At a recent conference titled “Producing College-and-Career-Ready Tots,” the opening speaker warned that the new assessments for kindergarteners did not yet carry sufficiently high stakes. “We’re putting great effort and money into determining which children are following directions, which ones are working well in groups, which ones are matching letters with sounds, but if they can’t do these things, then what? ‘Oh well?’” he sneered rhetorically. “We’ve had too much of ‘oh well.’ We can’t afford ‘oh well’ any more.”
The room darkened for the next presentation. Billionaire philanthropist Roger Row stepped up to the podium, into the spotlight, and clicked his clicker. As the throbbing music began, the screen showed little children in rapid succession—one sliding down a slide, another forming the number 2, another filling in a bubble on a test, and another holding a classmate’s hand. Then the scene switched to a spreadsheet of names, scores, and designations. Row zoomed in on one of the cells, which read “MISFIT.” The music stopped.
“Imagine,” began Row, “just imagine a really big idea. Think of the biggest idea you’ve ever thought in your life. Now, what you’re going to hear today is a ten-times-bigger idea. It’s an idea that will shake away the tragic failures in our society.”
He proceeded to show a graph. “Statistics show that children who cannot read job descriptions or write resumes by grade four are forty percent less likely to complete college or earn more than twice the minimum wage than those who can. In third grade, they’re only thirty percent less likely. So if you extrapolate backwards, you find out that kindergarten is the time of judgment, the time when children get sent either to heaven, as it were, or to hell. So we must identify those children who are being sent to hell—and the teachers who are sending them there! Yes, we must identify those teachers!” (Applause.) “To this end I have donated thirty million dollars for the construction of a National Misfit Database.”
Children identified as “misfits” would be entered in the database, along with all available personal and demographic information. Their teachers would be linked to them; a teacher with two or more misfits in the class would have a red light flashing next to her name. “That way,” explained Row, “we can identify those teachers who are setting up child after child for distress, romantic rejection, achievement gapping, cognitive dissonance, weird clothes, and future unemployment. Look at this girl with untied shoes. She’s a misfit, and her teacher already has a red light. The principal is now looking into ways to replace the teacher so that the child and her classmates have a chance of making it in the world.”
An audience member asked whether some of these “misfit” children might not simply be dreamy, nervous, forgetful, or in some way different from the others. “Absolutely,” said Row. “Thank you for bringing it up. Chances are, if I had been tested in kindergarten, I would have been labeled a misfit too.” (Laughter.) “That’s why we have to get ourselves into the mindset of testing them relentlessly. Because the data add up. We can make better judgments when we’ve got reams of data.”
Row then enjoined the audience to visualize the future. “Think of the workplace of the 22nd century, the 23rd century,” he said, as the lighting changed to blue. “Think of the employment agencies and all the information they will have. They can look you up and see if you were a misfit at any time in your life! That will have an electrifying effect on our schools. It will be as though the entire school system went whitewater rafting”—he displayed a photograph of that very activity—“and found themselves heading headlong down a vertical waterfall. AAAH! the school system screams. Try that yourselves! Scream AAAH!” The audience screamed “AAAH” and broke into laughter. “You see? More of that, and you won’t see teachers tolerating the status quo while Mindy draws a tree instead of a data tree. You’ll hear her saying this instead.”
He displayed a video of a teacher telling a little girl, “Mindy, you’re supposed to draw a data tree. Now why don’t you turn and talk to Joshua, who knows what that is. Joshua, make sure Mindy does it right, OK? I’ll come back in a few minutes. Frederick, what’s that you’re drawing? You’re not supposed to draw a dark forest. What ever gave you the idea that we were here to draw a forest? Look at the objective on the screen. Class, give Frederick your support. What’s today’s objective? All together now!” The class responded in chorus: “To draw a data tree!” The teacher nodded. “That’s right. So, Frederick, I’m putting you down as a misfit for now, but if you start over and draw a data tree, I’ll take the label away, and you’ll be in the clear. Ready? Set? Go!”
As the lights dimmed, Row looked out at the audience with tears in his eyes. A rainbow spotlight lit up over him, causing “oohs” in the audience. “I would not be funding this database today,” he said, “were it not for the wonderful education I received, starting in kindergarten. My teachers challenged me in all ways but also encouraged me to pursue my own passions. They never worried about my differences. So I leave you with this thought. Be a kindergartener once again, in your heart. Now be a poor kindergartener, without opportunities, falling through the cracks, sure of being forgotten, unless someone records you and says that tough ‘M’ word that no one else will say. Let’s spend a moment of silence on that thought.”(Three seconds of silence ensued.) “Thank you, and enjoy the rest of your time here.”
Upon leaving the room, participants were interviewed on camera about their impressions. Those who said something other than “awesome,” “amazing,” or “inspiring” were entered into the National Misfit Database.