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The Disservice of a 'Rigorous' Education

Tests, standards, accountability, economic competitiveness, managers, vouchers, data, metrics... does anyone actually care about children?
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Tests, standards, accountability, economic competitiveness, managers, vouchers, data, metrics... does anyone actually care about children?

Public discourse about education is unbearably impersonal. Nearly all the heated rhetoric suggests that children are nothing but small units of future production, especially in the saddest precincts of South Central, Baltimore, Harlem, Cleveland, Detroit and the other abandoned parcels of our divided nation.

In several remarkable books a few years ago, Jonathan Kozol described the lives of children from America's neglected corners, particularly the dark and deteriorating neighborhoods of New York City's South Bronx. In Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, he quoted Mother Martha, a reformed lawyer who served as pastor of St. Ann's Church, in a particularly desolate section of the Bronx. "Peter's dog ate Jefferson's cat." Peter and Jefferson are cousins whose pets had an unpleasant encounter. Both boys were among a handful of often-lonely boys who found companionship and solace with Mother Martha.

Kozol described Jefferson as he sat on the church steps at dawn, cradling the remains of his cat in a cardboard box, aching to talk with Mother Martha about cats and death. The pastor and her colleague helped Jefferson place the cat in a cookie tin, say a prayer, sprinkle water and bury her. Mother Martha said, "I think that he was pleased, because he kept on bringing people out to see the grave. He dug her up three times to show his friends."

While multi-billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates and Eli Broad talk about tough management and data-driven reform, real children languish in abject poverty. That's unfair enough, but then we also rob them of their childhoods. Everything is about money, even their small lives. Social scientists talk about poor kids' education as an "investment" and act as though the worth of children is in their development as resources for the competitive marketplace.

Kozol wrote, "Advocates of children, most of whom dislike this ethos, nonetheless play into it in an effort to gain financial backing from the world of business. A dollar spent on Head Start will save our government six dollars over 20 years in lowered cost for juvenile detention and adult incarceration. It is a pretty dreadful way to have to think about 4-year-olds."

Since Kozol published these words, America has doubled down on the obsession to prepare children to serve some future economic use. Schools are increasingly characterized by "rigor," longer days, summer remediation and high-stakes tests. As Kozol observed, "Burials for cats somehow don't fit into this picture." The aggressive imposition of high-stakes education isn't ruining childhood for only poor kids.

In affluent neighborhoods just a few miles south of St. Ann's Church, the stressful tests are for private school admission and the summers are for accelerated work instead of remediation. Children in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Grosse Pointe, Mich., Marin County, Calif., or Darien, Conn. and other affluent communities are treated like precious gemstones to be polished hard on the grindstone of their parents' ambition. Burials for cats don't fit into this picture either.

Jean De La Bruyère, a 17th century French moralist and philosopher, once wrote: "Children have neither a past nor a future. Thus they enjoy the present -- which seldom happens to us." In the South Bronx or in Grosse Pointe, children are too often deprived of the present. At each end of the economic spectrum, we are pressing children harder and harder in the service of a "rigorous" education. It is not mere semantic coincidence that the word "rigor" is most often paired with the word "mortis."

As De La Bruyère wrote, the present seldom happens to us. But the present is all that children have. Kozol wrote movingly about another of Mother Martha's children. "Mariposa is not simply 37 pounds of raw material that wants a certain processing and finishing before she can be shipped to market and considered to have value. She is of value now, and if she dies of a disease or accident when she is 12 years old, the sixth year of her life will not as a result be robbed of meaning."

It's heartbreaking to hear administrators and politicians talk about children as raw material to be crafted into productive cogs in the global economy. If they bothered to know the children about whom they talk, they would find fascinating, creative, imaginative and passionate small humans who yearn for real relationships with us and each other. They were born to learn and will learn, in good time, if we love them and don't extinguish their curiosity and squash their spirits with misguided policies. But instead we march them from class to class, dress them in little uniforms and cluck unhappily over their failure to meet our sterile expectations.

We are doing this to our children because we think we have to. Perhaps Bloomberg, Gates, Broad and others would like children to have fun, but they seem to believe we don't have that luxury. Strict discipline, rigor, standards and accountability just don't leave time for an indulgent childhood. But this is a false choice. Children who enjoy the present, children who fritter away the summer in imaginative play, children who bury cats and dig them up to show friends -- these children will also be our poets and visionary entrepreneurs, our scientists and our leaders. That's what so-called reformers claim to want, but it is not what they will get with current policy.