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From The Desk Of Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel

My recent visit to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library reminded me of the optimism a leader can convey by his words and legislation. The papers and exhibits of the JFK Library in Boston offer profound insight into the President’s emphasis on the importance of education to the progress of our nation. On page after page, in room after room, it is apparent that the one domestic subject that mattered most to John Kennedy was education. He devoted more effort to this topic than to any other domestic issue.

 

President Kennedy knew that education enhanced our strength as a nation when he said, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” 

 

JFK also knew the discouraging statistics.  During his tenure only six out of every ten students in the fifth grade would finish high school; only nine out of sixteen high school graduates would go to college. Kennedy chose to make this his fight. His basis for change was grounded in optimism and belief in ourselves. 

 

Even in 1962, how to pay for education was a challenge. After meeting with various officials, Kennedy commented, “That’s the fifth governor I’ve talked to who doesn’t see how he can squeeze any more from property taxes to build enough schools.” Yet the economics did not deter him; he regarded the cost of education as an investment into national purpose and strength. 

 

An estimated one-third of all Kennedy program initiatives made some form of education a central element. The Office of Education later called it the most significant legislative period in its hundred-year history.

 

 Sadly, what’s significant now is the escalating erosion of JFK’s educational policies. At the center of this erosion is the collateral damage of high stakes testing.

 

Today’s children are overwhelmed by the pressures of abundant tests. Parents are alarmed by their children’s fear, and teachers are overwhelmed by the reality that test scores of anxious children can be the thumbs up or thumbs down to their careers.

 

Some educators that I meet agree that the Common Core standards may ultimately help students. However, they express a concern regarding the growing reliance on standardized testing and hasty incorporation of the Common Core in the development of these tests. Students have not been exposed to these standards for a sufficient length of time. 

 

The Department of State Education, by not allowing appropriate time and tools to accommodate marked changes in the measures of student performance and teacher effectiveness, the morale of students and educators are in a downward spiral. This is not acceptable. This is in stark contrast to the educational legacy of John Kennedy.

 

Upon visiting a kindergarten class, I asked a room full of five year olds, “Who can draw?”  Every hand in the room shot up. I then asked, “Who can sing?” Once again, every hand went up. By the time those children are in high school, if I asked the same questions, more than likely, only three hands would go up. The years can temper the creative enthusiasm and spirit of children.

 

I see a worrisome reality; the love of learning and developing our children’s greatest abilities through education is at risk. Children must be encouraged to soar in a nurturing and stimulating educational environment. Public schools have been given a monumental task—to fix all that ails our society’s youth. They cannot do it alone. If a child comes to school hungry, or if bullets fly when they play outside, tell me how is she or he going to soar? 

 

Public education needs a transfusion of love and support. It’s not just the money that our public schools want –it’s the respect. Real educators know that it is not testing and curriculum that allows a child to soar- it is an atmosphere of encouragement and hope.

 

John F. Kennedy said, “Let us think of education as a means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.” To be sure, this was meant for the greater strength of New York State as well and we must not lose that promise.