Sunday, April 6, 2014

Under Pressure: Does Test Stress at School Added to Economic Stress at Home Constitute a Toxic Combination?

During the last decade, America's public school students have seen a steady increase in the amount of testing they have to endure. As a result of state policies and federal mandates, schools have transformed curricula from Pre-K up to raise scores on standardized tests, and have put immense pressure on teachers to do that, putting their jobs in jeopardy if they fail to do so. All over the nation, stories abound of classrooms becoming zones of extreme stress, with teachers and students displaying symptoms of anxiety,rage and depression in response to the new demands. Intentionally or not, our elites have sent a message to public school teachers and students-- produce or else- and have made it seem as though improving test results is everyone's patriotic duty, and that activities which don't contribute to that are not only a waste of time, but a threat to the nation's future

From a strictly educational standpoint, these policies are highly questionable. There is no evidence that students learn better in an atmosphere of fear and stress, and that they will become more productive citizens if they are deprived of play, emotional support and opportunities for self-expression..

But what makes these policies all the more tragic is that they come at a time when many students face increasing stress at home because of severe economic pressures on American families. During the Great Recession,, according to economists Thomas Saez and Thomas Piketty, blue collar and white collar families suffered a sharp decline in income (12 percent) and have gained almost none of it back in the ensuing recovery in which 95 % of the income gains have gone to the top 1% or earners. The result, making ends meet has become an uphill battle for many Americans, often requiring them to work multiple jobs, put in longer hours at the jobs they have, rent rooms out in their homes or apartments, or move in with relatives. And when this happens, children feel the pressure. Not only do they get less personal attention from the adults in their lives, they see the people closest to them getting beat down and filled with worry, sometimes leading to outbursts which leave children traumatized and filled with fear.

In a time like this, when many families are feeling extreme economic pressure, one would think there would be an emphasis on making schools safe and nurturing places, where children are loved and cared for as well as taught and where teachers are encouraged to be kind and supportive to their charges. But in fact, the exact opposite has taken place. Schools and teachers have been put under so much pressure to get results on tests that they have made classrooms into zones of fear where children are given less and less opportunity for play, exercise and artistic expression- activities which might relieve the stress they have in their lives.

There is an explosion coming and when millions of children begin acting out in ways which make classrooms ungovernable, policy makers will begin wondering "Why did we let ourselves get so obsessed with testing that we forgot we had children in them."