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More than tests

09/21/06 12:00AM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) School testing is all the vogue in education circles these days, but when school resumed this fall, commentator Mike Martin found himself thinking instead about what it is that keeps kids interested in school.

(MARTIN) At the school where I teach, I've noticed a guy, a student, you always see hanging out in the halls - getting a drink of water, leaning on the lockers, or talking to girls. He's big and he always wears a baseball cap and a puffy parka, even on warm days. Whenever I see him standing near the front entrance talking to girls, his body seems to lean towards the parking lot, like he wants to make a break for it and escape. I could be wrong, but I get the impression this guy doesn't like school.

When I was in high school, I remember grown-ups telling me that they were the best years of my life. But high school was pretty tough sometimes. I mean, math class was definitely hard, and some teachers seemed to lavish attention on a few precocious talents while ignoring the rest of us - like fallow fields, we waited quietly to be seeded.

And high school was tricky, because you had to pick a clique and then always go to the corresponding table in the cafeteria. And if you made the In Crowd, you had to work at not falling out. And most kids never even got a turn at being in, never even got their fifteen minutes of popularity. So now that I'm a teacher, I try to say hi to kids who aren't Big On Campus. In some ways high school hasn't changed much. It's still scary, cruel, and confusing for a lot of kids a lot of the time.

To lower drop-out rates, some have suggested making school mandatory until age eighteen, but I don't think that will keep kids in school. What young people need most is to find something they're interested in, are good at, and enjoy. Once they get that, once they find their voice, their style, their thing - anything is possible.

If this is true, then I'm afraid that the current trends in curriculum are going the wrong way. Our obsession with evaluating schools and ranking our young people is changing our schools into test-prepping factories. Soon we won't even teach the Three Rs, just the narrow slice of each that appears on our standardized tests.

When budgets are tight, schools often cut programs that do the most for students as individuals. Arts and language courses are often treated as "extras", and not as essential courses that help students find a sense of self-worth.

If we really don't want to leave any of our children behind, we'll need to commit more resources to the humanities. Art, music, theater, languages, and literature must be part of the core curriculum because they're so often what make students want to come to school.

I saw the big parka guy in his chorus class the other day and he was singing like an angel. Perfect pitch, beautiful tone, tight vibrato - he was really good and he knew it. And I thought, "He's found something. He's found himself. He's going to stay in school."

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.

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