The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Turning Schools into Robot Factories

on November 6, 2015

Yesterday I read commentary posted online by Education Week that focused on the fact that current federal and state policies were turning our schools into robot factories.  Unfortunately, I found it disappointing because it gave no examples of what was actually happening or suggestions of what could be done to turn things around.  However, it drove me back to an essay I wrote five years ago that was posted on Valerie Strauss’ blog, “The Answer Sheet.”  Given my vanity, I couldn’t resist showing my readers that I did a better job of explaining and illustrating one of the most serious problems in education today. Oh, and I must make it clear that I wrote that piece in early September, so that’s why it refers to the beginning of the school year.

As a regular reader of the newspaper comics, I am always impressed by how well their writers understand human feelings and behavior. Right about now I am struck by the number of comic strips that deal with the beginning of the school year and how uniform their messages are: children aren’t happy about going back to school. This is not good-natured humor. It reflects pretty accurately the feelings I hear expressed by my grandchildren and many other children I talk to.

Although the excitement of new clothes and school supplies seems to soften the blow, the thought of being confined all day to over-crowded classrooms and hard seats and allowed to speak or move only after raising one’s hand is not a pretty prospect. Unfortunately, this picture gets uglier every year as demands for more and harder schoolwork increase, and the old respites of recess, art, music, and physical education disappear. By law, adults get breaks during their workday, but not children.

As an educational researcher I have been visiting elementary classrooms regularly over the past several years and finding much fine teaching and learning that I could write about.  But recently, for the most part, I don’t like what I see. Many of the once excellent teachers I know have been reduced to automatons reciting scripted lessons, focusing on mechanical skills, and rehearsing students for standardized tests. The school curriculum has become something teachers “deliver” like a pizza and students “swallow” whole, whether or not they like mushrooms.

Kindergartens that used to be places for children to learn social behavior, songs, dances, and poetry; how to build cities with blocks, play store, and express their feelings with crayons and paint, are now cheerless cells for memorizing letter sounds and numbers. In one kindergarten I visited last year, children recited in chorus all the words on the pages of the little books they had been given without ever appearing to recognize that those words were part of a story.

In a first-grade classroom I watched children march in circles at mid-morning, waving their arms because there was no longer a recess to refresh their bodies and spirits. Still, there was time enough for them to shout out the sounds of letters in chorus and to memorize the words “onomatopoeia” and “metaphor.”

In upper elementary grade classrooms I saw both English and math taught by formulas. Students were given a list of the parts of a standard essay, told to use them in order and to begin with a question or a surprising statement. They were also taught the formula for dividing by fractions (as if anyone ever does such a thing) and the Pythagorean theorem (useful if ever you want to know the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle).

I’ve also learned that many school districts have adopted summer homework policies, usually requiring students to read a prescribed list of books. This past summer my grand-nephew, who is entering 9th grade, had to write a legal brief defending or condemning Martin Luther King, although he had not been taught anything about that writing form or that famous man in 8th grade.

With the advent of the Common Core Standards, created by “experts” who will never be tested on them, school life will grow even more onerous. In keeping with the Standards many school districts have moved algebra down to the 8th grade, and geometry, before a tenth grade elective, is now required of all ninth graders. Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” which I read as a graduate student, is on the 9th grade recommended reading list. Although, the knowledge, skills, and books in the standards are, on the whole, academically valuable, they are scheduled to be taught to students two to four years too young to understand or appreciate them and not linked in any way to the interests of students.

All this has happened because the politicians who now control America’s schools have adopted the worst aspects of European and Asian education, which were designed to maintain social class boundaries in those societies.

Out of a misguided belief that students’ test scores represent a country’s economic health and, perhaps, out of wounded pride our leaders appear determined to convert our once strong public schools into robot factories and to extinguish the youthful imagination and ambition that have fueled our country’s greatness for more than 200 years.

One response to “Turning Schools into Robot Factories

  1. Shaari says:

    Sadly, I agree. I am continually hoping for change that makes sense.


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