Tonight I lay in bed beside my six year old nephew, listening to him read and giggle his way through a new book. Driving home afterwards, I thought of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who committed suicide this week after fellow students livestreamed his personal life onto the internet. I imagined him at six, like my nephew, maybe reading a book, giggling, and being tucked into bed by his parents.
This last week, during NBC’s Education Nation, there’s been a lot of finger pointing about schools, about achievement scores and how our nation is ” falling behind”; there’s been trash talk about unions, political posturing about merit pay for teachers whose students have the highest test scores; there’s even been praise by administration officials for the Los Angeles Times “outing” of teachers whose students’ scores were low; all narrow factory-driven definitions of what makes for a school’s success.
But tonight, thinking about the ruination of this young man’s life, it’s even clearer to me than ever that those achievement scores are not the most important thing we do for our children in our schools at all.
What we do that’s truly meaningful is to show our students how to love and respect one another by loving and respecting them and each another. That is what makes a successful human being, no matter what their scores on any test.
The students at Rutgers, from the outside, looked like our education “success stories.” They probably had high achievement scores in high school. They wouldn’t have been there otherwise. They may have had everything “scorewise” you want to see on a piece paper as a college admissions counselor.
But did they have the sensitivity towards a fellow human being that one should have? Did they have the respect for another person’s privacy? Did they have the independence not to follow the fallacies of groupthink or bigotry? Did they have the insight to think about the long term consequences of their actions? We have not only failed Clementi, but we have also failed these students who felt empowered to treat a fellow human being this way.
When we try to define what makes a good education, we can never forget that what we as teachers teach our students goes far beyond what is measured on a test. And as policy makers, we can never forget that a test is not the only measure of a student, a classroom teacher, or a school. Grades are not everything.
Most importantly, we cannot forget that we set examples as parents, educators, administrators, policy-makers, or celebrities for our children and young adults every day. We want every child to succeed. But can we continue for our policies to define what that looks like so narrowly? I, for one, don’t think we can afford to.