How bureaucracy in education is failing our children, one standardized test at a time.
My children have a mother who would eat early-American literature for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if she could.
So imagine my delight when I recently learned that my son would read Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter” for 7th-grade Language Arts. I recalled my own exposure to Poe's well-formed, interminable sentences as a ninth grader.
I quickly visualized my son's teacher asking students to read aloud selections to their class, prompting group discussions to analyze the plot, analogies, and subtleties in Poe's story. I also envisioned kids rolling their eyes at excerpts read aloud before discovering Poe's wit and subsequently rolling on the floor with laughter.
Alas, my fantasy was unfounded. Each member of his 35-pupil class would read a different short story. My son was on his own.
Because I've already passed seventh grade, I opted not to insult my son's intelligence by meddling. He would ask if he needed the help.
“Mom,” he said, slamming the story on the table three days before his report was due. “I think I get the plot. But whenever I start reading, my eyes cross over!”
Complacency comes naturally to a 12-year-old. If passion for learning isn't nurtured during a child’s complacent years, the building blocks of his education will topple.
For the next two hours, I neglected dinner prep, work, laundry, and my two other kids, as we took turns reading Poe out aloud, stopping frequently to discuss the time period of the story, the setting, the characters, and Poe’s disguised humor.
Remembering my own frustration with Poe, I provided my son with some background. I explained how Poe tended toward morbid topics and terminology but also filled his writings with ironies and brilliant humor—in spite of the morbid subject matter.
Death and violence? Now Poe had my adolescent son's attention.
We took turns translating themes, stumbling together over complex rhetoric and finding small victories where we could. Most seventh graders, especially when reading independently, don't understand the complexities of Poe on first introduction. This assignment suggested that the teacher considered literature to be inert; that he viewed reading simply as a task to complete.
By ignoring the motivational realities of seventh graders, the teacher missed a chance to allow literature to have a profound impact on his students. The assignment demonstrated yet another example of how, when schools are motivated solely to achieve high standardized test scores, students miss out on richer learning experiences.
Other examples are too numerous to count: homework assigned not as reinforcement but as busy work; the elimination of music and arts programs; and gifted-student programs unequipped to identify equally bright children whose undiagnosed learning differences classify them as “average.”
Appreciation, however, is not covered on standardized tests. Although standardized tests allow administrators to gain valuable measures of general success across various school districts, they do not leave room for the notion that appreciation and love of learning can lead to better overall understanding.
In a fitting comparison, a character in Poe’s “The Purloined Letter" failed to solve a mystery when he neglected to pair reasoning and subjective analysis to his logic.
We need to wake up. When a bureaucracy rewards schools primarily for high standardized test scores, teaching becomes self-serving—for school districts, not for children. Impressive school rankings are meaningless if schools don’t embrace the value of a lifelong love of learning as the clearest pathway to success.
Although the hours my son and I spent on Poe cut into the rest of his school work and our family time, the effort was more than worthwhile. The conclusion to his report encapsulated his learning experience in a fashion that both astonished and amused me:
“I recommend this story to someone who likes mysteries if they can read and understand very old English, because there are a ton of hard words and some unusually long sentences that have so many prepositional phrases in them that you feel like you want to take a breath five times in each sentence even if you're not reading it out loud, just so you can understand what it means—kind of like this sentence!”
With this summary, my son proved that adding an unconventional approach to education leads to greater learning than conventional methods alone—a lesson more important than any grade he may earn.
Cameron Sullivan is a journalist, multimedia professional, and freelance writer based in northern California.
Illustration by Junyi Wu