What about now?

In previous posts (here and here) I’ve questioned the logic of reducing the goal of education to a small set of measures whose link to more tangible outcomes is tenuous. The evidence that goosing a kid’s reading scores in third grade, or even in a whole bunch of grades, is going to make a meaningful difference in outcomes that matter – whether they grow up to be secure, healthy, or happy – is, well, vaporous. It’s a house of cards.

I think that’s an important argument to make. But it also feeds into a way of thinking about schools, or more accurately, about being in school, that’s pretty disturbing. Like the perspective it challenges, it assumes that schooling is little more than a down payment on a (nebulous) future life. It’s not about what’s happening now, it’s about how what happens now will lead to other things happening (or not) at some point in the future.

This is grossly unfair to kids.

One of the greatest pleasures of the holiday season for me is seeing it through the eyes of my four year old son, Ian. His capacity to experience wonder so vastly exceeds my own. He is capable of loving (and being loved) in such pure, uncomplicated ways. (I wish I could be as appreciative of his tantrums, which are equally pure, but I have not attained that level of equanimity.) The single greatest joy in my life is to know that he is safe, secure, happy. He engages the world in the way that a kid does when he knows, in his core, that he is loved. All kids are blessed with this capacity to love and to wonder; to laugh or cry without fear or inhibition. Which is what makes them so vulnerable.

Too many kids are invisible to the adults around them. Too many are ignored. Too many are hated. Too many experience love or kindness only fleetingly, or not at all. I think of the lines from Ina Hughes’ A Prayer for Children, which is (ironically) recited at school board convocations across America:

We pray for those whose nightmares come in the daytime, who will eat anything, who aren’t spoiled by anybody, who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep, and who live and move, but have no being.

We pray for the children who want to be carried and for those who must, for those who we never give up on and for those who don’t get a second chance. For those we smother…and for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind enough to offer it.

The larger problems that lead to the mistreatment and misery of children cannot be solved by schools. But kids are in school ten months a year, eight hours a day, for thirteen years. We have a choice about what they experience during those hours. Will they experience joy? Will they be shown kindness? Will they be allowed to wonder, to be curious? Will they be happy?

In the current education policy environment, reformers think of these as “soft” issues, and schools that have made a real point of prioritizing children’s happiness are treated with contempt unless those efforts are “validated” by test scores, which are thought to be what really matter. (The assault on small class size is a byproduct of this myopia.) This is the damage caused by future-logic.

We need to spend a lot more time and energy thinking and working on what kids are experiencing right now. Far more than we do, they live life in present tense. If school provides them with a place where they can safely, happily experience some part of childhood (especially for those that do not have that opportunity in their own homes or neighborhoods), that counts for a whole lot.

I don’t know whether moving a kid from basic to proficient in mathematics will affect his life in any way. I’m skeptical. I do know that for a kid “whose nightmares come in the daytime,” giving them as many chances as possible within any given day to smile, to feel safe, and to experience kindness makes a huge difference in that kid’s life on that day. It’s as real as anything I can think of.

As educators, we should be thinking about our kids’ future. But we should also admit that it’s an abstraction. What is not an abstraction is our kids’ present. Let’s make sure we at least get that right.