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The End-of-Semester Blues

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We just recently wrapped up finals and graduation exercises where I am. Students in K-12 schools aren't quite there yet—not all the way to the end, anyway—but the end is coming.

One thing I've learned as my career in teaching has unfolded is that when the end is coming—when some kind of closure is imminent—it causes panic in a certain number of students. I'm going to be careful not to overgeneralize here because that's never a good thing to do, but let me make a blanket statement: we have raised a generation of students who are so obsessed with the bottom line that they fear nothing more than finding out what's at the end of the rope. Or, to put it more precisely, they fear nothing more than getting to the end of the rope, regardless of what might be there. Let me try to explain.

In 2002, we effected a major shift in education policy in this country. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind act, our government made a commitment to using "student achievement," as defined by student performance on standardized tests, to evaluate school effectiveness. There were a lot of reasons to do this. I actually do believe it's important to set high standards, to expect a lot from people, to encourage them to do their best. And, in some ways, NCLB made a lot of sense. Ever since the passage of the initial Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965 the federal government had struggled to figure out a way to hold states accountable for educating their most disadvantaged students. ESEA provided money and other resources for this purpose but making sure states spent it responsibly was an issue all its own.

So NCLB institutionalized an approach to accountability and education reform that was designed to solve this problem. Under the law schools would have to ensure that they provided children with a quality education (again, as evidenced by student performance on standardized tests) or face the music. And the bar, as they say, was set high: we would achieve 100% proficiency in due time. Or was it with all deliberate speed? Well, we'd do it. Or else.

You know the rest of the story. Whatever good intentions were reflected in the passage of NCLB, and whatever good it may have accomplished—yes, sunshine is the world's greatest disinfectant, and, yes, disaggregated test data provided an antiseptic view of the way many kids were, in fact, being left behind—it's fair to say the law was a disaster. An overemphasis on student achievement in reading and math led to an obsession with tests, which narrowed the curriculum and accelerated the deprofessionalization of teaching. Worse, only corporate entities like Pearson had the ability to "scale up" testing programs quickly enough to keep pace with the charge of the new law, which in turn handed a lot of influence over education policy to people whose first order of business is to make money, not educate kids. And even while we pursued a top down policy agenda we were simultaneously encouraging the deregulation of the education "market" via charters and choice. We probably shouldn't be surprised that our political leaders have such a hard time articulating a coherent agenda for education; in this context, who could?

Maybe worst of all, NCLB became law in an exceptionally difficult political context. After 9/11 people became even more distrustful of "big government" thanks to the continued emergence of the surveillance state, so centralized efforts to improve education were viewed with even more suspicion than usual. Exceptionally close elections divided the country even further. And then the bottom dropped out of the economy when the housing market collapsed in 2008. What may have seemed reasonable in 2002—let's use the fiscal muscle of the federal government to ensure that states use money responsibly to provide a quality education to every child—suddenly morphed into a tone-deaf attack on education professionals that ignored critically important contextual variables such as immigration and globalization, child poverty, and reduced state support for public education, and then enriched corporate vultures to boot.

Not surprisingly, kids were caught in the middle.

What many people don't know is that this policymaking decision has had a profound impact on actual kids in schools. The tendency of teachers to eschew creative instruction in favor of test prep is well documented. Again, we know that the curriculum was narrowed as a result of NCLB, and that art and music, to say nothing of history and social studies, have been among the most prominent casualties. But these policies have had real psychological impacts too.

There is no shortage of evidence suggesting that too much testing has raised the stress levels of both teachers and students, but students, in particular, are the ones we should be worried about. Kids in elementary, middle, and high schools are, after all, still in their formative years. Not only are they changing physically and emotionally, but they're also learning how to make sense of the world, how to meet expectations, and how to handle challenges. Into those turbulent years we have decided to add a set of external expectations that may not, to our eyes, seem to have such high stakes attached to them, but to kids can seem pretty serious. Unless you've lived with or taught a kid who crumpled into a heaving, crying, hyperventilating mess for forgetting to do his homework or missing a test you really aren't fully informed on this topic.

I see it now almost every semester in my college students too—many of whom, it should be noted, want one day to become teachers. This the No Child Left Behind generation, and we're going to owe them big time for our mistakes. Some are genuinely capable of managing the often unrealistic work loads we put on them; others are good at covering, or are honest with themselves about their limitations: they just get something pulled together and turn it in so they can go on to the next task on the to-do list. But, increasingly, I see students who simply wilt under the pressure. An alarming trend recently has been for some students to simply not turn in their work at all—the rationale being that they're so afraid to fail they'd rather do nothing at all. It seems counterintuitive to people who don't think this way, but it makes perfect sense to the students who are feeling it.

I'm not ready to call this a full blown public mental health crisis, but listen folks: we're projecting our anxieties and our pathologies on our kids, and we will eventually have to pay that piper. We could have a student-centered education policy but we don't. We have an adult-centered policy approach that takes our fears of economic dislocation and violence and the apparent intractability of poverty and racism and a widespread feeling of despair (if not cynicism) about the future and turns them into policy choices that are short-sighted, pessimistic, and that seem, at times, to be completely devoid of hope for the future. We're saying to our kids: we don't trust you, and we don't trust your teachers either. Show us why we should, then show us some more. I don't blame my students for getting the end of semester blues when the work is piling on and there doesn't appear to be an end in sight—let alone anything they can do to prove that what they've been working on matters. I get them too. This is not a recipe for social progress.

Whether we want to admit it or not, the world is only going to be ours for a little while. Before long it will pass on to our children, and if all we've done to prepare them to take on that responsibility is remind them of how little they've accomplished and blame their teachers for not helping them do more, what reason do we have to think they'll be able to handle it? We owe it to ourselves—but, more than that, we owe it to them—to do better than that.

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