Ed Reform is creating a new achievement gap of unfulfilled potential

(Report from the Oct. 15-16 WAETAG conference on gifted education, “Proficiency is Not Enough”)

Our public school district in Seattle used to have as its motto: “Delivering on the Dream. Academic Achievement for Every Student in Every School.” The accompanying logo showed a carefree child and an adult holding hands, the child reaching for a star.

Now, under its current ed reform leadership, Seattle’s district motto is: “Excellence for all. Everyone achieving. Everyone accountable.” The logo is the same, but the dream is gone.

Whether we are talking about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of an equal society or the personal dreams of every child in public school, our kids are not being encouraged to reach for stars anymore.

Why not?

At the WAETAG (Washington Association of Educators of the Talented and Gifted) conference in Bellevue, Washington, last month, keynote speaker Michael Clay Thompson spoke eloquently about the need to nurture out-of-the-box — indeed, out-of-this-universe – thinking in our children.

Teacher, scholar and author of language arts textbooks for highly advanced learners, like Caesar’s English, Grammar Voyage and Essay Voyage, Thompson stressed how our current education system, constricted by the punitive, narrow-minded ed reforms begun with No Child Left Behind, and set against the backdrop of a national anti-intellectual mindset, quashes such thinking.

Thompson was speaking to an audience of educators and parents of gifted children, but I feel his basic message can be applied to all education: We cannot afford to waste the minds of our children.

We should not hold them back, brand them with standardized tests, dumb down their curricula so everyone can merely reach “proficiency.” We should want every child to realize his or her visions, whatever and wherever that may be – in arts, music, mathematics, science or any area that inspires them.

Thompson recounted the story of a young poet who grew up to  become an American statesman who would one day write 10 sentences that became one of the most important documents in our nation’s history: The Gettsyburg Address.

Thompson made one of the strongest cases I have heard for giving our children poetry, languages, Latin roots, history, books — an almost radical notion in these times of Kindle, Wikipedia and Tweets.

Words matter. Language matters. It can unite or divide a people. It can transcend the moment. Abraham Lincoln produced a pivotal speech at one of the most precarious times in our nation’s history, a speech he knew had to unite two shards of our young nation, heal unforgettable wounds, and delivered on the battlefield still fresh with these memories. And, marveled Thompson, he used the tools of poetry to do it – assonance, alliteration, iambic pentameter.

Yet, we have an education system now that barely bothers to teach our children poetry or grammar anymore, but instead is forcing educators to focus on just meeting the narrow requirements for improving  tests scores.

We are not creating a nation of critical, independent thinkers, but a subjugated nation of test-takers “sweating with obedience,” to quote one of the most famous young achievers of them all, Arthur Rimbaud.

Echoing an essay by Carol Ann Tomlinson, Thompson asked: How do we reconcile two goals of our nation — equality and excellence? Must we sacrifice one to achieve the other?

I would like to think not. I would like to think that schools, indeed society, should strive to afford every child an equal opportunity to reach her/his full potential. We should meet each child where they are and encourage them to attain the next step up and beyond. And it does not have to be a zero-sum game.

But then we run headlong into sentiments like this one recently expressed by Seattle’s own School Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, which illustrate the narrow and short-sighted thinking behind ed reform:

“Assessing every student and placing them according to ability sounds like tracking and discrimination…and we’ve moved light years away from that.”

Light years to where?  Why not cater to every child’s ability and nurture them to reach beyond?

So much of our current national dialogue about education has been focused on raising those at the bottom who are struggling, which of course is what we as a society should do. But why stop there? Why rest at proficiency? Why not offer another rope ladder to all kids and say ‘Keep climbing, keep searching, explore, what can you see?’ Equally crucial: we must also promise these children, “I will help you get there.”

We are aiming too low, in the wrong direction, and we are holding kids back. The latest breed of ed reformers has no interest in our highest achievers, assuming wrongly that they don’t need any help, or perhaps worried, politically, that if they advance and fulfill their potential, the “achievement gap” will grow, therefore they must be stifled.

But in so doing, ed reform is creating another achievement gap—between the potential and actual achievement of those children who hunger for more.

Evidence like the superintendent’s comment indicates that nurturing the minds of the highest achievers is not high on the list of priorities in this and most other school districts. By denying this need, districts are denying the intellectual and creative needs of children of all backgrounds because giftedness transcends race, gender and economics. In fact, one the strongest aspects of Seattle’s Accelerated Progress Program (APP) for highly capable students is that it affords every highly capable child in the district, no matter what their socioeconomic background, the opportunity to join a program that will meet them at their level and challenge them with the depth and complexity they need.

Administered correctly, programs like APP are one of the strongest tools that school districts have to transcend socioeconomic and racial barriers and close any gaps at either end of the achievement spectrum.

And yet district administrators commonly think that identifying and helping the highest achievers and helping the lowest achievers are  mutually exclusive endeavors. But why should that be?

In his speeches at the WAETAG conference, Michael Clay Thompson explained why we all have a vested interest in nurturing the minds of our children. In his closing address, he showed the audience images of Earth as viewed from Mars. Distant galaxies we have yet to explore. He evoked great thinkers who dared to believe that some things were possible, dared to forge into the unknown. Hawkings. Einstein. Milton. Curie.

Asked Thompson, who will discover the next galaxy? Who will pen the next Gettysburg Address?

How will we nurture such thinkers if we reduce every child to a test score, put a lid on their learning and tell them that proficiency is enough?

We need to nurture and challenge our children to think, dream and imagine, let them explore the universe, and find both the poetry to heal nations and solutions to global problems. We should never impair their visions, or shortchange them with stifling one-size-fits-all curricula.

We should give them every tool possible, kindle every spark, let them discover who they uniquely are and who they uniquely can be. This is not idle romanticizing.

Our planet desperately needs answers to big questions. Thompson cited all the unprecedented and serious issues that face our children’s generation – from global warming to global terrorism, cyber bullying to cyber terrorism. We need to nurture robust minds and not hold anyone back so they can create solutions to these daunting challenges.

Our children will develop according to what we feed them. Let’s give all of them the richest soil, fertilize their minds, spirits and imaginations, water them abundantly, and tear the roof off the greenhouse so that they may reach the stars.

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

–Langston Hughes

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. (…)  But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

–from The Gettsyburg Address, Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 19, 1863

— sue p.