Stop and Smell the Roses

I am deeply moved each time I reread the late Grace Paley's wonderful poem For Danny. An excerpt:

My son enters the classroom
There are thirty two Children waiting for him
He dreams that he will teach them to read
His head is full of the letters that words are
looking for
Because of his nature
His fingers are flowers
Here is a rose he says look it grew right
Into the letter R
They like that idea very much they lean
So he says now spell garden
They write it correctly in their notebooks
Because the word rose is in it

What use is it if our children can spell garden but have never smelled a rose or imagined one in the hand gesture of a wonderful teacher?

In education, but not only education, our society confuses itself with an economy and we seem to value only those things that we can measure.

Colleges and universities chase US News and World Report rankings. Parents and administrators fret over SAT scores. In schools around the nation, the arts and the art of education are being sacrificed at the altar of accountability. As I wrote in a recent satirical piece, it is as though we believe Hansel and Gretel can be fattened by weighing them more often. Testing and the curricula bent to its service have done nothing to improve education over the decade since NCLB was enacted.

But even if real measurable gains had resulted, we are still sacrificing too much. All parents want their children to succeed -- to have good jobs and productive lives. But we must also believe that success lies in creating beauty and fighting for justice -- to know that a poem, a painting, a symphony or a compassionate gesture can change the world, from the inside out. The national delirium over accountability and standardized measures is threatening the full, rich, human development of a generation of children.

This measurement-driven pragmatism is damaging more than just schools. Television executives review minute-by-minute ratings as viewers click through hundreds of channels, seeking the most entertaining or stimulating story of the moment. The inordinate coverage given to scandals and disasters is not because producers are interested in salacious material. It is because programming choices are driven by ad revenue, which is in turn driven by minute-to-minute ratings. This mindless response to data and measurement has inarguably diminished the depth, breadth and reliability of the information we receive and the quality of the programming our families enjoy.

The same malaise has coarsened and paralyzed political life in America. Policies and decisions result more from response to polls than from deep conviction. In business, short-term profits obscure the long view as stock prices fluctuate wildly with every quarterly earnings report.

Standardized tests, minute-to-minute ratings, political polls, quarterly earnings reports -- none of these things ever helped grow a garden. Gardens need time and tender love. And children too need time and tender love, not constant measurement. Standardized tests can't measure the essence of a child any better than a yardstick can capture the smell of a rose. News reports that cater to the instant gratification of viewers demean the public purposes of journalism. Politicians who pander to poll numbers discard vision and compromise their convictions. And businesses that maximize short-term gains are bankrupting America's resources and environment.

We need journalists whose eyes and ears can detect injustice around the world and have the courage to tell us about it. We need politicians who can imagine a better world and fight for it. We need business leaders who consider the long-term impact of their decisions on the world.

Perhaps all of these things will be more possible if our teachers know and trust that children will inevitably learn to spell garden if they understand the rose in it.

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