Commentary

Personal Teaching Breaks through Nationally

I’ve reported before on the growing rebellion against collective standardized testing among parents, students and even teachers’ unions. But I’d never expected to see this May 3 headline from The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog:

“Why the movement to opt out of Common Core tests is a big deal.”

In the piece, education reporter Valerie Strauss cited an online post from Rockville Centre, New York, high school principal Carol Burris, who recently retired to become a full-time advocate for public education. She has been vocal about her opposition to the Common Core standards.

“New York opt-out,” Burris wrote, “is reverberating around the nation.

The pushback against the Common Core exams caught fans of high-stakes testing off guard, with estimates of New York test refusals now exceeding 200,000.”

That news encourages me.

In a previous Answer Sheet post, Strauss cited a project funded by the nonprofit Survival Education Fund Inc., a group that aims “to rally educators to take action on policies that affect the education of young children” (“6 Reasons to reject Common Core K-3 standards — and 6 rules to guide policy,” Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post, May 2).

One of the objectives of this project, called Defending the Early Years, strives “to help teachers and parents understand why the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are inappropriate for kindergarten through third grade.” (This also applies to many other collective standardized tests in our public schools.)

Defending the Early Years argues that “the CCSS for young children were developed by mapping backwards from what is required at high school graduation to the early years. This has led to standards that list discrete skills, facts and knowledge that do not match how young children develop, think or learn (and) require young children to learn facts and skills for which they are not ready.”

The standards, in short, “devalue the whole child and the importance of social-emotional development.”

Defending the Early Years goes on to say that “many of the skills mandated by the CCSS erroneously assume that all children develop and learn skills at the same rate and in the same way.”

Most other standardized testing treats children the same way.

Over time I have learned that when students are liberated from the effects of being taught as members of a group — say, for a standardized test — they are allowed to shine as individuals.

Making teaching personal, and not based on the limits of standardized testing, is the first step to leading students to become active American citizens.

It’s important to know where the students come from, their neighborhoods. Teachers need to know their parents and what the students’ home lives are like. Are the parents so busy making a living or trying to find a job that they don’t have time to be concerned about what’s going on in their kids’ classrooms?

Teachers need to know what each particular student wants from school — what effect it’ll have on his or her life, now and in the future.

But even in schools not affected by the Common Core or other standardized testing, teachers can be so busy that they don’t have time to learn fully about their students. They may, for example, even be unaware of unresponsive members of the class with hearing or other physical disabilities.

Among my suggestions for securing more personalized education, the media should look into universities that graduate new teachers. How many of them have learned to teach to the individual student?

Also, when it comes to determining the tenure of teachers in our public schools, students should have a vote in that — however they have been taught. What were their expectations and desires when they started going to public school? To what extent have they been met?

Furthermore, in an increasing number of schools, as I have previously reported, students have been encouraged to conduct discussions and debates on serious local, state and national issues.

This is how they learn to become active, voting citizens. If teachers don’t have the capacity or willingness to conduct such debates, give students the time and space to conduct them by themselves. They have shown enthusiasm for this.

Also, students should be given a voice in speaking out against any measures they see as unfair that are pushed by principals, school committees and legislatures. For instance, do the students find some form of discipline unfair or even in violation of their constitutional rights? Have they learned their constitutional rights?

Furthermore, in many low-income areas, police too often have a frequent and intimidating presence in schools, which may be in violation of students’ legal rights.

Speaking of essential learning, the decision of so many public schools to not have mandated courses on the history of our Constitution is startling and must be changed! Our students must learn why they are Americans, and so must their teachers, principals and legislative school committees — even their parents must learn this.

Otherwise, will our future generations still be meaningful American citizens? In 2016, how many candidates for political office will be concerned about what it means to be an American — in and out of the classroom?

After all, what is our education system supposed to be all about?

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.