Tuesday, October 30, 2007

But It's Not On the Test

Tom Chapin scores big with this one. Titled "Not On the Test," it appeared on National Public Radio on January 1, 2007. If you'd like to listen, click here. (A fellow named John Forster helped write it. Not sure who gets the lyric credit, but I'm willing to settle on a collaboration.)

Now, so far as I'm concerned, the entire federal public education effort has become nothing more than a "pay as you go" set of failed policies. Any policy that requires standardized performance in order to win those all-important federal dollars is really just begging schools to teach to the tests. Rather than ensure that children are advancing at an even pace, it has instead the effect of discouraging true educational innovation. It supports bureaucratic nightmares at the local level, and shores up an increasingly ineffective money-feeding union.

This is the good news. Business as usual.

There are, however, a few glimmers of hard truth in Chapin's song. A few key phrases:
Remember your teachers. Their jobs are at stake.
Proponents of the merit-based pay schedule for teachers need to take note: Merit is ephemeral. It's darned difficult to establish success criteria for teachers. It's altogether too easy to say "students must perform to a certain level on standardized tests." It fails to take into consideration that every kid is different, they all learn at a different pace, and no one — not the feds, not the NEA, not the psychometricians — is smart enough to come up with a one-size-fits-all test. There are too many intangibles at play and no safe way of determining how well a teacher is performing. I'm not saying that a simple seniority system is the right answer, either. I just wish the one-size-fits-all crowd would shut the heck up.

The School Board is faced with no child left behind
With rules but no funding, they're caught in a bind.
So music and art and the things you love best
Are not in your school 'cause they're not on the test.
Hey, I would be the first to admit that if it weren't for music and performing arts, I wouldn't have graduated high school. That, and the fact that the dean couldn't stand one more semester of my smug little face. Still...

Whatever I have become in life is due to three things: a loving family, a burning testimony that took several years to develop, and the performing arts. The family and the testimony are self-explanatory. The performing arts, however, defined who I was, both internally and to society. I was an actor. I was a singer. I was reasonably talented. And I was driven.

I wanted to learn about the music I was singing. I had a strong desire to understand motivation in my stage blocking. I was motivated to study music and acting where math, history and science utterly failed to capture my imagination. Had you taken my teenage self and plopped me down in today's schools, I would have created a "Dropout Farm" no matter where I lived. Yet look what I have achieved today: a stable twenty-plus year career, skills as a programmer and web designer, and a reputation for being a better-than-average teacher. Not bad for someone who lived on the performing arts in high school.

And, finally:
Debate is a skill that is useful to know,
Unless you're in Congress or talk radio,
Where shouting and spouting and spewing are blessed
'Cause rational discourse was not on the test.
Score! This is the payoff line in this little gem.

Take a good, hard look at the state of discourse in politics today. Go ahead. I'll just hum to myself for a bit while I wait.

Can you describe it? Probably sounded pretty harsh out there, didn't it? Did you happen to hear any actual debating while you were at it? No? Me, neither. So, let's talk about what happens out there. I remember debate class as a kid. I've watched a few debates in the past few years. Those aren't debates. Those are sound-bite political statements designed to encapsulate "everything you need to know" about a candidate in two minutes or less. Well, if this is everything I need to know, I shudder to consider what I'm missing. You cannot give substantive answers in two minutes. Two minutes is barely enough time to misspeak and accuse your opponent of inappropriate relations with livestock. This creates cardiac arrest in your hired spin doctors and gives the MSM all the ammunition they need to create your entire (incorrect) platform from that two-minute gaffe.

[Side note on a related topic: Has anyone ever though of creating Fantasy Politics? You could have your own front-runners, keep stats, dummy up your own sound-bite debates, and probably do a better job of predicting the actual winners than the pollsters. Just a thought.]

No, folks, the reasons for the popularity of Assault Debating are the same reasons why professional wrestling exists: the entertainment value. The current crop of voters in the desirable demographic were all raised on Phil Donahue, Ricky Lake, and (heaven help us) Jerry Springer. Assault politics is the only flavor they know and understand.

Conservatives, by the way, are not immune. Michelle Malkin has, if anything, gotten angrier over the last two years. She's spending so much time in full-court press that she tends to do fewer well-constructed thought pieces. Assault Politics sucks you in. It's a disease.

So listen to Tom's song, and give it a worthy chuckle. Then hold your hat over your heart and mourn the loss of a truly classical education.

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