May is traditionally the time of year when teachers are appreciated and graduates are cheered on as they move out of the cocoon of secondary education. This may also be the right time to consider what the high school experience has taught students about each other and what success is for the individual.
Beginning in 2001, the No Child Left Behind federal law brought the national focus entirely to standardized test scores. The result has been an unrelenting judging of students, teachers, classes, and schools. At one legislative stroke, character education, the arts, collaboration, and compassion were wiped away. I should know. At that time, I was on the road presenting -my original materials which taught social lessons of acceptance of difference, patience, courage, and the healing of exclusion, ridicule and violence against devalued students. I was performing in schools, conducting hands-on seminars for educators, directing reader theater workshops of my musical for schools, How Big Is Your Circle?, and teaching social understanding through music-based materials. That work had taken me to 47 United States and other countries from Australia to Israel. However, with the introduction of the crushing vice of those tests and their implications, I lost all work and my travel stopped. Music teachers were released and school became a very different place.
It is my belief that school has three responsibilities, what I call the three S’s: scholastic learning, skills development, and social understanding. During those formative years, we prepare all students for a lifetime of living in communities with each other, being hired by and perhaps hiring, and befriending others of different races, religions, national origins, sexual orientations, and disabilities. But without structured learning opportunities wherein patience, compassion, and social support can be learned, we create citizens who will gravitate towards their own kind and exclude others they devalued because of their differences.
President Biden’s initiatives are opening schools once again for the teaching of social understanding. May we take this opportunity to apply the lessons we once understood as parents, teachers, and administrators. The future depends on it. As we return from our COVID isolation, and during this time of re-building classroom and whole school learning, may we imagine a future which remembers that we once had the threads of social understanding woven into the rich tapestry of education. It is the best chance we will ever have in a generation to shape our national character.