Let Them Eat Test Prep


When we talk about diversity in schools, we usually focus on school populations. We measure diversity by counting off how many races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds are represented in the school community.

Diversity is about more, however, than demographics. If schools are like ecosystems and students are the organisms that inhabit those ecosystems, curriculum is the nutrition that feeds those organisms. A diverse that offers a variety of classes (including offerings in the arts, music, and applied sciences) is a critical element in a healthy school ecosystem.

Writing about the connection between biodiversity and nutrition, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states:

Biodiversity plays a key role in ensuring dietary adequacy, because nutrient contents between foods and among varieties/cultivars/breeds of the same food can differ dramatically. 

In other words, ecosystems that offer a diverse menu of nutrients are healthier than those that offer limited options. The same holds true for school curricula; when students have access to a smorgasbord of subject matter (including arts, music, and elective classes), those students and their schools are healthier and happier. Sadly, the more schools are forced to emphasize test preparation, the less diverse their curricula become.

I taught for a couple of years at a high school where administrators had created a curriculum devoid of elective content. Students took the same four classes (English, Math, History, and Science) all four years of high school, with Spanish, Art, and Drama classes assigned to students purely to meet city or state requirements. The school offered no classes in music, dance, creative writing, or applied sciences. It offered students no choice of classes whatsoever, assigning them to “electives” regardless of their interests or aptitudes. Despite this bland, homogenous curriculum, last year the Department of Education gave this school an “A” rating.

I understand why these administrators force-fed their students this cold gruel of a curriculum. High schoolers are tested heavily in Math, Science, English and History, and those test results can make or break a school. Unfortunately, city, state, and federal authorities provide virtually no incentives for schools to offer electives or music classes, even though these are often the classes that make high school worthwhile.

But school reform isn’t about making school worthwhile, meaningful, or enjoyable. Meaning and enjoyment are exactly the kind of fluff that value-added reformers want to eliminate from the classroom. To these folks, after all, education is about conditioning a malleable workforce, not cultivating a healthy citizenry.

Given that set of goals, diverse curricula are certainly not a priority for Michelle Rhee, Melinda Gates, Arne Duncan, and the rest of the value-added vampires. At least, not when they’re dealing with other people’s children. (Their own children, of course, get treated to four-star schools with lots of delicious electives on the menus.) As far as they’re concerned, the poor children of America’s impoverished districts can simply eat the test-prep cake.

On the other hand, those of us who work with children, who seek to educate those children in the hopes a building a strong, functional democracy– we know that children need music the way that daisies need sunlight. We see our students’ hunger for knowledge. We know they need more stimuli, not less. Barry Lopez, a brilliant writer and thinker, argues far more persuasively than I can for exposing people to all available forms of human expression:

Diversity is not, as I had once thought, a characteristic of life. It is, instead, a condition necessary for life. To eliminate diversity would be like eliminating carbon and expecting life to go on. This, I believe, is why even a passing acquaintance with endangered languages or endangered species or endangered cultural traditions brings with it so much anxiety, so much sadness. We know in our tissues that the fewer the differences we encounter in our travels, the more widespread the kingdom of Death has become.

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