Growing Up

At an end-of-year school party in someone's leafy backyard, I sauntered over to our 5-year-old son's kindergarten teacher to thank her for all her good and conscientious work over the past year. She smiled and said nice things about our boy and then softly shook her head. "I worry about him next year, Mr. Siegel," she said. "I'm afraid he's going to be behind the other kids." She was implying that he should be "left back"-i.e repeat kindergarten instead of advancing to first grade-which is something that the school cannot do without our permission. I was exasperated beyond belief.

Lee Siegel - O Estado de S. Paulo,

15 de julho de 2012 | 03h00

Just as the partners in a marriage that is starting to fail displace their anxiety about the marriage onto their children, people in America-a world power teetering on the edge of decline-are displacing their anxiety over society onto… the children. Instead of directing their rage against the greedy bankers, realtors and others who nearly destroyed the country four years ago, the pundits and the politicians have been waging a war against public school teachers. And the public school teachers and administrators, with their backs against the wall, have been exerting tremendous pressure on their students.

After all, if the country is becoming more avaricious, more dishonest, more self-centered, and more distracted, the fault cannot possibly lie with the kings and queens of politics and culture. Oh no. (A baseball player for the Boston Red Sox recently received a one-year contract for 14 million dollars and complained that he was being treated with contempt because he did not get a 3-year contract. Everyone shrugged.) Nor can the blame lie with the parents, who have a hard enough time trying not to succumb to the general atmosphere of instant gratification and become like children themselves. Of course not. No, the teachers must be the culprits.

The indictment of public education is a strange phenomenon, considering that it is usually made by opinion-writers and policymakers who send their own children to private school. In many ways, the war against public schools is yet another symptom of the marginalization of the middle class, since the solution to the "crisis" in public schools is to establish charter schools that take money away from public schools. Charter schools are independent institutions (often for-profit businesses) that accept public funds but which are not accountable to public authorities. In exchange for this independence, charter schools promise higher test scores.

As a result of the expansion of charter schools, middle-class parents who are not lucky enough to get their children into a charter school must not only pay higher property taxes to make up for the loss of funds. They also must endure public schools with demoralized teachers, deteriorating facilities, and a smaller pool of bright students.

The war on public school teachers began in 2010 with the release of "Waiting for Superman," a documentary film that excoriates public education and holds up charter schools as a salvation. The hero of that film was Michelle Rhee, who at the time was chancellor of public schools in Washington D.C. Rhee herself had waged war on the public school system, instituting mass firings of teachers and principals, relying almost exclusively on standardized tests to measure students' progress, and tying teachers' salaries to students' test scores. A short time later, she was accused of tampering with test scores and she resigned. Yet the craze for charter schools and their sacralization of standardized testing continues, even as respected studies show that students do no better in charter schools, and sometimes worse.

"Teaching to the test" has become the specter haunting American education. Students are taught reading, writing and math the way engineers are taught hydraulics. There is no room any more for kids whose creativity, intution, empathy is stronger than mere formal intelligence. If teaching to the test had been the universal method of education from the beginning of Western civilization, poets and novelists from Catullus to Dante to Shakespeare to Kafka would never have made it out of elementary school. The entire Romantic era would have been considered the product of retarded development.

The effect of the reign of standardized testing on parents has been incalculable. Mothers and fathers already worried about autism, pesticides, unhealthy food, toxic packaging, toxic toys, the role of women in society-mothers or professionals?-and the perils and stupidities of the internet now have something to crystallize their anxiety: their children's education. Some parents are so hysterical that they"red-shirt" their children. That is the practice of waiting an extra year to start your child in kindergarten in hopes that the extra time will give him or her a competitive advantage. Thus in a few years, the average age of the American kindergartener will be 32. People will reach adulthood somewhere in their 50s. Come to think of it, these days, that sounds about right.

I don't blame our son's kindergarten teacher for wanting to leave him back, even though his test scores are good, but not stellar, and his creative talents are obvious. She is a fine and decent teacher who is under tremendous pressure to raise the school's test scores, so much so that she is being forced to teach kindergartners at levels several years beyond them. The fundamental problem with American public education is not the teachers. The problem is that the education system is being run by people who have excelled at standardized tests all their lives, but who have no real intelligence-or heart. In America now, the adults in charge need to grow up, and the children in their care need to stop being forced to grow up too fast.

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Lee Siegel

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