Leaving the children behind
Dr. Olaf Jorgenson
Posted June 5, 2009
Where there are children, there is hope.
If you believe this, you should be alarmed at the failure of proposition measures that would have sustained funding to support class size reduction and other initiatives critical to the quality of our public schools. The discouraging results are compounded by an anemic turnout at polling stations — only 29 percent of eligible voters in Santa Clara County went to the polls on May 19.
A clear message was sent: when times are tough, even in one of the most progressive, dynamic, pro-education communities in the nation, we are prepared to leave the children behind.
Before this week’s anemic vote, California’s schools confronted only one threat to their future. The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law reduces much of teaching to test preparation in the pursuit of “accountability and results” as measured by test scores. Now our teachers are expected to demonstrate accountability and results without the necessary resources.
In 2003 I left a stable, fulfilling position in a large metropolitan public school system in Arizona. My decision was not driven by the usual concerns: I respected my supervisor, supported the district’s mission and believed in the services we provided our diverse student population. Instead, I was compelled because I could not help lead a school system where I would not choose to enroll my own daughter.
At the time, my district was reeling from the combination of deep budget cuts and the onset of the No Child Left Behind’s vice-like influence on our instructional program, both of which served to squeeze out time, funding and energy for “non-tested” subjects.
My daughter is motivated by discoveries in art and music, in hands-on science experiments and onstage in the auditorium. In the era of NCLB, children like mine (and perhaps yours) find their power as learners, nourished by the joy of curiosity and discovery, stripped away in lieu of drilling facts.
Taken together, the long-term impact of too much testing and too little funding for California’s public schools promise a similar crisis for our state that too few concerned parents comprehend.
Teachers and administrators in California’s public schools already grapple with the unrealistic demands of NCLB, now in its seventh full year of implementation. While none of the educators I know argue with the law’s intention — especially the need to close the achievement gap between wealthy and poor children, or between students from different ethnic or racial backgrounds that correlate to affluence and poverty — few believe that the law has actually improved learning in the vast majority of schools.
We all anticipate that the budget cuts looming in California will increase class sizes and require more teacher layoffs. With funding drastically reduced for public education, we stand to move from “standardized tests” to standardized schools, stripped of the creative and exploratory electives that foster problem-solving skills, nourish entrepreneurial habits and cultivate unconventional thinking — traits at the heart of American ingenuity, innovation and continuing success in the world economy.
We will witness the new budget cuts combined with the NCLB test-prep mandate eliminating many opportunities for children to experience joy in learning, whether that amounts to making a gloriously expressive mess in art class, or hunting for bugs under rocks during recess or exploring reggae music with the hip, silly music teacher after lunch (who is likely to be holding a pink slip soon, if not already).
In the long term, it will probably take another decade to see evidence in our first batch of high school graduates whose entire K-12 school experience was shaped by the ironically named NCLB and fiscal cutbacks. At that point, I predict that the costs to our society will be apparent and profound.
Fundamentally, when we program children to pursue “one right answer” on multiple-guess tests, it is contrary to the fundamental aims of schooling in a democratic society. Children should be encouraged and expected to seek multiple solutions to problems, to develop resilience by experiencing ambiguity and the “grey areas” of trial and error and to value creativity in the process as much as accomplishment in the solutions.
What will our legacy be in this state, once we collectively come to our senses and emerge from our testing mania and the gross under funding of our public schools? Without an overwhelming reversal of the federally mandated NCLB law and a significant, immediate infusion of state funding to support non-tested subjects, our schools will continue to strive for “adequate yearly progress” and simultaneously fail thousands of children who yearn to explore, create and wonder. It saddens me to consider all the children we’re leaving behind — and the hope fading with them.
Ole Jorgenson is Head of School at Almaden Country School in San Jose.
Published in Almaden Times Weekly June 5, 2009