Guest Column: Kids are not hardware

Excitement reigned a while ago in many schools as students prepared to take the ISAT (Illinois State Achievement Test).

The local daily commented that from day one in September, principals say, instruction centers on passing the ISAT. One school reported holding an ISAT pep rally.

What a shame. There is nothing wrong with kids getting excited about learning. But I question the wisdom of all this emphasis on learning test-taking skills. Is there a better way for the kids in Rockford than becoming proficient at test preparation?

In the 1970s, one could go to the sixth floor of National Lock Company and would find dozens of punch presses punching out pieces of hardware. The sound was deafening. The presses put out hundreds of pieces each hour. Beside each press was a box for rejects. The good pieces would go to buffing to smooth off any rough edges. Next, they would be coated and then go to final inspection. The inspectors were the testers. They would gauge the part and compare it to the specifications of the blueprint before being shipped to hardware stores around the country.

The genius of this operation is whether you lived in Cleveland or Phoenix, you could walk into your local hardware store and purchase the exact same piece of hardware. Is this what we want for our children?

In the ’80s, machine tool and manufacturing jobs began to disappear at an alarming rate. Unemployment reached 25 percent—at one point the highest in the nation. About this time, we began to see an increase in the minority population. With this increase came more children from single-parent homes, and more children for whom English was not their first language.

One could safely say with this influx, our schools began to show signs of deterioration. Studies indicate that poor children are exposed to about 1/50 the amount of one-on-one reading as middle-class children, and are half as likely to be taken to museums, and one-third as likely to visit the library. Data also demonstrate that “Children in one-parent families, compared to those in two-parent ones, are twice as likely to drop out of school.”

These events disturbed many folks. Many left the community. Especially disturbed were some good Christians who established their own schools, thereby assuring their kids would associate with kids just like themselves.

As time went on, the school board found itself facing a financial crisis. Determined to deal with the crisis, the board hired a very competent and conscientious superintendent named John Swanson, and directed him to get the finances in order. Dr. Swanson did a superb job. However, his plan led to the closing of West High School. This infuriated some people, and they responded with the People Who Care lawsuit. The district was accused of raising discrimination to an art form. Meeting the court order resulted in an even greater financial crisis. Programs were cut, people terminated.

Today, more than half of our kids are in the subsidized lunch program. Consequently, we are faced with the problem of providing an education that will compensate for the background disadvantages of many of our students without sacrificing the quality of education of the other students. To borrow a phrase, you go to school with the kids you have, whether or not you possess the required resources. This is our present condition, and no amount of testing will change it.

An examination of No Child Left Behind reveals that it starts with a blueprint, and like those pieces of hardware, it attempts to mold each child to those specifications. These specifications were designed not by educators, but by the political-industrial complex. Just like at National Lock, the rejects are sent to the scrap pile, namely, incarceration. One has to wonder about a community whose jail is more up to date than any school building.

Teaching becomes distorted when passing tests becomes the paramount goal. The more schools commit themselves to teaching to the test, the more meaningful opportunities for learning are sacrificed.

I read of a case where an elementary student was an avid reader, and even did some writing. However, he did not do as well as expected on standardized tests. His teacher suggested that he should spend less time reading and more time learning how to be proficient at taking tests.

A teacher in South Bronx reported she had to spend virtually a quarter of the year doing nothing except drilling kids for exams.

This approach might appeal to a mediocre teacher adverse to developing meaningful lesson plans, but certainly is not to a professional. I suspect spending so much effort on drill must really turn the students off.

Another example took place in Birmingham, Ala. Five hundred twenty-two high school students were expelled right before the SAT 9 test was to be administered. The students possessed very low skills. The district was in danger of state takeover if they didn’t raise their scores. The easiest way to raise the scores is to make sure the bottom students don’t take the test.

Researchers have found, “a statistically significant correlation between high scores on a range of standardized tests and a shallow approach to learning.” These tests are used more to classify and compare schools and children than they are to bolster learning. The results won’t be available until the end of May, about the time school is out for the summer. A better approach is offered by educator-author Theodore Sizer, who suggests educators should design each youngster’s educational program around his or her particular needs and potential.

What do we want for our children? To begin with, these are not seals we are training; they are children to be nurtured. Neither are they hardware. A more realistic and humane approach would be to begin with the uniqueness of each child and design an educational experience around that uniqueness. Of course, this puts a tremendous burden on our school personnel. It is up to them to demonstrate they can do a better job.

Our schools need to be less concerned with doing well on tests of questionable value, and more concerned with the value of individual children. Do we want to raise kids who can master tests, or who can master life? The real final exam is not in math or English, but in the most important subject of all, and that is life.

James Baldwin is a former graduate of Rockford College. He is now retired and has served as a volunteer tutor in five District 205 schools.

From the April 19-25, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!