Apr 162011

Image by anokarina via Flickr

In the corner is a guitar. On top of the filing cabinets, sharing space among accumulated papers and sedimentary layers of the lives of second-graders, sits a bust of Robert Frost, which was sporting horn rimmed glasses the last time I saw it.

This is the classroom of a second-grade teacher at one of Rochester’s public schools. Down the hall a few doors is a reading teacher who purchased beautifully rendered copies of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” for her students. Once I listened as she worked, coaxing them to slow down as they read aloud so they could hear the rhythm of the poem. It was beautiful.

These people were born to teach. You see it in their eyes and in their classrooms. They are approachable, patient, and there is energy in their delivery. They walk around their classrooms. They are experts at using the pause with a purpose; the one that, without saying a word, lets a student know they’re out of line. They are firm when it is needed. They are a walking seminar on classroom management.

I had the opportunity for three years to work with them and have seen what constant testing and poring over classroom test results can do to the spirit of an excellent teacher.

I’ve listened to teachers talk about how excessive focus on testing has cut time out of the day for things like social studies, history, science and recess. The easiest things to jettison are things not being measured with a standardized test. Yes, we need testing to tweak curriculum and measure students’ retention. And basic reading skills and math skills are a must. But listening to music, reading poetry, and exploring the wonders of math outside skill drills ignites young minds.

Good teachers get this. They know the precious mind development time being wasted by constant drilling for tests. The goals established by No Child Left Behind can be blamed for all this test focus. But, NCLB had at its outset a noble goal; to lift the quality of all American children’s lives by starting them out with an education to equip them for college or trade school. Too many schools nationally are “drop out factories.” Too many bad teachers are protected by tenure and unions. Too many administrators just move ineffective teachers from school to school rather than move them out of teaching altogether. And too many school districts have acquired a decades long habit of just asking for more funding when told they are not producing quality education.

The global economy has increased the wealth for countries who adapted and figured out how to get a bigger slice of pie for themselves. Meanwhile, the American education system has had the same structure and approach for decades. Our education results compared with the rest of the world just show we haven’t improved as the world raced to catch and outpace us.

A study by the University of Kansas recorded the number of words parents from 42 families in various socio-economic groups spoke to their 4-year-old children. Children from professional families heard on average 45 million words before kindergarten. Children from poor families heard on average 13 million words. This is the beginning of the achievement gap and the cold calculus of poverty.

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