During the first teacher/parent conference in third grade my teacher asked my mother if she had any other children. Mom said yes, a younger son. Here was my teacher’s response: “You might want to start focusing on him.”.
I know this is just a silly little link blog, but today I want to tell you a story about why I dislike school standards so much, and No Child Left Behind-type programs in particular. You know, “teaching to the test”.
As a young kid I was trouble. Not trouble like arson, or bullying or any sort of delinquent behavior. I just made life miserable for anyone in authority. I'd walk home during recess, hide my jacket at the bus stop in winter just to piss off the teachers when I showed up for school in a tee shirt. I had a smart-ass retort for everything that was said or taught. I think there was a special bench just for me in front of the principal’s office. That kind of thing. Nothing you could say was really very bad, just endlessly provoking.
After third grade it was “suggested” that I leave the public schools. So I was committed to a catholic school, which you know just wasn’t going to end well. I challenged everything. Made the nuns defend every notion from catechism to pergatory. I was relentless. I was rude, inconsiderate and as disruptive as I could possibly be, all the while knowing exactly what I was doing. My sixth grade teacher put me at a desk facing away from the class for the whole year. She’d given up on me from the first week of school.
That lasted three years, and then it was suggested that I might want to try going back to the public schools. The very Christian principal and her faculty had given up on me yet again.
So, in seventh grade it was back to the public schools I go. Now it should be said that during all this time I was bored, so very bored, in class. I didn’t care about anything except for marine animals. All my time, when I wasn’t making life miserable for the adults around me, was devoted to studying these animals. I kept journals, biked wherever research was being done to make a pest out of myself until they let me help, taught myself how to identify and preserve invertebrates and poured over every book I could get my hands on.
Instead of the beach with the normal kids, I would sit under bridges and feed mussels to sea anemones. Nothing else mattered, and I resented anything that didn’t involve these animals. I had few friends, not because I couldn't get along with them, but because I pushed away anyone who tried to get close. I didn't need or want anybody. After all, I had jellyfish and sea urchins to deal with. The lack of friends didn't bother me the least bit.
On the first day of middle school I met Mr. D. He was my appointed science teacher, and my plan was to simply continue to treat this authority figure like I always did. With contempt. The first lesson was to be about animal and plant cells. I guess he saw something, because during the first week of school he pulled me aside, handed me the test he would give at the end of the unit, and said if I passed it I could create my own curriculum. I could basically do anything I wanted for one period every day, as long as it had to do with science.
I aced it and started a study of echinoderms, while the rest of the class struggled with ribosomes and mitochondria, cell walls and nuclei. Genetics, metric system, ecology and ecosystems all came and went. One by one he would give me the test before starting the subject, and if I passed I could continue with my own curriculum. I made sure I passed. He even gave me full days off, arranged with the principal, to do field trips to the university to talk with oceanographers, shark experts and ecologists to prepare for my personal presentations with him.
The funny thing was, I started taking an interest in my other subjects as well. I wrote the english papers that a year before I would have written in some sarcastic prose that I knew would infuriate the teacher. I made an effort in art class. I took math seriously.
At the end of the year Mr. D announced that he never had the same student twice. So going into eighth grade I was devastated. When I showed up the next September I found he arranged an exception for me. And the same thing happened. As long as I could pass the end of the unit's test beforehand, I could do whatever I wanted. My behavior slowly changed. My rebellion gradually ceased. I even allowed other kids to be friends with me.
Now onto high school. My science teacher, Mr. M, must have had a discussion with Mr. D, now that I think of it years later, because the same pattern arose. He regularly allowed me to skip class to go sit in on the junior and senior science classes whenever I wanted .
A year later I was not only excelling, I started other activities that I would never have even contemplated before. I showed up in jeans at a track practice I wandered into and, without permission, jumped over a bar on the field. Within two years I made all-state and was ranked fifth in New England in the high jump. I’m only 5’11”, but in the state meet my junior year I cleared 6’6”.
I got accepted into every college I applied for, chose the University of New Hampshire after being recruited by the track coach, started a business while in school, driving home to Rhode Island every weekend to make it work. This ended up becoming the Biomes Center. I missed my college graduation because I had to close on my first home. And even though today, at nearly 50, I still live paycheck to paycheck, it’s still me writing those paychecks and I’ve never worked for anyone else in my life.
And the point to all this is this: Mr. D changed my life. And it was all because without standardized testing he was able to size up his students and give them what they personally needed to excel.
There has to be thousands of kids out there who are just like I was. I was a lost cause, bound to be a drug addict and runaway by the time I was fourteen, as that third grade teacher told my mom. But because of "teaching to the test", these kids will never have the chance to change their destiny like I was able to do.
That’s why I hate standards. I take it personally.
Added (5/7/14): I don't really have a problem with home schooling, but this was not written as an endorsement of it. It's an endorsement of getting rid of common core and allowing teachers to teach in a way they feel best supports individual students, and giving them experiences they may not otherwise obtain. If a teacher is enthralled with space, for example, what harm is it to allow her to do a unit on the planets, even if this isn't part of the official curriculum? Simply seeing another person passionate about something is motivating in itself.
In ninth grade I had an english teacher who dedicated the entire fourth quarter to analyzing the lyrics of The Beatles. I didn't like them then, and I don't like their music now, but I will never, ever forget how passionate he was about their art. In those few weeks I learned about tolerance, passion and seeing the forest for the trees. Looking past what I thought was trivial, and seeing what a huge effect something I wouldn't spare a thought for meant for another person, was life-changing. I didn't like the teacher all that much, I certainly didn't care for the subject, yet I'd place him as the third best, and third most influencial teacher I had in my sixteen years of being educated by the public school system.
My main problem with home schooling is it removes the most motivated parents from the equation. By definition a homeschooling mom or dad is intimately involved in their child's education. These extremely valuable parents are therefore excluded from the support that public education desperately needs.