I begin with the wonderful painting by Winslow Homer because it represents an ideal image of American education: before the iconic little red schoolhouse, a group of boys is engaged in a boisterous game called “snap the whip.” The energy they expend during recess — Ralph Waldo Emerson called them “masters of the playground and of the street” — is a response to their morning’s work inside the schoolhouse, at their books. Discipline and freedom are both necessary to their development, and the fact that they are outdoors on a gorgeous day adds to the beauty of the scene.
Modern educational thought has moved far away from the principles of free public education expressed in Homer’s painting, or in the thought of Emerson. Emerson praised New England in particular as the first place “in the world [with] the freest expenditure for education.” Emerson saw this as direct corollary to the independence of the United States, where even the poor were to be educated, not only in the trades or in the rudiments of letters and numbers, but “in the languages, in sciences, in the useful and in elegant arts. The child shall be taken up by the State, and taught, at the public cost . . . the ripest results of art and science.”
Current thinking prefers to backpedal on this revolutionary practice, and institute an empty and dull curriculum of material that can be measured and quantified by standardized testing. Science, even for the youngest children, is distanced from nature, the closer it can approach computers. “STEM” programs — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — are not reserved for upper-level students who have mastered reading, music, art, botany, etc. Instead, technology will be taught from kindergarten, with a large supply of “non-fiction” books. Why fiction has become antithetical to children’s education is a mystery to me. Those who design such curricula have no idea how a child develops — although they are well aware of how to create subjects that can be tested and “read” by machine.
As bad as the standardized test regime had become with No Child Left Behind, it has gotten so much worse since Steven Adamowski took over the Windham School district. CMT prep has become a subject, often taught more than once per day. In some classrooms, there is no longer social studies or any other subject not currently tested on the CMTs. Even in kindergarten through second grade, there are many tests given every few weeks. Drill, drill, drill. Unlike the carefree children who revel in their freedom in Winslow Homer’s “Snap the Whip,” a first-grader told his teacher in the district: “We’re good testers.” He was referring to the endless assessments conducted on behalf of the state and federal government.
The first change Adamowski wrought in Windham was to cut early childhood education. Many parents whose children had been accepted into the free preschool program found out that, instead, they would have to make other plans. Adamowski made this to cut an already bare-bones education budget. Budget votes, in which the school funds can be singled out while other parts pass, are very acrimonious in Windham, with out-of-town landlords placing “Vote NO” signs on the properties they own — but don’t live in. The effect of merely cutting further is to tell the town that inadequate funding isn’t the issue, and it makes privatization initiatives, somewhere down the line, more attractive. Adamowski seems to prefer appeasing the “No” voters to offering preschool to poor children.
I assume that a takeover by the Commissioner’s Network would be similar: cutting programs to the most vulnerable constituencies; reducing bus service, which will make it hard for some children to get to school; increasing test-prep and drilling; utilizing under-certified staff, such as Teach for America, rather than hiring traditional teachers who would stay in the district. Adamowski also has spent a lot of time redrawing bus routes; favoring some schools with lower student numbers while making others more crowded; and re-organizing the high school so that areas like Band and Art classes will no longer fit into students’ schedules.
The efforts of Adamowski and of the so-called school reformers have very little to do with education. Whereas in neighboring towns students begin foreign language study in fifth or sixth grade, in Windham students are lucky to have one quarter-term of a language in eighth grade. While it is nearly impossible for parents to speak to Adamowski, he has proven accessible to landlords and business people. The Board of Education, which is powerless, spends their time thinking of how to fundraise for Teach for America, accepting TFA as a Band-Aid solution and a wedge for privatization.
Emerson wrote: “A collector recently bought in London an autograph of Shakespeare; but for nothing a school-boy can read Hamlet and detect secrets of highest concernment yet unpublished therein.” Emerson believed in equality for all Americans, and he saw the golden potential of every child. School is not a business, but one of the requirements of a free and just society. But I fear that when schools get taken over, school children will no longer read Shakespeare. They don’t even read Emerson. In a technocratic world, it’s easy to adopt technocratic solutions to all problems. But the great educators, from Plato to Locke to Rousseau to John Dewey and Emerson, have always recognized that education is an irreducible humanistic enterprise involving the whole human person. Certainly, school reformers should have a look at one of the greatest thinkers of the United States.
Mary Gallucci is a parent with three children in the Windham School District.