A few nights ago, I lay in bed beside my 6-year-old nephew listening to him read and giggle his way through a new book. Driving home afterward, I thought of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who committed suicide after fellow students livestreamed his personal life onto the Internet. I imagined him at six, like my nephew, reading a book, giggling, and being tucked into bed by his own parents.
Two weeks ago, during NBC's Education Nation summit, there was a lot of finger pointing about schools and achievement scores (and how our nation is "falling behind"); there was trash talk about unions, and political posturing about merit pay for teachers whose students have the highest test scores; there was even praise by administration officials for the Los Angeles Times' "outing" of teachers whose students' scores were low -- all narrow, factory-driven definitions of what makes for a school's success. Those of us on the ground, who have alternate viewpoints, feel like voices crying in the wilderness.
But tonight, thinking about the ruination of this young man's life, it's clearer to me than ever why we must emphasize that those achievement scores are not the most important thing we do for our children.
What's truly meaningful is showing our students how to love and respect one another by loving and respecting them and each other, whether we are in a public school, charter school, or private school. This is what makes a successful human regardless of their scores on any test. Tolerance, respect, and a sense of community build a powerful learning environment for students.
From the outside, the students at Rutgers looked like our education "success stories." They probably had high achievement scores in high school. They wouldn't have been there otherwise. They may have had everything "scorewise" a college admissions counselor wants to see on a piece of paper.
But did they show sensitivity towards their peers? Did they have respect for one another's privacy? Did they have the independence not to follow the fallacies of group-think or bigotry? Did they have the insight or instruction to think about the long term consequences of their online actions? We, as educators and policymakers have not only failed Clementi, but have also failed the students who felt empowered to treat a fellow human this way.
When we try to define what makes a good education, we can never forget that what we, as teachers and parents, teach our students goes far beyond what is measured on a test. And as policymakers, we can never forget that a test is not the only measure of a student, a classroom teacher, or a successful school. Grades are not everything.
Most importantly, we cannot forget that we, as educators, administrators, policymakers, and celebrities, set examples for our children every day. We want every child to succeed. But do we want to show our students that success at any cost is the goal, because they, and we as their educators, are being weighed and measured primarily by the scores they receive? What are the unintended consequences of this sort of metric for measuring our "success"?
Can we really continue to have our policies and practices so narrowly define educational success? I, for one, don't think we can afford to. To learn more about ways you can help build community in schools, Teaching Tolerance is a place to begin.