So long, Mrs. Whatsit

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I apologize. I have been absent from the blogosphere for over a week now. I’m back, though, and because, with the release of preliminary MCAS scores, those dreaded buzz words – standards and accountability – have been all over the press, I want to weigh in on them.

Before I do, however, I would like to point out that the generally good news about the preliminary MCAS scores coincided this week with a bit of bad news – the passing of author Madeleine L’Engle, who is probably best known for her adolescent classic A Wrinkle in Time.

Her death was brought to my attention by Jeff Jacoby’s column in Wednesday’s Globe. Upon learning from Jeff that Ms. L’Engle had died, I was, like him, transported back in time, but not to the youth in which I first read A Wrinkle in Time, but to the 6th grade classroom in Chelsea where I once taught it.

For so many reasons, the novel was one of my curricular staples. Its theme of non-conformity appealed to my rather rebellious nature and its diverse list of the religious and historical figures the elderly, well, stars offer as defenders of light was a ready-made research assignment for my students. (You would have to have read the book to understand.)

Primarily, though, I taught A Wrinkle in Time because it allowed me to introduce scientific topics (mine was the odd teaching team; I taught ELA and science, my partner Math and History), specifically the concept of dimensions, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, E=mc2 and, because three of the book’s characters are, after all, stars, nuclear fission, which I used as an analagous model for the Big Bang. (The state’s science frameworks have changed since I taught. When I did, some concepts under the standard for the Origin and Evolution of the Universe now taught in high school were then taught in middle school.)

There is a commonly held view in some education circles that certain concepts are age inappropriate. I would guess some teachers might believe teaching Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity to 6th graders falls in that category.

Now, though I am no longer the brash young teacher I once was (I once boasted I could teach 5 year-olds nuclear physics if I just created the necessary conceptual scaffolding and chunked the information into small enough bites), I am reminded of him by the conincidence of a revered author’s death and the (what seems to have become) annual debate over standards and accountability.

I believe both sides of the debate have long since drained those words of any real meaning, but I can’t fail to get past the impression that those who argue most vociferously against our current system of standards and accountability – MCAS – are probably some of the same teachers and theorists who would criticize me for teaching age-inappropriate concepts. As if being smart could ever be age-inappropriate.

MCAS isn’t perfect and Lord knows neither is NCLB, but can we at least agree that standards and accountability are necessary. I am willing to debate what forms they should take, but I am unwilling to acknowledge any philosophical supposition that begins from the belief that standards and accountability are not vital to education.