Henderson: Adults should let kids enjoy fine arts instruction without testing

Elementary school students get the opportunity to try out band instruments at an event held by the Florida Orchestra. Times (2006)
Elementary school students get the opportunity to try out band instruments at an event held by the Florida Orchestra.Times (2006)
Published November 3 2016
Updated November 4 2016

Today's question, class, is multiple choice.

Public education policy in Florida often lacks:

A) Common sense.

B) A grip on reality.

C) Both.

The correct answer is "C" but the question is incomplete.

What education officials lack most is the one thing they desperately need: patience.

These adults, many of whom are unelected bureaucrats, are in too big a hurry. They have sped up childhood for the state's elementary school students like it was some microwave dinner that had to be done in time so their darling overachievers can get to soccer practice.

That lack of patience, especially with the youngest students, was the underlying theme of a story by Tampa Bay Times education writer Marlene Sokol that had my head shaking in amazement and disgust. She wrote how Hillsborough County elementary public school students, some as young as 6, are required to take standardized computer tests on such subjective topics as music, art and gym.

Six years old. Testing on music. Testing on art. On gym.

Have the people who came up with this lost their collective minds?

As Sokol explained, "This is what testing bureaucracy has come to, assessment of a class once intended to identify kids with a real love and aptitude for music, reduced to answers about pitch, canon, melody and tempo."

I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. Education has been headed in this direction for years.

It started when politicians became infatuated with "accountability" for teachers. That begat these tests to measure learning skills. That, in turn, begat a testing industry for which the state of Florida spends millions of dollars. The lure of money begat "experts" who could help design the tests.

And it all came crashing down on the heads of elementary kids.

Educators have forgotten that kids at that age learn by experiencing things.

Example: The child likes to sing, and happily joins right in on the group sing-alongs. The child is smiling. The child thinks this is fun.

The bureaucrat, though, jumps several years ahead and decides, well — let's just take it straight from the state Department of Education website. It shows that in Hillsborough, about 98 percent of all students from first through fifth grades are enrolled in what the state calls "fine arts," defined as music, dance or visual arts.

So far, so good: I like the idea of exposing kids to these things at an early age. Let them experience. Let them enjoy. Let them laugh. Let them experiment, and mess up, and learn to try again.

Can't stop there though, can we?

We must test. We must measure. We must identify and categorize. That's important to do in areas like reading and math, where catching problems early can help a student stay on track in later years.

Even the state concedes that testing in fine arts is difficult, though, so why do it at all? It's a fool's errand.

Did you know, for instance, that Elvis Presley couldn't read music? Neither could any of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton.

In other words, it's likely that none of those brilliant musicians could pass the test Hillsborough elementary students are forced to take. Creativity can't be measured like some algebraic equation.

The best soul-crushing way to squash creativity in early years is when adults become too involved, and that is exactly what has happened here. Somebody in Tallahassee should have gone, "Whoa! Wait a minute!"

Yes, expose our young kids to the beauty of art and music. Let them find that live theatre is a thousand times better than a video. Then wait for that seed to sprout. There will be plenty of time later to test.

Patience, people.

Contact Joe Henderson at joehtampa@tampabay.com

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