Ky. Voices: A child is more than the sum of his test scores

The retirement announcement of Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman prompts reflection from everyone who has an interest in our schools.

To his everlasting credit, Silberman was the first FCPS superintendent not only to recognize, but to act on the fact that children from lower-income families, and particularly children of color, were not receiving the same opportunities as more affluent, predominantly white students.

Silberman's efforts have kept the "achievement gap" at the forefront of the community's awareness.

What remains unaddressed is whether FCPS, Kentucky or the nation as a whole is approaching this challenge in a way that will actually work. In this context, the now-ubiquitous slogan introduced by Silberman, "It's About Kids," strikes me as ironic. The fact is, as long as "it" is almost exclusively about scores on standardized tests, "it" cannot possibly be "about kids."

Although kids are unable to articulate this fact, they are trying desperately to bring it to our attention. Herald-Leader columnist Merlene Davis alludes to one of the ways when she writes, "There are too many black boys in detention and special education. And there are far too many students dropping out of school ill-prepared for what awaits them."

It is not only blacks or boys who are acting out their negative emotions; alcohol and drug abuse and ill-considered pregnancies are only some of the manifestations. These are even more troubling realities than the disparity in test scores.

Still, we obsess over supposedly "objective" data while our young people are throwing far more compelling evidence in our faces.

If we could turn our attention from the numbers to the immediate human needs of our children, the achievement gap would become more manageable.

Why are we so taken with test scores? In a recent book, The Heart of Higher Education, physicist and educator Arthur Zajonc suggests: "The ways in which we educate students today are, in large part, a reflection of our world view, which itself is an image of 19th-century science. In this view, knowledge is largely inert and objective, and education is limited to teaching students how to manipulate the knowledge they accumulate at school."

A teacher friend of mine put it in more accessible terms in a Facebook post: "As long as we try to build children the same way we build cars, we will never have good education policy. There's no formula ... Good teachers are artists ... As long as we reduce education to a number, we're on the wrong path."

If we can ever summon the courage to face this reality, what do we do instead?

I do not believe the answer is terribly complex, although carrying it out will take a lot of work and some faith in what we all know about human needs.

It is an extension of the same principles my wife and I, like most parents, strive to apply in raising our own children:

■ See that every child's basic needs are met. If they come to school hungry, feed them. Feed them good food, not the traditional high fat/sugar/salt cafeteria diet.

■ Work to maintain and improve children's physical health. Every school needs a full-time nurse. And make time for plenty of physical activity during the school day.

■ Maintain a safe, nurturing school environment. Schools work hard at this in terms of physical safety, and we have seen an increase in awareness regarding bullying, but we can do better.

■ Don't try to force every kid to learn the same things, in the same ways. Not all kids are ready to learn the same thing at the same time. This doesn't mean they won't ever learn it.

■ Treat teachers like human beings. They are not interchangeable parts any more than the students are. Teacher attrition is high because people rebel at being treated disrespectfully by students, administrators and parents.

To implement these ideas would be expensive. Fortunately, a ready source exists: the enormous amounts of money that go into the coffers of the purveyors of "objective" tests and other allegedly educational gimmickry.

I wish Silberman well. I honor his desire to turn more of his attention to a young grandchild and elderly parents. And we should applaud him for bringing a persistent and morally compelling problem to light, and for making sincere and energetic efforts to alleviate it.

At the same time, we must recognize that as long as we rely almost exclusively on standardized test results to assess our efforts in educating young people, "it" will never truly be "about kids."