Academic skills: Important 'only if they make us more human'

Below is the speech given by early childhood development expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige when she won the Embracing the Legacy Award from the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps for work over several decades on behalf of children and families.

I am very honored to receive this award and to be a recipient alongside Terry Cross, Marian Wright Edelman, Peter Edelman, and Lael Chester. It is gratifying to be honored by the Robert F. Kennedy Children¹s Action Corps, which does such needed and healing work with young people, and to be part of the tradition of social justice held up by Robert Kennedy.

I want to spread the good will of this award to all those teachers, mental health workers, child and youth workers who dedicate their lives to making the world better for children.

It¹s been a privilege to work with teachers my whole career — some who were making career changes from other fields, some already working as teachers but wanting more education, some coming to teaching after raising a family, some young people just starting their careers — all answering an inner calling to be a teacher.

So it pains me now to see how teachers are mistreated in the public arena of this moment in history, to see teachers blamed for the gap that exists in performance between low-income and black and Hispanic students and their peers. The achievement gap exists before children ever meet their teachers.

It's caused by poverty and inequality — words Robert Kennedy spoke often but that we hear too rarely today. In this country we have the highest poverty rate among industrialized nations. Children can't learn when they are hungry, when they are homeless or sick, when their family is under stress.

Robert Kennedy talked often of poverty, inequality, equal educational opportunity. These words have been replaced today by different words:standardized tests, accountability, failing schools, Race to the Top — words that portray education as a competition instead of the deeply human, universal, cooperative activity that it is. Words that imply that only some children and schools‹the ones who perform as mandated -- deserve to get to the top.

Teachers cannot thrive in punitive environments where they are measured, compared, and threatened. Children can¹t learn in these environments either — at least they can¹t learn in the ways I have taught teachers to understand learning for my whole career. You can drill kids and get their test scores up. You can take away recess and field trips, the arts and activity based learning to make time for more test prep. But real learning is not rote learning. Real learning is thinking in original ways, knowing how to apply ideas, growing morally as well as intellectually.

In this climate of high stakes tests, there is little time for the social life of the school, for building community, for learning the skills of nonviolent communication and conflict resolution. The society of the future will need citizens who can solve problems without violence, appreciate diverse points of view, feel compassion for others and stand up for what is right. Isn't this the purpose of education — to teach these things along with academics?

Years ago I saw a letter that I will never forget. It was written to teachers by a school principal. The principal was a man who had survived a concentration camp. In the letter, he said that he had seen learned engineers build gas chambers; skilled nurses kill infants. This principal pleaded with his teachers to remember that math, reading and academic skills are not ends in themselves. They are important only if they make us more human.

Robert Kennedy believed that every child has the right to live as we would want our own children to live. Can you picture a world where every child receives an equal and excellent education?

My friend the historian Howard Zinn always told me that it was important to remain hopeful in bad times. It's the small acts, he would say, multiplied by millions of people‹people like all of us right here — that can ultimately transform the world.