Last week, I was taking the Lexington Avenue bus downtown in the late Manhattan afternoon for some Christmas shopping when I noticed a group of exhausted kids in the back of the bus, their faces pinched and drawn, carrying enormous backpacks filled with books and homework that might have killed a Tennessee mountain mule. These kids were not returning home from a tin mine; they were coming home from school. As the father of two adult sons I haven't paid much attention to kids lately, but this group got me thinking, particularly now that I have a pre-school granddaughter whom I adore. Why do kids look so worn out and weary today? I spoke with a neighbor who has two small children in school, and she told me that their homework often kept them at their studies until ten or eleven at night, and that meant she had to be there for them, long after her own work day had ended. Then we started to discuss the "No Child Left Behind" program instituted by our Bush-brained government.
The stated intention of this program was to change the culture of America's schools by closing the achievement gap, producing report cards on progress so that even the underachieving students and schools in the worst neighborhoods met certain government standards. Because of the NCLB program, children must now pass new uniform tests with schools and teachers liable to be discredited if the students don't do well. This program was designed to provide every child with a basic education, certain fundamental reading and math skills, all in the hope of manufacturing a better American worker for the digital age. Whew! I sigh with relief that I am older and never had to face this program as a kid. Yes, I know that standardized tests have always been there. While growing up I had to endure the Regents Exams and the SAT's, but I also had teachers who were free to tailor their teaching to their student's needs, rewarding originality as well as high test scores. Like virtually all of the programs enacted by this administration NCLB doesn't work, unless you fudge the results, as the Bush administration does so well. It could work, if like George Bush, every child came from a wealthy family with important business and government connections that could assure preferential treatment for admission to the best colleges, and good jobs for those who possess a few imbedded facts, a minimum level of literacy, and an incapacity for rational thinking. .
What Bush's NCLB has done has been to impose an insupportable burden on the dangerously overcrowded and underfunded public school system in America, all in the name of helping the children of the poor, without actually helping to change the living conditions which so contribute to their failure rate. God save us all from such helpers. Worst of all it has imposed that greatest burden on all our beleaguered children. They are overworked and under-stimulated at the time of life when we learn more from discourse than by memorizing, when we learn from the pleasure that comes from exploring our own possibilities: practicing the arts, playing wild games (as distinguished from organized sports) and by not turning the world into a set of flash-card facts and winners and losers. A truly child-concerned program would include Civics courses so that every child knows how government works, thus nobody would ever vote for the likes of a George Bush again and have such educational programs imposed upon young lives. We might even produce the creative adults that we need for our future. Yes, there is factual information that a child must have to move forward in the world, but I don't for a moment believe that improved test scores will make for a better educated or more productive society. It is an Orwellian way to regulate minds, train children for robotic future jobs, rather than learning for the living of a better life. Does a hand-made education sound elitist? Utopian? Sure it does, but education is elitist and utopian or it is not education. It must be tailor made, one size cannot fit all, otherwise it is not education; it is regimentation. Our hope is to raise children with a love for learning because learning can be a joyful experience, right up there with sex and rap and iPods and computer games. Expensive? Undoubtedly. Hard to accomplish? Certainly. But there is no short-cut to the educated mind. Most of all there is no cheap quick fix for the problems facing our schools. It will cost for smaller class sizes and better paid, better prepared teachers, but nowhere near as much as a year in Bush's bottomless war. When we invade the public schools as we invaded Iraq with some Bushian fantasy we have those unintended consequences of educational casualties, creative children who are left behind. This learning by testing is the educational version of those missing WMDs, the product of a willful ignorance. You only need to read Charles Dickens "Hard Times" and you will see the NCLB method as practiced by Mr. Grandgrind, that horror of sadistic educational practice. It was Grandgrind who famously said, "Now what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted today."
We need provocative kids who probe and poke and question, debaters who become creators. Argument and writing are keys to any education - and the heavy backpack filled with a million pounds of facts is the enemy to thought and a love of learning. It seems evident that some of the most creative children are being left behind by this No Child Left Behind policy which fails to accommodate that most precious of childhood qualities - the imagination, something that often survives in spite of, rather than because of such programs. The 19th century Brits created a school model that guaranteed the misery of a childhood education. After attending an Eton or a Harrow a child had been so brutalized, and had learned to brutalize others, so that nothing in later life could seem quite as awful as early school years. Indeed, the survivors such as George Orwell often reminisced in memoirs about the beatings and the ice cold baths and the wretched food. Well, we have made some progress since those days. But No Child Left Behind is our 21st century form of beating education into a child who is filled with infinite possibilities for thought and creativity, the creativity that keeps a society moving ahead. It's time we show some of the mercy to children that we show to ourselves, not only for our children's sake but for our future as a country. We can start by getting rid of Mr. Bush's unintelligent design for education based upon the infamous Grandgrind method. And for God's sake lighten those backpacks.