“What ails thee Jock?”

By now you have probably been sent a link to, or have even read, Playing to Learn – Susan Engel’s oped in the NYTimes last week. In addition to the fluttering  in my twittersphere, I received notice from a teacher, an alumna, and an administrator at PDS as well as the head of a neighboring school. And no surprise:  Engel outlines a research-based curriculum recipe for success that you can find in many good schools and certainly at PDS.

And if you haven’t read it, now is a good time. It’s short, to the point and important.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is set to pour money into a renewed focus on school success, failure and assessment in the well-intentioned but misdirected “race to the top”. It’s an unfortunate metaphor. A race means winners and losers when what we really need is for all children to be educated and to succeed.  We need a “team effort to the top” to make a collective climb to higher levels of literacy and numeracy not a sharper elbows scramble for scarce rations.

This No Child Left Untested policy suggests that test scores are the desired and final outcome of education. It will ensure that teachers increasingly teach to the tests, and that assessment and measuring become the focus of the curriculum and time in school. The truth is that improving test scores can never take the place of actually educating children.

Also last week New York Magazine had a cover story The Myth of the Gifted Child that excoriates the notion that four year olds can be tested effectively for giftedness, intellectual ability and potential.  This is a magazine that relishes the opportunity to tweak the obsessions of the elite and its The Junior Meritocracy did just that asking:  “Should a child’s fate be sealed by an exam he takes at the age of 4? Why kindergarten-admission tests are worthless, at best.”

Reading about the testers’ interactions with small children I wondered what they would have made of Thomas Babington Macauley, the eminent and erudite 19th century scholar, writer, barrister and politician. The story is probably apocryphal but here is one version:

Legends surround the first words of Macauley…. He famously did not utter a word until around age 4 when he turned to a wailing baby and asked, “What ails thee Jock?”

In another version the four year old Macauley soon speaks again, and in characteristic style:

While he was dining one day with his father and mother at the house of a neighbor the servant upset a cup of coffee on his legs. On his hostess’s inquiry as to whether he was hurt, the young Thomas immediately replied: “Madam, the agony is somewhat abated.”

The British humorist Frank Muir is said to have commented, rather uncharitably, “I think the temptation to spill coffee on such a child must have been quite strong.”

Annoying brat, child prodigy, neither or both, I don’t think Macauley would have impressed the testing psychologists.

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