“You should all be getting at least nine hours of sleep a night” were the words of advice coming from my daughter’s eleventh grade math teacher. “Sure, like that’s really going to happen!” was her response to me. Not only are my daughter and most of her classmates staying up late to do homework, but this has been going on since elementary school.
Much of the blame for the high stakes, pressurized caldron that America’s public schools have become can be attributed to the disastrous education policies of outgoing Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his boss President Obama.
While many creative teachers and administrators manage to infuse our schools with educational magic, Duncan and Obama’s education policies have promoted testing mania, relentless competition and anti-teacher rhetoric. As a result, our children have suffered emotionally and physically while the toxic atmosphere surrounding the teaching profession has created a looming teacher shortage.
A recent survey of 22,000 high school students conducted by the Born This Way Foundation in collaboration with the Robert Woods Foundation revealed what many parents and educators have known for some time; our kids are unhappy and stressed out in school. Eight of ten young people indicated they were unhappy with school, including being tired, stressed or bored. These numbers only confirm what other reports have told us.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, teenagers should be getting close to ten hours of sleep a night. And yet the American Academy of Pediatrics says most kids are getting far less than that. Lack of sleep not only affects young peoples’ ability to do well in school, it can lead to a number of mental health issues, including depression and suicide.
Just watch any group of students going to and from school and you will see kids carrying as much as 30 to 40 pounds of books. Study after study shows young people are developing chronic back problems because of the heavy backpacks made necessary by the hours of homework they are required to do. (And no, the answer to that problem is not online textbooks.)
America’s teachers have been raising a red flag about relentless testing for some time. Now there is growing opposition coming from parents who see the harm this is doing to their kids. Across the country, parents, teachers and students are boycotting and opting out of mandated tests, and pressuring local school boards to back off from the excessive practice.
The resistance to mandated testing has become so widespread that policy makers are beginning to respond. In a dramatic break with the Obama administration’s focus on testing and market driven reforms, outgoing Secretary of Education Duncan—architect of the toxic "Race to the Top", called for less testing in America’s schools.
President Obama even acknowledged the role his policies have contributed to the excessive testing and said testing should be no more than 2% of classroom time The latest incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, not yet passed by Congress, recognizes the shift in public attitudes and takes a step backward from test mania.
While popular sentiment has shifted away from the failed federal education policy of the last 15 years, including No Child Left Behind of the Bush administration, President Obama’s appointment of charter school and testing advocate John King as the new Education Secretary is a troubling sign that the administration has not fully committed to reconsidering its failed education policies.
The election of a new president in 2016 offers some hope for a new federal education policy that truly values and nurtures our children and respects the women and men who teach them. A new vision for our schools would begin with the understanding that children and young adults are not empty vessels to be filled with information, bar coded and evaluated.
Our schools need to bring back the joy of learning by restoring art, music and other electives that make learning come alive for kids. Of course teachers need to evaluate students all the time. But there are better ways to do it. High stakes tests narrow school curriculum, focus an inordinate amount of time on test taking and preparation and create an atmosphere of competition that hurts students as well as teachers.
Reform policies that make sense—particularly for schools in our most needy communities—include lower class sizes and additional support services that help students overcome the challenges of poverty and racism, as well as mentoring programs that provide ongoing professional development for improvement of teacher performance.
These ideas, of course, cost money. But there is simply no substitute for funding our schools properly.
Children grow up quickly and the dog-eat-dog world of competition will descend on them soon enough. But as parents and educators, we have to insist on the centrality of play, the love of learning and a good night’s sleep within our children’s growing up experience. We need education policy that encourages well-rounded, healthy children—not sleep deprived, nervous nellies with chronic back problems.
Joshua Pechthalt is the president of the California Federation of Teachers