christian or Republican ... but does it matter?

Both of these boys have to pass the same test, and it's the same test the Chinese kids take. Oh yes, and their English teachers have been given a set of national standards that suggests they read Little Women in their freshman year.

I say, give the kid in Montana a test on cattle, and give the Vietnamese kid a test on electronics. One will breed a bull with less fat in its meat, and the other will design the next generation of Iwhatever.

Let's keep America special. Let's get back to that rugged individual mentality. In our religion, in our studies, and in our habits. Vive la difference.


foxchild said...

I found myself nodding my head in agreement through this whole post. As a parent of 3 very different children, it has been such a huge level of frustration for me that schools refuse to allow for any level of difference between students. It is also hugely frustrating to see the level of importance placed on the success of the standardized testing results, so much so it overshadows true learning. I really wish that more people in the education sector saw things the way you do. Our kids would be so much better off if they did.

THE Michael said...

Yea, but Anne, there are also schools that are more worried as to whether or not the student can properly recite the ten commandments or that they know that evolution is the work of satan. We have to establish SOME sort of standards or we'll end up with Joe the Plumber flying our 747's. Joe is already in congress.

Anne Johnson said...

Here are the standards:

All Americans should be able to read well enough to pass a driver's test.

They should be able to prove they can balance a checkbook and calculate interest on credit card debt.

After that, they specialize.

Joe would never pass the 747 test unless he could pass aeronautics and flight tests. He's not in the cockpit of a 747 now. He's in Congress -- a proven den of morons.

Intense Guy said...

I with your standards Anne - as long as they make the drivers test a bit harder - we need to get the worse 10% of the drivers off the road.

And I don't mean to imply we need to fail 10% of the students in high school - if they learn some basics (the good old 3 R's) and how to "survive" the real world - they are good to go.

Lori F - MN said...

As a parent of 2 special needs kids I guarantee that neither of them fits the standard. The only way to truely individualize education is to home school.
If only the world would recognize individualized education.

sott'Eos said...

Sorry, but I have to disagree with much of this. Sure, the kid from Vietnam for whom English is a second language is going to have a different background and achievement. But what about the 95% of school kids who were born here, speaking English as their mother tongue?

Why do they lag so far behind the average kids in so many other industrialized nations? Call me anti-American, but I think that the kid in Montana is approximately as smart, and just as able to learn history, geography, science, etc. as the average kid in Italy. So why do they perform so much better than our kids?

Does that kid in Montana need history, geography, and science, or does he just need to know how to raise cattle? That depends; is this kid ever going to cast his vote to choose the people who decide whether we go to war? Is he going to vote for people who get to fund, or de-fund, scientific research? Will his representatives reflect his ignorance of history when deciding policy?

If it is unacceptable to require academic proficiency as a prerequisite to voting (and I think it is), then we cannot afford to let any sizable chunk of our population go uneducated. And yes, I count our current median level of education as "uneducated".

kimc said...

Isn't the standardized stuff an artifact of No Child Left Behind, Bush's idea? It's an authoritarian mind set that everyone should think alike. As I understand it, few teachers agree that those standardized tests help anyone but the testmakers (who are getting rich from printing and selling them.) Yes, we need some educational standards, and yes, Americans need to be better educated, but this kind of testing is not the answer. We should be teaching our kids how to think and to research so that their education continues throughout their lives. I read somewhere that scientific studies have shown that the best way to evaluate students is the opinion of the teacher that works with them day after day. OK, that's not measurable, standardizable, or incorruptible, but it's accurate....
The problem comes back to underfunding and overpopulation....

Batty Lane said...

I really really agree with this post. I hate that our education system now focuses on test results instead of actual knowledge. I do very well with test, but sound like a bumbling idiot if I have to explain things out loud. My husband can't test for crap but is very intelligent. It's unfair only to judge someone's intelligence with some generic marker.