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Why I am Mad at Arne Duncan Today

Published in ChicagoNow, November 22, 2013 (Photo: Rachel Monroe/Monroe's Dragonfly)

Today, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, I am sad enough and angry enough to tell Arne Duncan why I am so mad. Those of us old enough to remember are sharing where we were that fateful day. Physically, I can see it so clearly. I was a freshman at the University of Michigan in a Spanish class and my professor left the room abruptly. He came back crying, announced the President was dead, and told us to "get out of here." As I made my way back to my dorm, I joined other students crying hysterically and feeling utterly shocked and lost.

But where was I in the development of my values and thinking? Before that day, I was idealistic. We had elected a young, vibrant President and surely the world was changing for the better. By the time I graduated, the war in Viet Nam shattered my idealism. A year later, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were also assassinated, college kids were beaten in the streets of Chicago, and my political innocence was replaced by disillusionment. So read my post through that lens - I am so tired of politicians and their promises and am especially sad today.

Education Secretary and Chicago’s own Arne Duncan recently told an audience of state superintendents that he didn’t fully anticipate some of the criticism the Common Core standards would receive:

“It’s fascinating to me that some of the push back is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.”

No, Mr. Duncan. This white suburban mom and grandma (and retired educator) is not worried that my kids or grandkids are not brilliant. I don’t care if you rate the public school they attended a “failure” due to low scores on meaningless standardized tests because I know it’s a fine school. Even though you have apologized for your “clumsy phrasing,” you totally miss my reason for worrying about standards-driven education with test scores determining success.

Education is not a business. Children need to learn more than math and reading. I know standards and goals are important factors in shaping curriculum. But more importantly, it is how they are taught that matters. How will teachers implement the Common Core in a developmentally appropriate way? I doubt they will. The fastest way to the goal line is teaching to the test using a “drill and skill” approach that squashes creativity and original thinking.

In 2000, I was part of the Evanston Early Childhood Community Collaboration. One of our charges was to develop early learning standards tailored to our community and to align them with the State of Illinois standards.

It was a frustrating and tedious process as an ever-changing group of people attended countless meetings in which the state standards were debated. How high should a preschooler be able to count? How many letters should she recognize? How many direction steps should he be able to follow? Should she be able to recognize lower case letters? I remember the disbelief of the preschool contingency when a kindergarten teacher didn’t understand the difference between rote counting and one-to-one correspondence.

In the end, a group of us were so worried about how these standards would be implemented that we drafted a Play Statement from Evanston Early Childhood Directors on the importance of play to children’s learning and development. Sadly, we had become so defensive that we called it “purposeful play.” In retrospect, I’m sure we would agree that all play is purposeful when a child is three or four! Here is what concerned us:

“… without a document supporting the importance of implementing these standards in a developmentally appropriate manner and without teacher training, the standards might be misinterpreted as desired outcomes to be achieved through any means.

Arne Duncan and assorted politicians advocate “raising the bar” by writing tougher standards, using a business model with the goal of making our kids “globally competitive,” and using standardized test scores to rate schools and teachers. They had better watch their backs. I am the demographic they are after in elections: a former carpooling white suburban mom who took her kids to tennis practice and figure skating lessons instead of soccer (it wasn’t in vogue back then). I’m also a “senior” who always votes. And I am angry.

My kids went to public schools. Not every teacher was great, but the best ones were free to be creative and inspiring. Somehow, without being forced to digest a “common core” of information by “accountable” teachers, my children received pretty good educations and attended good colleges. Did I think my children were brilliant? No, and I taught them that, while they were smart enough, there were lots of smart people in the world. What mattered was how they used their education to better society. (Note: no mention of making piles of money or winning global competitions.)

Now I watch my grandchildren being tested to death and taught mostly math and reading, the main subjects tested. There is so much less spontaneity and divergent thinking allowed than when their parents, my children, attended elementary school. While there is much talk about “differentiation,” there seems to be a lot of pressure to turn out robot-students with a narrow body of knowledge.

All citizens have the right to question educational policy regardless of our ethnicity, color, or economic status, and regardless of whether we live in a suburb, city, or rural area. I agree with Maya Angelou and the other 120 top children’s authors and illustrators who wrote to President Obama urging him to curb standardized testing. Like them, I worry that there is too much standardized testing, and that teaching to these tests undermines children’s love of reading and literature.

The advantages my children had, the advantages all children deserve, were not things that could ever have been measured by tests. They had enough to eat and lived in a relatively safe neighborhood. They were not exposed to acts of violence as young children. They went to preschool and had someone to take them to the library so there were always books in their home. They had access to medical and dental care. They were not trapped in poverty as almost 22% of children are today.

How much easier and cheaper is it to let the private sector run schools and create a testing industry than to address the real core issues of poverty and violence?


by Laurie Levy
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