When I recently saw a YouTube video touting a tap-dancing toddler, I was intrigued. After all, toddlers can barely toddle. Unfortunately, my hopes were cruelly dashed. The kid was awesome, but he was no toddler. A quick search confirmed my suspicion that little evidence exists of real toddlers tap-dancing. The one video I found with tiny tapping tots was painfully cute, but it also proved that they need to master walking and standing first. We might as well teach them to juggle.
No one can be an expert until they have mastered the essentials. Nevertheless, public schools have been forcing children to tap-dance and juggle long before they are developmentally ready or have sufficient time to master the fundamentals. Over the last twenty years, teaching and learning have been gradually replaced with a cultish devotion to increasingly unrealistic standardized tests. This has all been initiated at the federal level and exacerbated at the state level with broad bi-partisan support. Consequently, Uncle Sam now dictates more of a child’s school day than parents, teachers, or principals.
States simply made it worse by adding layers upon layer to the federal requirements. Among the dozens of educational “fixes” since 2010, I cannot identify a single curriculum reform in Oklahoma that has remained unchanged for more than two years. We are not only asking our children to hunt bumblebees with bows and arrows, but they are also expected to tap dance while they are doing it — blindfolded. Even if teaching to the test worked, we would need consistency and reliability to play the game.
Unfortunately, when a teacher knows that third graders have not yet mastered basic multiplication, they are compelled to move on to Algebra. I would love all my third graders to do Algebra (and many can), but my fourth-grade teachers really need them to multiply first, so they can master division. Just ask middle and high school teachers what they must reteach as a result. State and federal mandates force teachers to cover so much stuff that they can no longer teach the essentials to mastery.
After 20 years of this federal culture and after over a decade of insanity in Oklahoma’s curriculum, teachers have been reduced to implementers and children to bubblers. Education has become a conveyor belt driven by far-away bureaucratic and corporate agendas. According to such results, one may propose that Oklahoma’s children cannot learn, but that is preposterous. No, we are told that Oklahoma teachers cannot teach, so we need to add more regulation, more rigor, more mandates, and to speed up the conveyor belt.
Not only are Oklahoma public school children capable of learning – regardless of their background – Oklahoma teachers are more than capable of teaching. Both, however, must be afforded the freedom and time to master the right things. Good coaches know that they need kids who can dribble and shoot lay-ups before teaching fade-away jump shots. Teachers and parents likewise understand that children must master certain essential skills before we expect them to juggle chainsaws and tap dance like Gregory Hines. I am a career public educator, and I have dutifully tried to follow the standardized script, but I can no longer pretend it’s reliable or valid enough to do so.
Yes, we must still take these tests, just as we must pay taxes, but we must also recognize them primarily as political tools. They reveal little about a child’s college or career readiness or a teacher’s ability to teach. At best, they should be isolated events in the spring, so we can focus mainly on graduating students ready for the real world. Our teachers and children deserve the freedom, time, and support to master those essential grade skills that truly prepare them for college and career success. Our kids can learn and our teachers can teach, but we need to have the courage to trust them more than bureaucrats and corporations. If we do this, I believe we will have more kids tap-dancing and juggling than ever before, not because they have chased the standardized bumblebee but because they first learned to master walking and throwing and running and catching. And if you get time, search YouTube for tap-dancing toddlers to see some really cute stuff.