Early advocates of No Child Left Behind (2001) are beginning to wonder now what they have gotten America’s children into. Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling-Hammond both strong proponents of what NCLB could have been are now coming forward with serious reservations about the effects of the law of the land upon children, teaching and learning. Ravitch (2010) in her book The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education, describes how NCLB has not met its goals of heightened reading, writing, and mathematics learning in our children – replaced with the ‘one size fits all’ testing mentality which rewards and punishes schools based upon scores on objective tests. Unfortunately this system does not take into account school differences such as location, socioeconomic status, resources, antecedents of student environment and home, etc. The ‘equality’ of the law – that it applies to all American schools – actually encourages inequity. The very schools in need of the vast resources of the Department of Education are indeed left behind. This sentiment is also echoed in Darling-Hammond’s (2010) book entitled The flat world and education: How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future.
And other than anecdotal information about individual schools here and there, no research-based study over that last ten years has confirmed any statistical difference in reading, writing, or mathematics scores for Grades 3, 5 and 8 within the timeframe of the NCLB act to the present. And yet, we continue to pour into a container that not only leaks, but cascades its contents into the sand.
What we have going on here are two discourses about what education is all about – one founded in a behavioral understanding focused on academic achievement, and another all but forgotten voice, that of human development. Thomas Anderson (2006) compared these two approaches to teaching and learning in his book The best schools – How human development research should inform educational practice, disclosing his ‘grave concern that pressures on students at all levels to achieve academically are causing educators to ignore the true developmental needs of children and adolescents’ (p. 4). Further, he comments that we must ‘regard the optimal and natural development of children and adolescents as our most sacred duty as educators and our ultimate legacy to humanity’ (p.5). Thus, as I tell my young charges in early childhood, there are two key principles of humane pedagogy: teach children in line with their nature, and ignore child development to your peril.
Then I walk into a Kindergarten classroom where children should be actively engaged in all kinds of enriching and meaningful play and learning, and what do I see? Children at tables or desks completing one pencil and paper activity after another, names on the board for punishment, and a disheveled teacher attempted to bring order to little boys who have embraced their limbic systems in a love tussle because their frontal lobe is overfull. NCLB has mandated that Kindergarten implement a curriculum and set of demands that once came with First Grade. In one sweeping gesture, our two key principles above have been eliminated from the conversation, and a generation of young children sits by themselves at lunchtime. Sadly, when asked about how the developmental levels of children were being addressed in the classroom, the teacher responded by telling me to consult the Kindergarten curriculum standards. Was she even aware of the attention spans of young boys, the need to intersperse inspirational and disciplinary work, or how to attend to the unique socioemotional needs of the early learner?
In my Charlotte Mason Study Group, I have a few students who have come to embrace her ideas and desire to implement in their student teaching some semblance of Mason in order to humanize their work with young children. Certainly we talk about the two principles above and how to move from knowing about the principles to committing to and acting upon them. Before long the word subversion comes into the dialog, that is, how can I (the young, inexperienced student teacher) counter the negative effects of a system that ‘ignores child development to its peril’? All of the knowledge of children, teaching, and learning can become meaningless unless it has a vehicle for expression. The key to everything is Mason’s thinking about relationships – to the cooperating teacher and students in this case. If my youthful teachers-in-waiting will be articulate and engaging toward the classroom teacher, then doors seem to open… for subversion.
One student teacher who was placed in a first grade classroom in a local public school made just such a connection with a wizened, somewhat cynical, and soon to retire cooperating teacher. All elements were in place for her to fail, and yet, the teacher was impressed that this student teacher had ideas about young children and a plan to make learning connected, wide, and meaningful. Before the end of the placement, other first grade teachers had taken on some of the ideas and practices which came out of our modest study group. Charlotte Mason meets NCLB…
Another student teacher placed in a private Christian school fifth grade class convinced the cooperating teacher to exchange a literature selection redolent of twaddle (A ‘Christian fiction’ work by a well-known author) with one that was living. As these fifth graders learned to narrate both in speaking and writing, the cooperating teacher was shocked at the students’ level of comprehension and engagement. (Okay, this story is not about NCLB, but still exciting nonetheless…)
I wonder if we take the time to think about the child as a person in all this talk about teaching and learning… really. In our homeschool classrooms, Christian or public schools, do we take into account the spiritual, cognitive, socioemotional, or physical characteristics which help drive our children’s learning? NCLB has ignored this essential aspect of the personhood of children and their right to the best we can give them, and what has it accomplished? Removing play in order to focus on more task-time for writing, math, and reading skills from the young child has devastating effects on orality, literacy, and emotional and physical growth, and yet, this is just what has been taken away from children in many public schools… and some Christian schools as well.
Charlotte Mason was kind to children and understood them in ways we are still attempting to fathom in our work around her pedagogy. And we all have baggage from our own backgrounds in school. As we read Mason’s books and discuss them, maybe we can think about how to subvert old patterns and practices to replace them with vital life and wonder in our teaching.
© 2011 by Dr. Jack Beckman