Joining an Education Resistance

The books I gobbled up when I was a teenager frequently took place during World War II and included characters who were part of the Resistance, groups of individuals who acted at great personal risk to oppose conquering enemies. I remember hoping I’d have their courage in similar circumstances. I feel very lucky I haven’t had to find out. Those stories, however, have given me the courage to move past fear on a few occasions.

One New Years Eve I stood on a San Francisco sidewalk and yelled at passersby to draw attention to a man who was attacking a woman in shrubs next to a building.  At first I was paralyzed with fear. I knew I didn’t have the physical strength to ward off the attack; but then I realized I had my voice.

On another night I accompanied a young woman, who had been in an auto crash in front of my apartment building, to the emergency room.  When she refused stitches for the deep gash on her back, the sleep-deprived physician lost his patience.  Reluctantly, I asked the nurse for two mirrors. I held one high in front of the woman and asked the nurse to angle the other to reflect the injury.  When the woman saw her injury, she agreed to be treated.  I realized the importance of showing, not just telling.

As my daughter’s middle school years approached, I felt a growing sense of dread, which made me feel as powerless as I initially felt on the sidewalk and in the emergency room. I was the mother of a stressed out daughter, who was in danger of losing one of the things I most treasure as a human being, an American, and an artist: a love of learning.

Over the years, I’d read numerous articles on education and was dismayed by the way learning had dissolved into a massive number crunching business. Most public schools have come to focus on standardized testing to quantify success.  Most private schools have responded by pushing accelerated achievement, not via traditional testing, but by demanding more and more of students.  Both strategies steal the gift of learning from children.

Moreover, what I had learned about the specific failures of middle school was distressing.  Research demonstrates that sixth- to eighth-grade students feel safer and perform better in K-8 schools compared with separate middle schools. A 2005 evaluation of middle schools conducted by the Los Angeles Unified School District determined that students who attend sixth grade at an elementary school do better over two years than those in sixth grade at a middle school.  Seven years later, Los Angeles still has only a handful of K-8 schools, compared with 77 middle schools.  The research doesn’t seem to matter.  In fact, New York City schools chancellor Dennis M. Walcott made the announcement last fall that 50 new middle schools would open in the city by 2014.

What was I to do?  I knew calling out for help wasn’t going to help, nor was a mirror or even two mirrors going to shed any new truth on the matter.  But a strangely recognizable feeling was growing inside me: a spark of resistance had been lit.

After much discussion, our family decided to home school for two years.  We called it “skipping middle school” but it felt like we had “joined the education resistance.” When people asked specific questions about our thinking or approach, we told them that we didn’t think being overwhelmed by testing, distracted by busywork, and exhausted by homework led to learning.  They got it, especially when they saw that our daughter was thriving (not surviving). What happened in those two years?  No testing.  No homework!  Lots of reading.  Lots of writing.  Lots of discussions.  Lots of learning.

I keep thinking about what education reformer Ted Sizer (1932-2009) once said, “America must take its young more seriously…out of simple human courtesy.” He detested standardized tests, which only offered “snippets of knowledge about a student and at worst a profoundly distorted view of that child.”

For our children’s sake, and our country’s future, the time has come to oppose the conquering enemy.


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