The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Valerie Strauss has written a compelling article on the state of primary education in the United States. She tells the story of an experienced kindergarten teacher in Cambridge (MA) Public Schools, Susan Sluyter, who resigned her position in frustration over government mandates that have fundamentally changed education for the worse. In her letter of resignation, Sluyter writes:
I have watched as my job requirements swung away from a focus on the children, their individual learning styles, emotional needs, and their individual families, interests and strengths to a focus on testing, assessing, and scoring young children, thereby ramping up the academic demands and pressures on them.

Each year, I have been required to spend more time attending classes and workshops to learn about new academic demands that smack of 1st and 2nd grade, instead of kindergarten and PreK. I have needed to schedule and attend more and more meetings about increasingly extreme behaviors and emotional needs of children in my classroom; I recognize many of these behaviors as children shouting out to the adults in their world, “I can’t do this! Look at me! Know me! Help me! See me!” I have changed my practice over the years to allow the necessary time and focus for all the demands coming down from above. Each year there are more. Each year I have had less and less time to teach the children I love in the way I know best—and in the way child development experts recommend. I reached the place last year where I began to feel I was part of a broken system that was causing damage to those very children I was there to serve.
This experienced teacher goes on the describe intrusive, jargon-filled, measurement-based programs, obviously designed by high-priced "educational consultants" hired by bureaucrats at the federal and state level. These ill-conceived programs have never themselves been testing broadly to determine their efficacy, but are simply rolled out as mandates with government dollars attached to sweeten the pot. With funding in the balance and political pressure from sanctimonious politicians, local school administrators are forced to implement them.

The mandates upset the delicate balance that is required for early childhood learning. They sacrifice a warm classroom environment on the alter of test preparation. They force unproven methods on experienced teachers who know the dictates don't work, but are forced to apply them anyway. Worse, they take the fun out of learning for many children, increase the level of frustration for students and teachers alike, and fail to achieve what they were intended to achieve. But that shouldn't surprise anyone—that's what happens when decisions are made hundreds or thousands of miles away from the point of application. That's what big government does, and that's why it fails.

Government intrusion into primary education has been going on for many years, but began in earnest with the well-intentioned, but fundamentally flawed "No Child Left Behind" legislation promoted by George W. Bush. Under the Obama administration, the intrusive nature of the mandates associated with No Child Left Behind have been modified and expanded in a damaging attempt to normalize education across locales, different social and economic groups, and different cultural norms.

Sluyter writes:
All the above-mentioned initiatives and mandates have had the obvious effect of removing teachers from their classrooms for significant amounts of time and fracturing their concentration and ability to teach. There were many days last year when I felt I had hardly spent any time in the classroom. It was my assistant teacher with whom the children were more familiar. She was more in the role of classroom teacher. I was more in the role of data collector.

The negative impact of all of this on a classroom of young children (or children of any age) is substantial, and obvious to many classroom teachers. Teachers everywhere are seeing an increase in behavior problems that make classrooms and schools feel less safe, and learning less able to take place. Children are screaming out for help. They are under too much pressure and it is just no longer possible to meet the social and emotional needs of our youngest children. They are suffering because of this ...

The overall effect of these federal and state sponsored programs is the corrosion of teacher moral, the demeaning of teacher authority, a move away from collaborating with teachers, and the creation of an overwhelming and developmentally inappropriate burden imposed on our children.
Sluyter uses the word "corrosion," and I think that's appropriate. Big government programs do have a corrosive effect—on our liberties, on our independence, and yes, on the education of our children. By mandating compliance, they never consider the broad variability that is the United States. And it's the variability that matters—a lot.

Despite all the hype and misinformation that the media presents, the problem isn't the proven "old school" methods we've used for generations to educate our children. The problem is big government intrusion into local schools. The disastrous consequences are already being felt. Susan Sluyter  should be commended for telling us all.