History assures us that civilizations decay quite leisurely. — Will and Ariel Durant
It’s been an exhausting week in Lake Wobegon.
Yesterday Nick was accepted to the middle school of his choice, the Grove of Academe. Today he was put on the waiting list at the other school he applied to, the Road Less Traveled, a school Nora and I might have chosen once, when we were Nick’s age.
Did I mention Nick is nearing the end of his decade at Fern Hill, and is scooting into his future?
A TALE OF TWO SCHOOLS
There are many differences between the Grove of Academe and the Road Less Traveled, but the most telling is this: to apply to the Road Less Traveled, Nick was required to take the ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam), a sort of nether SAT for sixth-graders. Not only does the Grove of Academe not require the test, it’s impossible to send them the results-—ISEE hasn’t heard of them.
While we’re on to standardized tests, full disclosure here. I used to be a whizbang test-taker: medical school, Ivy League school before that, high school all-star before that. I got so good at test-taking that it obviated the need for thinking. I never had to think for myself–certainly in school, and probably out of it–until I was way past the tests. This was not good.
In retrospect, the thing that my test scores seem to have correlated with was success at pleasing other people. The scores proved to have no correlation with anything remotely connected to well-being.
For this reason, I did not coach Nick on the ISEE.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
But I was talking about the Grove of Academe and the Road Less Traveled. Private schools, both. The decline of public education in our hometown, which (more correlation) parallels the rise of standardized testing, seems to have all but eliminated that option for Nick.
The Grove of Academe is a small school, and Nick will receive a lot of individual attention there, which he thrives on. The Road Less Traveled is a larger place, which is perhaps why it feels more familiar to Nora and myself, who went to public high schools.
Once upon a time, the maverick director of the Road Less Traveled liked Fern Hill kids, but he’s moved elsewhere. The new director doesn’t know much about Fern Hill. The student profile is changing, perhaps to resemble other ISEE-requiring schools. The Road Less Travelled, I fear, is becoming the Road More Traveled.
I was talking about school shopping with a friend (her daughter also applying to middle school) the other day.
“I don’t know,” I told her. “When we visited the Road Less Traveled, they said they were all about the whole child.”
“I’m so over what they say,” she said.
Let me tell you a couple of stories about education.
Years ago I read an article I wish I’d saved about the scoring of essay questions on standardized tests. The article reproduced three student essays–examples of the kind of work the tests produced.
The first piece was poorly written: incomplete sentences, grammatical errors, half-formed thoughts. It had been judged (appropriately in my view) an inferior essay.
The second was somewhat better. The writer had tried hard to answer the question, but struggled to make her points. The result was ungainly but sincere. Judgment: average.
The third essay was masterly: on point and logical, with lovely, practiced sentences. It was clear the writer knew her business. This was judged a superior essay.
The article really concerned the middle and third essays. Read them again closely, the author urged. I did. The superior essay, though still beautiful, lost its zing on the second go around. It turned out to be full of hot air. Its whys and therefores and dependent clauses added up to zilch.
More surprising was the middle essay. Embedded in it, somewhat tied down by the awkward form, was that glad rarity, an original idea. I had missed it, and so had the examiner who scored the essay.
A career counselor was visiting a graduating high school class. High schools like to sponsor this kind of event–I remember attending several when I was a senior.
At this particular gathering, the counselor said, “I want all the A students to line up at one end of the room, and the C students at the other.”
The two groups faced each other.
“Take a good look,” said the counselor. “I particularly want the A students to inspect the C students–because these are the guys you’ll be working for. They’re not afraid to fail.”
As far as education goes, these are not cheerful stories. They are stories of futility, and jeopardy. I tell them because they give voice to my experience being lined up for many years with the A students, writing superior essays that amounted to zilch.
DEMOCRACY IN ACTION
Nick, like all boys his age, is an Internet prodigy. One of the sites he’s registered on is Kahn Academy, a one-man educational website filled with zillions of spiffy videos providing “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.”
The Kahn Academy is educational democracy in action. It’s one of the good things about the web, a gold mine for auto-didacts. Then, yesterday, an email from the Kahn Academy arrived:
Exciting news: Khan Academy is partnering with the College Board so that all students who want to go to college can prepare for the SAT at their own pace, at no cost.The College Board just announced that they’re redesigning the SAT for 2016, and we’re partnering with them to make free, world-class prep materials.
By spring 2015, you’ll have access to state-of-the-art, interactive learning tools that give you deep practice and help you diagnose your gaps. All of this will be created through a close collaboration with the College Board specifically for the redesigned SAT. Stay tuned.
Well. I get that the idea behind standardized testing is to provide an objective measure of ability that transcends school differences. And it’s great that preparation for the SAT will now be democratized. Great and not so great. Now everyone can spend years preparing to line up with the A students.
The lethal adjective in all this is the word standardized. A test is just a structure, and it’s not so much structure that bothers me its mechanization.
Structure works when it’s personal. The structures at Fern Hill (primarily social) are applied individually. As Nick developed socially, we discovered that he was a kid who needed academic structure as well. Reading was a struggle for him, even though he wanted to learn how to do it. We imposed a reading regime at home, and Nick learned to read.
The good thing about Fern Hill was that it gave Nick a childhood. He never took a test there, but got to watch the day go by and fill it with his choices. Which points to what’s bad about mechanization: people are not mechanisms.
WHAT IT MEANS
My neighbor sent both his boys to the most prestigious prep school in our town, an institution that makes the Road Less Traveled look like summer camp. He’s watched Nick’s educational progress with interest.
“If I had it to do again,” he said the other day, “I wouldn’t have been so quick to push my boys the way I pushed them.”
“Why not?” I said.
“Because I don’t understand how the world works. I thought I did once,” he said. “But not now.”
One of his boys works on Wall Street. The other is training in clinical psychology.
Nick? He’s off to swim today at a friend’s. Tomorrow, I hope we’ll have time for a bike ride. Summer camp. He’s still only eleven.
Of course I worry about his future. A new gilded age, a warming climate, energy depletion, foxes guarding henhouses, inmates running the asylum. Signs of decay, all. What’s not to worry?
I allow a wavering of hope for my son. He can read, can’t he?
Image Credit: Mr. Natural, by the one and only R. Crumb.
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