As parents, we are thrilled to see our children learn and grow; we delight in molding and uncovering those embryonic abilities. And, even though many of us recall school as our first mind-numbing exposure to stifling boredom, we brush away a tear and excitedly pack new backpacks and lunchboxes to deliver our fledglings into new classrooms.
We show up expecting crayon art on the walls, rows of paint pots and fresh canvas, just-tuned instruments, and teachers whose gift is to shape potential into ability. We are surprised—even angry—when instead we find a paucity of creativity, a shortage of supplies and facilities, a rush to finish each task, and an inflexible expectation that our babes conform to an average that is measured by a soulless, computer-graded test.
“We bought our house because of the school behind it,” says Susan Williams, mother of six-year-old Luke and three-year-old Zane. “With 286 students, it is the smallest school in Wilmington, North Carolina. They call it a model school. We were very excited about it.” Luke is in first grade in a school system which scores slightly above the national average in math, reading, and writing according to the National Center for Education statistics. But it wasn’t test scores that drew the Williams family to the school, it was the promise of small classes, a world for Luke and Zane that felt finite and understandable: home here, school there, a 'this-is-where-I-belong' feeling. Midway through her son’s first year, though, Susan is disappointed.
“Creative atmosphere? I don’t think that even exists at Luke’s school," says Williams. "They can write and draw a picture, but it is all about hurry up and finish. There is nothing available except a pencil." The school is so concerned that no child feel left out that it is strict about what she can pack in her son's book bag—no extra crayons or supplies, nothing other kids might not have. They are allowed ice cream only on designated days when all the children get it. Williams says this may help kids who can’t afford things. “But too much is geared toward kids that aren’t getting enough help at home, and it is our kids that are getting left behind. I feel bad for those kids too, but what about my son’s potential?”
The problem is not only budget constraints, which have always plagued schools, but the very concept of learning, which is currently being defined by what can be measured in a test, compared against other schools, and applied to reforming schools to get better test scores. It is a trend that makes budget constraints all the more acute because tests, curricula designed to be testable, and collecting data on tests are all very expensive.
“The test is defining success and failure,” says Jessica Hoffmann Davis, EdD, Director of the Arts in Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “It is constraining learning and what counts as knowledge and what counts as opportunities for children to define themselves.” Not only does it limit teaching to what can be measured, often ignoring things like music, art, language, a unique point of view, or ability—the very things that make us human—but it defines success and failure in ways that defy learning. “When we teach to the test, and the tests govern what we do in school, we are obliged to leave out the most interesting aspects of learning," says Davis.
For example, one thing about teaching the arts is that they allow kids to fail and recover. If a child is painting and the brush slips, the painting may not be what she originally intended, but she must now find a way to make the mistake work. That is powerful learning in itself, though hard to measure. “For children, failing a test is very hard to differentiate from ‘I am a failure.’” adds Davis.