Edward Udel: Making our children sick


DALTON >> The lead-filled water flowing into the pipes of Flint, Michigan was still being consumed long after the danger was reported. When the crisis was finally acknowledged by state officials, thousands of children had already ingested lead for a prolonged period.

They and their loved ones will pay the price for the rest of their lives and the federal government will ultimately pay the bill to bail out another governor who has made a career out of his opposition to "big" government. Denial can be a costly and destructive business.

This is the way we handle many of our most difficult challenges today. We respond with denial reinforced by the vilification or diminishment of those with whom we disagree. Financial interests are concealed with rhetorical camouflage. The opposition to the development and use of alternate forms of energy is a classic example.

So too is our refusal to acknowledge that high stakes testing is failing to move the needle in a positive direction and contributing to our children's sickness. That's right! Sickness!

In "Is the Drive for Success Making Our Children Sick?" (N.Y. Times, Jan. 2), author Vicki Abeles writes, "Instead of empowering them to thrive, this drive for success is eroding children's health and undermining their potential. Modern education is actually making them sick."

In her argument, Abeles cites the work of Dr. Stuart Slavin, a pediatrician and professor at St. Louis University School of Medicine. In a study conducted at Irvington High School in Freemont, Ca., Dr. Slavin obtains "stunning" results: "54 percent of students showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression. More alarming, 80 percent suffered moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety." Abeles claims, "What Dr. Slavin saw at Irvington is a microcosm of a nation-wide epidemic of school-related stress."

Neither Abeles nor Slavin specifically identify high stakes testing as the sole culprit. But it is undeniably part of a pattern of intense academic pressure. Abeles writes, "Paradoxically, the pressure cooker is hurting, not helping our kids' prospects for success. Many college students struggle with critical thinking, a fact that hasn't escaped their professors, only 14 percent of whom believe that their students are prepared for college work, according to a 2015 study. Just 29 percent of employers in the same study reported that graduates were equipped to succeed in today's workplace. Both of these numbers have plummeted since 2004."

This last point is critical, especially when you consider the argument that things have gotten better since we began our data-driven obsession with assessments and No Child Left Behind. Clearly, Abeles' findings point to the opposite conclusion.

Parents see it

Her observations are consistent with the testimony of parents who attended the hearing for Bill 340 conducted by members of the Massachusetts legislature. Several parents testified that their children were suffering from stress and anxiety and that the constant pressure of high stakes testing upset children to the point that they no longer wished to attend school. One mother reported that her young daughter felt responsible for her teacher's job security. Several legislators also told their personal stories about the destructive impact high stakes testing had on their children.

Abeles verifies that even our youngest students are affected. "At the other end of the spectrum, doctors increasingly see children in early elementary school suffering from migraine headaches and ulcers. Many physicians see a clear connection to performance pressure." She also writes, "Even those not bound for college are ground down by the constant measurement in schools under pressure to push through mountains of rote, impersonal material as early as preschool."

Parental involvement is critical to reducing this "performance pressure." Joining the opt-out movement won't end the intense test prepping, but it will send a loud and clear message to those in charge. Enough is enough!

Our schools should be centers of motivation, creativity and genuine learning and parents have the power to help make that happen! Let your elected officials know that you support a moratorium on high stakes testing in Massachusetts. Bill 340 can make that happen.

Denial is not acceptable in Flint and should not be tolerated in our commonwealth. Stand up for your children and let your voices be heard at the other end of the state! Let us restore our schools and our children to good health.

Edward Udel was a long-time teacher in the Pittsfield Public School System and former chairman of the Taconic High School English Dept.


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