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NCLB Stories: Mississippi

Three years ago, as I sat in the annual back-to-school assembly of faculty and staff for Hattiesburg public schools, I overheard an instructor of sophomore English say, ‘If this is how we are going to be evaluated as a district, then we ought to eliminate every class and activity that is not measured by No Child Left Behind.’

“The shock of that public utterance on this arts educator did not go unregistered. Her statement grew out of a discussion of the one-size-fits-all tests, indicative of NCLB. What became immediately clear to me was that educators were fearful that stringent ESEA regulations would replace the well-rounded education (inclusive of the arts) to which the Hattiesburg Public School District wholly subscribes.

“In this high-stakes, multiple-choice test world in which we unfortunately live, the well-rounded mind upon which western civilization was built, is being lost. Indeed, the concept of the Renaissance man is giving way to high-stakes testing, which is measuring and evaluating only certain core subjects, to the exclusion of all others.

“As an instructor of theater and debate, I am incensed that skills such as creative thinking and problem-solving ability (skills deemed so necessary in the world beyond high school) are being summarily dismissed as unimportant or at the very least, held as something less than noble.

“My professional dismay with this version of ESEA is that it does not go far enough in measuring the true abilities of a student or the success of a school district. The skills that I teach, as delineated above, combined with successful mastery of all other core skills, will yield a well-rounded mind, prepped for life in the work-a-day world of the 21st century. The goal of public education cannot be just to graduate good multiple-choice test takers. Where do you get a job doing that?

 “My dad taught agriculture in Magnolia, Mississippi, and he taught me a lot about life through our work to raise pigs on the family farm. He levied advice on fattening pigs for the market on more than one occasion. He would often say, ‘You can’t fatten a pig by weighing it. You’ve gotta feed it to make it grow.’ Dad was right. No sow ever gained weight simply by standing on the scale. Similarly, the student will never be ‘tested’ into becoming smarter. Rather, kids must be nurtured creatively if we expect them to exit our schools with a well-rounded mind.

 “So students can pass tests but cannot publicly express an opinion or advance an idea to a prospective employer or college scholarship interview committee. Is that the view of educational excellence that we desire? I hope not, but this current version of ESEA certainly appears to condone that shallow philosophy.

“Recently my students had an opportunity to perform our original docudrama, The Katrina Project: Hell and High Water, at Washington, D.C.’s historic Lincoln Theater A firm believer in the adage that ‘activities are the other side of education,’ my instincts as a 29 year educator tell me that the experience of actually transporting 30 students from Mississippi to our nation’s capitol will be much more valuable than my lectures from the textbook on how to manage theater performances on the road. As we used to say back in the 4-H Club, we ‘learn to do by doing.’

“The arts are fun, but they are also fundamental. But according to NCLB, confidence, great self-esteem, a sense of citizenship, higher thinking skills and good public speaking skills are all far less than desirable. In a world that desperately needs critical thinking and effective problem solvers, NCLB refuses to celebrate the 4 R’s: readin’, writin’, ‘rithmetic, and rhythm!

“The instructor of sophomore English and I agree on this premise: the student actor is better for having struggled through biology. The skills of the athlete are enhanced by studying music and dance. The student mathematician is a better human being for having experienced theater “Long live the Renaissance man.”

Michael Marks
High School Theater Teacher/Debate Coach
Hattiesburg Public Schools
Hattiesburg, Mississippi