A T-shirt popular in circles where people contemplate such things depicts Albert Einstein on Ritalin, his famously static hair meticulously coiffed and parted and a black cloud hovering over his head where an equation otherwise would appear.
So it goes that a subdued Einstein is a slower Einstein, robbed of original thought, his genius stolen away in the name of decorum.
Whether the drug for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder would have transformed the German physicist into a dullard is a subject for researchers and activists to debate. Nonetheless, the image of muted creativity must strike a note of contemptible familiarity among public school teachers.
Their creativity is muted by an academic toxin known as the standardized test to which modern educators perpetually must teach.
Government began saddling large swaths of America with the onerous burden of the standardized test following the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. The law made strange bedfellows of President George W. Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. The Republican political scion joined forces with the liberal lion literally aiming to elevate academic achievement and farcically aiming to graduate every American student from high school.
Virginia got a head start on this dreary educational stenography with the advent of the Standards of Learning program in the 1990s.
In all cases, the thinking, or lack of it, dictates that through the rigmarole of annual testing in core subjects, students can be made to learn, with schools and therefore teachers being held accountable if the young scholars falter.
Reasonable people dispute neither the need for standards nor accountability. But what also seems indisputable now based on more than a decade of evidence is that a regime of testing cannot itself drive students to perform. Gains in mathematics for young students followed No Child, but there were few other significant victories. Academic achievement in America continues to trail that of students across much of the Western world.
Subjects outside the core – the arts, for example – largely have been cast aside by schools desperate to make the grade on standardized tests in math, history, science, English and reading. But more important, educators say their ability to work outside the parameters of the test has been stifled. Society needs teachers to create and inspire. But they have been handcuffed by the drive to ensure students can hit benchmarks in the next round of tests.
Rocky Mount Elementary fell short last academic year in science, with just 55 percent of students passing the subject in standardized testing. That resulted in the school receiving only partial accreditation and a warning from the state, indicating that students were not close to hitting the required mark.
Franklin County Schools Superintendent Mark Church told the News-Post last week that he’s “a believer in testing” and pledged to help Rocky Mount Elementary return to form on science.
His willingness to take accountability for sagging science scores, reluctance to shuffle responsibility by grousing about testing and commitment to helping students improve all are commendable. Teachers generally are loath to say so publicly, but feel decidedly different about testing. For many, it’s an anchor.
No Child Left Behind thankfully has expired. It’s time the General Assembly got state government out of the business of monitoring local schools from afar. Big governments in Washington and Richmond have themselves failed to bring about the improvements they demand.
Teachers and parents in local communities have the greatest stake in local education and the intimate knowledge of local places and people needed to shape effective academic plans for local schools. Perhaps it’s time to hand the reins back to them.