Is There School Today?

It's the same question every day except Saturday, which is Daddy-Asher day, a day when cartoons, games, LEGOs, books, and endless questions replace kindergarten drudgery.

Kindergarten, literally a "children's garden" was traditionally a place focused on playing, singing, and otherwise imagineering.

Today, not so much.

Over the past 20 years, a myopic focus on reading and math has turned the children's garden into a factory, a place where unique beings go for standardization, followed by 12 more years of it. This standardized approach to learning supposedly prepares them for placement in an economy that no longer exists.

Factory jobs are disappearing, someone should inform the proponents of factory schooling, Republicans and Democrats alike.

Last week, for homework, my son had to memorize "nonsense words."

"Finally," I thought to myself, "something meaningful."

It turned out that the nonsense words are a holdover from the long discredited DIBELS program. The program has made some people a great deal of money but hasn't correlated with improved reading in any valid scientific study. There is, however, evidence that this particular standardized approach harms children.

I hoped the "nonsense" would be the result of experimentation through play with language in order to make up his own words such as "starcloud" and "fuelwarper," two terms engineered during the construction of spaceships, created during the weekend but tabled for the duration of his M-F, 8-3 job.

Yesterday he came home with his quarterly review, and management was not pleased.

He is not reading letters fast enough.

"Good," I exclaimed to my wife, signing to confirm that I had in fact read the dismal report about my son's poor "literacy" performance. I decided to make it a teachable moment.

"Young man, I don't want you reading for speed okay? I want you reading with purpose and for enjoyment."

He nods, he returns to drawing. He's a good kid.

I have college students who read for speed, products of this dinosaur educational reform movement. Ask them to analyze the reading critically and many college students are at a loss, but they no doubt read the material quickly.

When you sit in front of a kindergartner with a stopwatch in your hand, and she can't bark out letters fast enough to earn the score of proficient, and you're recording all of it, you aren't teaching her to read, you're teaching her to hate reading.

What does she learn? She learns to associate school with stress. She learns to hate learning.

When your report cards focus on math and reading and nothing else, children learn that science, history, physical education, creativity, and ingenuity don't matter... don't count as much as the other stuff.

I know math and reading are important, but they are not gods to bow down before. They are a means to an end and should be taught that way, embedded in the passions and questions our children carry about with them each new day.

I can't blame him for glumly asking "is there school today?" every morning when he emerges from his bedroom, and I often wonder what the world would look like if children were actually excited about getting up and going into classrooms.

Neuroscientists have been increasingly vocal about what our current system of schooling does to brains (harm), but politicians can't hear the scientists, ears rammed full of cash from lobbyists pushing more of the same: more rigor, more standards, more accountability.

The same thing they've been pushing for the past 20 years. Congress has a chance to end it, but not if citizens don't demand that action.

Standardized approaches may have made sense for the factory era, but the creative economy requires education for generative ends: explorative thinking, innovative problem solving, giant question asking, calculated risk taking... I'll spare you the full list.

None of these skills and capacities are quantifiable, and therefore none of them are on my kindergartner's quarterly review. We pursue them with great vigor at home. I hope the same is true for other boys and girls.

Last night, after reading the The Little Prince with my son, I asked him if he knew what a desert was.

"Dry, like the Sahara. Hard to cross because there's no water." He then added, "And you need strategy to cross it."

We've been discussing strategy while playing games. The word does not appear on any of his lists.

My son, failing kindergarten but already thinking about how to cross the desert. That's a good sign. If Congress doesn't radically change NCLB, he'll need a good strategy to survive the rest of his public school experience.

All children will.