Creating Cruel and Unusual Punishment for Our Nation’s Children

black student

How Test Mandates and Budget Cuts Result in “Cruel and Unusual Punishment” for the Nation’s Children

Yesterday evening, I was at a dinner with a group of activists from Eastern Long Island who shared many disturbing stories about what was going on in local schools. One narrative centered on the consequences of growing poverty — the fact that a significant minority of students were coming to school hungry; the other on budget cuts.

In the school districts in question, budget deficits, without exception were being answered by cuts to programs deemed “non-essential,” e.g. pre-K, sports and the arts, as well as by laying off teachers and increasing class size. No district was contemplating saving money by reducing or eliminating standardized tests as this might threaten their state and federal funding.

These stories are a microcosm of a poisonous atmosphere that has afflicted public education in the United States in the current recession. School districts filled with children from economically distressed families are being assailed by government mandates that require more and more standardized tests, while programs that allow students to be nurtured and inspired and connected to school through programs which build on their cultural capital are being eliminated right and left because they have become “too expensive.”

Make no mistake about it, the punitive, stress-filled environment that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Hop has created is good for no one’s children. But it is especially damaging to children who come to school hungry and fearful because their families are living on the edge.

The last thing these students need is for school to become a place where stressed out teachers yell at them, drill them and make them sit still for hours on end because those teachers’ jobs will be in jeopardy if the students don’t score well on tests. But that is exactly what the policies pursued by US Department of Education lead to when they require that student test scores be a central component of teacher evaluation.

This is happening in very state, including New York, which has competed for Race to the Top funding. But it also occurring in states which have not sought those funds because of a national obsession with testing and assessment. Not one state in the union has decided to sacrifice testing, rather than pre-K sports, and arts programs, when they need to save money.

mark naisonThe amount of testing being required by current mandates would be unwise even in a prosperous society where every child comes to school well housed, well clothed and well fed. But in a society where a over a quarter of the nation’s children live in poverty and another quarter are in danger of falling into it, taking away activities that make school enjoyable in favor of relentless drilling for tests constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

These students need schools which are safe zones, places where they can get love and attention, have new skills developed, and have their cultural traditions honored and recognized. Instead, they now enter a fear-filled environment where people’s livelihoods depend on their achieving success on tests totally disconnected to their lived experience

I suppose there have been societies where schools try to whip children into submission to get them ready for their appointed roles in the lowest rungs of a rigidly stratified labor force. Perhaps this was the norm in Charles Dickens’ England, or in the plantation districts of the Jim Crow South. But the thought of this becoming the norm in the public schools of the United States in the 21st Century fills be with sadness

mark naisonAs citizens of this nation, we face some very hard choices. If testing and regimentation all we can offer the young people of this nation during their formative years, then we should continue with current policies

But if we think our children deserve better, we have no choice but to revolt and demand that tests be rolled back and public schools become places where children are nurtured and loved, and imagination and creativity are honored.

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent 

Published by the LA Progressive on February 20, 2012
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