'Rigor is a fine aspiration'

| 15 Feb 2012 | 10:28

    I read with interest the recent Warwick Advertiser article on WVCSD Superintendent Raymond Bryant’s recent trip to China and the district’s “Ten Steps” plan to increase “rigor” in our schools. While it is hard to argue against any effort to raise achievement in our schools, I would like to take issue with a few of the assumptions which underlie the article and the accompanying “Ten Steps” plan. To begin, the notion that Chinese students as a whole are outperforming students in the U.S. is pure fiction. These claims - which cite standardized test performance as evidence - ignore the fact that there are huge numbers of Chinese students (especially in undeveloped rural areas of the country) who either never sit for these tests at all, or whose scores are not included in the data released by the Chinese. Here in the U.S., we have compulsory education and universal testing. In short, we play the whole team; the vast majority of China’s kids are still riding the bench. This raises another important issue. China - its recent torrid love affair with free-market capitalism notwithstanding - is not a democracy. It is a rigid, repressive, totalitarian society, where poets and artists are jailed and where free expression and individualism are trampled at every turn. Schools in any society are the greenhouses which nurture future citizens. They provide children with their first exposure to the values and mores which undergird their collective homeland. We could hardly pick a worse model than China if our aim is to teach our children to value the rights and dignity of the individual. As for the district’s ambitious “Ten Steps” plan, I was disheartened to see that it is essentially a list of benchmarks-standardized test score targets and coursework which students should meet in order to demonstrate twenty-first century skills and college readiness. I am sympathetic to Dr. Bryan’s plight. The legions of school reform experts who have declared war on America’s public schools have but one obsession, one rallying cry, and it is difficult to resist its call: All students will achieve high scores on standardized tests in all areas. Unfortunately, such a prescription fails to take into account the individual strengths and weaknesses of children. All children can excel at something, but most will be incapable of excelling in all areas. Some children may even possess the strength of character to select their own passions and interests, rather than acceding to the demands of adults who supposedly know better. One thing is certain, however. Schools are not factories. I was dismayed to see Dr. Bryant quoted as saying that schools must produce a “product” that colleges want. Schools are not factories, and children are not products to be prepped to suit the projected needs of corporations. Schools must be above all else places in which all children - regardless of their relative strengths and weaknesses - can be inspired to find their own way, their own path to fulfillment and success. Despite what the so-called experts say, our twenty-first century society will still need playwrights and policemen, carpenters and clarinetists. This means schools with strengthened and expanded vocational education programs as well as rich and rewarding experiences in the arts. Rigor is a fine aspiration, but we should remember that the term shares a common root with the word “rigidity.” In circumscribing a single path to success, we send our children the wrong message, and we embrace a world view which is inflexible, restrictive, and ultimately totalitarian at its core. Jonathan Sicherman has taught American Literature, Creative Writing, and English as a Second Language in public schools for the past 15 years. Prior to that, Sicherman, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, was a chef in New York City.