I am deeply concerned about what is happening at Westerly High School. As a retired teacher who worked there from 1991 to 2012, I came to love the school and the students who attended it. It was a vibrant, dynamic school in the early and mid 1990s, virtually on the cusp of innovative teaching that brought educators from neighboring states to attend our classrooms. Our students represented the social, economic and intellectual composition of Westerly, so we had a wide variety of interests and backgrounds. We also had to deal with many challenges to authority, discipline and commitment. In many ways it was a turbulent period with much questioning and numerous debates about where we were headed.
Somehow in the succeeding years the impetus shifted, the strive for excellence slowed down, and the school succumbed to a state of complacency. That early dynamism I had experienced slowly gave way to a depressing stagnation and an increasing conformity within the school population. True academic goals morphed into slogans such as “we celebrate diversity” or “leave no child behind.” The teacher’s authority diminished inside the classroom, and with that change respect for the teacher also declined. The judgment of the teacher came under question, and so a slow but unending pattern of bureaucratic rules and procedures began to eliminate the teacher’s traditional autonomy to make decisions, determine grades and help set standards.
The students also were affected as they were held hostage to a state test that came to dominate their academic lives. Whatever the test included acquired primacy in the curriculum. Whatever the test did not cover became somewhat irrelevant. Their revised course of studies reflected those new values — more math, English, science, history — with less time and interest in art, business, language and music. In fact, the school’s success as a center of learning is now judged almost exclusively by the state test. Sadly, the administrators, the teachers and the students are rated primarily by the results of a flawed test soon to be replaced by another flawed test.
I am not overstating the current situation at Westerly High School. It is on a track of total submission to authority in which the glory of the American school system — creativity and inventiveness — will give way to mediocrity of thought and deed. In a historical period defined by constant change, we need a system that can accommodate itself to that process. Despite all its flaws and shortcomings, our educational system has succeeded in meeting that challenge where others, which we now are trying to imitate, have failed to reach the same level of national achievement.
Albert Einstein once stated that a true scientist must have a creative imagination; otherwise, he is nothing more than a technician. If we do not act now to reverse this trend, then I fear that we will continue to move our students toward that limiting state of facile manipulation of facts without their gaining any true understanding of the facts’ deeper meaning or value. In time our children will become Orwell’s sheep, willing to accept anything they are told. At that point the America we know and cherish will be lost.