To Require Proficiency is Counter-productive

In an attempt to standardize, leave no child behind, and reach rigid benchmarks, traditional public education introduces detrimental elements into a child’s school life. Because schools and districts are under immense pressure to show that their students are proficient, the typical American classroom requires proficiency from each child at a specific date in his development. Kindergartners are pressured to read sight words. Third graders’ math facts are tested with a timer. Students are subjected to uninteresting reading passages in an effort to increase fluency scores.

Among other risks, attempts to require proficiency can easily lead to a student’s lack of confidence, lack of desire to learn, lack of interest in subject matter, and diminished thinking skills—in short, rigid requirements can crush aptitude and zeal.

Consider Annie. Annie is a precious little kindergartner. She loves to wear dresses over jeans and insists on wearing her pink cowboy boots every day. She has her own sense of style. She entered kindergarten self-assured—confident in the personality and love in which she was raised. She loves books. She loves to be read to and immerses herself in the aesthetic delight of the pictures. The text makes no sense to her. It seems a strange language, mixed up and confusing. She understands that grown-ups know how to derive meaning from those funny looking symbols, but she has no interest in figuring them out. At home she pours through books absorbed in the story told picture by picture. At home her parents read to her; it is her favorite moment of the day fostering complete joy. Kindergarten started out well enough –everyone was happy, songs were sung to begin the day, coloring felt good, show and tell was fun, recess was a whole new world of friends and laughter. But then the pressure started. Flash cards full of arbitrary letters are presented to her but she does not understand them. She feels frustration from her teachers. She is trying but cannot understand how all of this goes together. She cannot always remember the sound a letter makes. She doesn’t always recognize the combination of the letters that are supposed to represent a word. When she opens a book she is no longer allowed to absorb herself in the pictures, but must point to clusters of unfamiliar symbols. She begins to feel differently about books. She is sad about it. They are no longer joyful, but are a reminder that she is not good at this sort of thing. She sees her peers grasp these concepts but feels frozen in fear that she will answer incorrectly, so she guesses—her fears are confirmed. She begins to lose confidence. Her peers begin to lose respect for her as they see their teacher grow frustrated. They begin to see her as dumb and she can feel this. Later in the school year, she is whisked off to another classroom for reading where an intervention specialist again attempts to hammer sight words in with no context. It should work this time because the student/teacher ratio is smaller—the district has spent money on an interventionist to solve this problem.

Annie does eventually learn to read, but no longer loves books. She did not develop an understanding of stories as they had originally presented themselves to her. Even though her preschool years prepared her well, in kindergarten she was not nurtured to develop a strong connection with a book’s characters. Books are a requirement. Books are no longer a peaceful, pleasant story to her, but are now something she gets through to satisfy teachers. By second grade, students begin commenting on her cowboy boots—they adhere to sameness as they have been inadvertently taught to do. Annie is forever changed. A child who came into her school career a budding, creative lover of literature is now unknowingly going through the motions, questioning her intelligence, lacking confidence. But Annie doesn’t know any better. She is too young to question the grown-ups. She doesn’t lament her lack of self…yet. She is relieved that she can finally read even though she is in special classes and even though it is hard—at least she has passed the test. That is what her education wants of Annie—at least she has passed the test. She has a safe pair of sneakers now too.

If Annie had been allowed to learn to read within her own aptitude, without fear, perhaps with a more creative approach—if she had been allowed to develop within a supportive environment, she would not only be a proficient reader, but she would have retained a love for literature and most importantly, herself. But traditional education is not patient enough; it too is fearful of not meeting its own benchmarks.

Traditional education is concerned with benchmarks over what will actually teach a child, concerned with scores over finding out what will enhance a child’s educational experience.

To force proficiency is a fallacy and is counterproductive to authentic education. Introducing doubt and frustration into the mind of a kindergartner will undoubtedly hinder confidence. She will then lose belief in her ability to learn other skills and gain knowledge. Furthermore, when specific proficiency is required, students can easily lose their desire to learn as well as lose interest in a given subject matter. Although learning is naturally enjoyable, it becomes mundane and uninteresting when it is forced; deep learning requires that content carries meaning to the learner. Thinking skills develop in young minds through exploration and experience which takes patience—each learner requiring a different timeline. Pushing kids beyond an absorbable level or pace does nothing to benefit them.

Forcing proficiency is not only a fallacy, but may actually be to blame for crushed aptitude as well. Sore noses. Horses pushing carts.

If we truly want proficiency we must be willing to allow it; we cannot force it. We must be willing to be creative in our approaches and assessments. We must be willing to trust that children are capable, able to be proficient within their own timeline and within their own style. Rigid requirements are largely to blame for lack of proficiency.

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