A couple of days ago, I came across this article from Boston WBUR, courtesy of Diane Ravitch’s blog. It tells the story of David Weinstein, who has taught first grade at the Pierce School in Brookline, MA, for 29 years but is retiring because he can no longer tolerate being a data-collector for six year-olds.

As Weinstein explains: 

[Retirement is] something I’ve been thinking about for a long time now, just in terms of how the profession has changed and what we’re asking of kids. It’s a much more pressure-packed kind of job than it used to be. And it’s challenging.

The pace is intense and I feel for kids, because they’re rushed. They’re constantly being rushed. You only get to be a child once. And you don’t get to enjoy childhood when you’re constantly being rushed from this place to that place to this, and being assessed in this way.

There’s a lot more data collection than we used to do. Data collection is important; part of education is assessment. Data collection isn’t inherently bad.

What becomes problematic is when an outside party is asking you to collect data which isn’t tremendously useful to my tailoring instruction to children. And that — that becomes frustrating to me as an educator, when I’m spending the limited time that I have each day collecting data, as opposed to developing lessons and working with children.

I went through the Brookline public schools, K-12. I didn’t attend Pierce, although I did live down the street from it for a while. Based on when Weinstein began teaching, some of my high school classmates would have been members of his first class.

The article would have leapt out at me under any circumstances, but it seemed particularly relevant given the recent series of posts by a colleague of mine, describing the chilling effects of various “reforms” on her classroom.

The article made me think back on my own first grade experience in Miss Dunne’s class at the Heath School. Most of it is pretty fuzzy at this point, but I do remember that it was considered a big step up from kindergarten: desks! chapter books! homework! (albeit only a few times a week).

It was pretty academic but, as I recall, it was also pretty low pressure. We did most activities as a class and some in smaller groups, but at no point did anyone suggest that anyone other than the teacher was responsible for teaching us, or that the teacher was responsible for doing anything other than teaching.

No one worried if we weren’t yet fluent readers, or how our failure to get ahead on that all-important skill might affect the school’s standardized test scores or interfere with our progression toward “college readiness.” In the late 1980s, those kinds of conversations did not yet exist. The idea of administering a reading comprehension test to children who were still learning to sound out words would have been considered madness. 

To start teaching in the Brookline public school system of 1987 and gradually have it taken over by a more-sooner-faster and teacher-as-data-collector mentality must be akin to entering the Twilight Zone. Children deserve wonderful, experienced teachers like Mr. Weinstein, but there is only so much a person can reasonably be expected to take.

And in a system like Brookline’s, which has traditionally educated many of the children of Boston’s professoriate class and sends a very significant number of its graduates to top colleges (members of my non-data driven first grade class attended, among other places, Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, Williams, Georgetown, and Wesleyan), there is absolutely nothing to be gained from imposing this type of ridiculousness. Incidentally, the Massachusetts state standards that were jettisoned in favor of Common Core were actually more challenging. 

Witnessing the insanity of what public education has devolved into, I sometimes can’t help but wonder how I would have fared had the current system been implemented when I was in elementary school.

At six, I had a rather impressive vocabulary, but my actual decoding skills lagged behind. I wasn’t even in the top reading group! But no one was particularly concerned about that, uneven development being quite common in young children. Everyone understood that learning is not a linear process but rather one that proceeds in fits and starts. It’s possible for one set of skills to be highly advanced while another is merely average. It’s a long, long arc, sometimes one that takes place over a period of years, and it can’t be controlled or accelerated by constant micro-assessments.

As Weinstein says:

There’s a lot of looking at standards — that’s the big thing in education — and really with the goal of trying to break education down into bits and pieces, so that we can have a clear understanding of where kids have mastery and where kids don’t have mastery. All these little pieces don’t necessarily add up to a whole. It’s hard to say that if you’ve mastered this and this and this, you have an educated person. That I don’t believe.

In my case, the assumption was that things would even out eventually, and sure enough, by second grade, I was devouring long books with relish. But had I been pushed to read in kindergarten, I don’t think I could have risen to the challenge. I was always among the youngest members of my class (in a lot of districts, I would have been required to start kindergarten a year later), and I just hadn’t hit that point developmentally. Considering some of the epic meltdowns I had in high school, when I was asked to complete assignments I lacked the tools to manage, I don’t think it would have been pretty. And although I’m what most people would consider a “natural” standardized test-taker, I think I would have been utterly baffled by something like the PARCC.

I’m also not someone who is particularly fond of working in groups. Under the proper circumstances, I am capable of collaborating with others quite effectively (and quite vociferously), but I generally prefer to work on my own. Given the current obsession with group work, I suspect I would have been a pretty unhappy camper.

Moreover, a perpetual refrain from my elementary school teachers was that I had difficulty “transitioning” — that is, I would get so caught up in whatever I was doing that I didn’t want to stop and move on to the next activity. If that was a problem when each lesson lasted, say, half-an-hour, I can’t imagine how I would have handled being asked to switch tasks every 10 minutes. And people wonder why students have trouble focusing! 

What I think I would have found most difficult, though, is the imposition of the idea that an effective classroom must be a busy classroom, one filled with constant chatter and noise and activity. Clearly some people have a high tolerance for that type of environment, but I, alas, am not one of them. (Interestingly, the “every child’s unique learning style should be honored” philosophy does not appear to extend to students who enjoy listening to people who know much more than they do explain new concepts in a clear and structured manner.) As a child, I was easily overwhelmed by noise and chaos; at six, I probably would have plopped myself in a corner somewhere and refused to participate. 

So I wonder: how on earth do children with personalities and interests like mine manage in today’s public school classrooms? Do they find ways to cope, or do they end up with a prescription for Ritalin and a half-dozen diagnoses? 

Teachers, at least, have the option of walking away from a crazed and out-of-control system. They can take early retirement, like David Weinstein, or they can simply look for another job. It may be a big hassle, but at least it’s an option.

But who, then, will be left to teach? Presumably, only the ones who either wholeheartedly buy into the current system or are cynical enough to pretend they do, or else those who are sufficiently unaware of any alternative to see what the trouble is.

Students, of course, will be left with the fewest options. If their parents cannot afford to pay for private school, then they’ll remain stuck in a system that seems determined to marry the worst ideas about education from both the left and the right. And never having experienced anything else, they won’t even know what they’re missing.