Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

May 15, 2009


A great place to keep up with the latest attacks on public education and the teachers providing it is Susan Ohanian's site. This is from an article she wrote for Language Arts, the journal of the National Council of Teachers of English

SUSAN OHANIAN - For seven years, I've run a website documenting the outrages offered by standardized tests, documenting in chilling detail teachers' complicity in allowing early childhood schooling to become less like a trip to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and more like indentured servitude in an SAT prep factory.

Kindergarten has become literacy boot camp, and children are labeled failures before they learn to tie their shoes. As fingerpaint, playhouse, blocks and recess are eliminated from kindergarten, much of the 5-year-old's day is now based on fear of failure.

And it reaches down to preschool: after one four-year-old took a kindergarten readiness test, he softly said to his teacher, "Let's not tell Mommy. She thinks I'm smart" Many assaults on childhood in the name of accountability cross my desk:

"Nap time needs to go away [for preschoolers]."

"We need to get rid of all the baby school stuff they used to do."

On the third day of state testing, a Wake County North Carolina fifth-grader lay on the floor in a fetal position, sucking her thumb and crying for her mom to come rescue her.

In hopes of keeping the world safe for their second-grader, Michigan parents mortgaged their home to pay for skill drill at Sylvan Learning.

Representing the 319,000-member California Teachers Association, Betty Ann James announced, "Let me assure you that today's rigorous kindergarten aims to prepare youngsters to succeed in the hard academic work that begins in first grade"

"If the child needs to throw up in the middle of the test, pull the trash can by his/her side, let them do their thing, and encourage the child to finish the test." -Administrative memo, Greeley-Evans School District, Colorado.

In 2005, the Washington State 4th-grade test offered this writing prompt: You look out one day at school and see your principal flying by a window. In several paragraphs, write what happens next. A 10-year-old put his pencil down. His teacher told him to keep working; the principal told him to finish the task. The school called his mother, asking her to come to school and tell him to finish the task. When the boy didn't complete the writing prompt, the principal suspended him for five days, citing "blatant defiance and insubordination." The child explained that he couldn't think of a way to answer the writing prompt without making fun of the principal. A letter from the principal to the boy's mother explains what was really happening: The boy's zero on that part of the test would bring down the class average and jeopardize the school's star rating.

In Tennessee, a monitor reported to the principal that a first-grade teacher talked to two children who were crying because they didn't understand a test question. The teacher consoled them, saying, "Don't worry. Just do your best." The teacher received a written reprimand, because any conversation with students is forbidden during test time. . .

Gerald Bracey reminds us, "NCLB uses the phrase 'scientifically based research' 111 times and demands that such research support educational programs, but no scientifically based research-or any research- supports the law's mandates." . . .

We teachers must joyfully proclaim the truth of the matter: we can learn far more about reading comprehension by watching students respond to dinosaur riddles and Amelia Bedelia than from the diagnosis of a CTB/McGraw-Hill printout. . .

What good are the statistics if our hearts are cold? . . .

A few individuals have stood tall from the getgo, meticulously exposing and denouncing the scam, but other than the American Association for School Supervisors, under the outspoken leadership of Paul Houston, the denunciations from our professional organizations are sadly absent. . . . NEA seems to stake out the common position: Keeping a seat at the table with corporate politicos is more strategic than speaking out ethically and professionally for dues-paying members and for the children. . .

The tragic legacy of the data worship spawned by No Child Left Behind is that with no protection from their unions or their professional organizations, veteran teachers lose sight of what professionalism was, and new teachers never know it. They know only powerlessness and obedience.

Professionals aren't handed a script for their jobs, detailing what to do and say for every minute of the day.

Professionals aren't told what must appear on bulletin boards. Or when to sit on the carpet.

Professionals aren't told they can't choose books to share with the children.

Professionals do make curriculum decisions about the needs of the children in their care.

Obviously, following a script sent out from McGraw-Hill or Houghton Mifflin doesn't make you a teacher any more than sitting in a pizza parlor makes you a thick-crust pizza with pepperoni. . .

I get lots of mail from teachers who acknowledge that obeying the standardisto commands of "Fetch!" and "Heel!" is not professional. I hear from teachers who are grieving in the knowledge that doing what you're told is not the same as doing what you can. Or should. I hear from teachers who bare their souls and then close with "Don't use my name on your website." Teachers mute as turnips. . .

In its grant for Reading First monies under No Child Left Behind, the Vermont State Department of Education explicitly promised to abandon long-heralded Vermont school traditions. Knowing what the Feds giving out money wanted, state functionaries delivered:

Although we honored the local selection of outcome assessments in [the Vermont Reading Excellence Act], we will not provide this option in Reading First. Schools will still have some flexibility in selecting diagnostic assessments, but screening, progress monitoring and outcomes assessments will be prescribed for all Reading First schools. Such assessments must be uniform in order to ensure that students are appropriately identified for extra help and that . . . programs are achieving desired results. . .

And things could soon get worse. Resurfacing in the December 2008 Wall Street Journal, former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner, who worked with Arkansas governor Bill Clinton to promote national standards and testing, wants to abolish all local school districts and "establish a National Skills Day on which every third, sixth, ninth, and twelfth-grader would be tested against the national standards." Results would be published nationwide for every school in America. We see here a deliberate attempt to destroy democracy, which John Dewey (1889, quoted in Ramaley, 2000) reminded us, "must be reborn with each generation, and education is its midwife." . . .

Let me tell you about Leslie, the deaf child in public school for the first time, to whom I probably gave more of my heart than anyone. She phoned me 12 years after she sat in my third-grade class-from college-telling me the astounding things she had learned from Amelia Bedelia during our time together. Or Leon, 20 years after I knew him as a mischievous seventh grader, coming up to shake my hand on a Saturday morning at the Boston Book Fair, announcing, "You taught me to love books." . . . Or Charles, the mainstreamed boy three years older than his classmates, reading "Rumpelstiltskin" for 16 days in a row-before I stopped counting. Or Jack, refusing all school work and playing himself in Scrabble for six months. . .

When I announced to my seventh- and eighthgraders who, as a group, tested out below the 20th percentile in reading, that we were going to exchange notes every day, kids looked at me like I was nuts. And Michael was the loudest complainer.

But I was tough . . . and persistent . . . and the lure was very strong: kids who wrote daily notes received daily notes in reply. Before long, Michael was a devoted note writer. During the winter, as I complained a lot about shoveling sidewalks, Michael's notes advised me to just take the months as they come. As spring approached, I began confessing in notes that for me the first sign of spring was the asparagus ads in the newspaper.

Kids thought this was a hoot-such a typical teacher remark. But they also began tearing ads out of the newspaper and leaving them on my desk-who could find the best asparagus buy for Ms O.

Michael won. He wrote me a long note about going to Boston and insisting that his family take time out from their busy schedule to visit an open air market to check the price of asparagus. He reported, "$1 a pound. But Boston is a long way to go for asprgs." Every time I talk to teachers, I show them Michael's letter. I don't have to explain things or apologize for the spelling. Teachers instantly recognize it as testimony to what we're about. Not quantifiable value-adding, but heart, faith, and grit. And do I dare add love?

When Michael graduated from eighth grade, his mother wrote me a lovely letter, thanking me for all I'd done. She told me she was going to phone, but Michael urged her to write. He said, "When you care about somebody and when you're going to say something important, you write a letter." This is the scary thing about being a teacher: you can only teach who you are, and if you try to do it while submitting to a script dominatrix, then you lose not only your professionalism, but also your soul. . .

Today, Michael is a chef in an upscale restaurant, making a whole lot of money.
Today, Michael would not pass the New York Regents exam and would be denied a high school diploma, thus making him ineligible for work as a chef. Or an auto mechanic, barber, bus driver, draftsman, baker, broadcast technician, cardiology technologist, communications dispatcher, electroneurodiagnostic technologist, fingerprint classifier, forklift operator, graphics designer, heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanic, hotel desk clerk, land surveyor, legal secretary, medical transcriptionist, numerical control machinist, optometric technician, paramedic, plumber, robotics technician, sheet metal worker, shorthand reporter/court reporter, solar energy system installer, small appliance repairer, surgical technician, tool and die maker, translator/interpreter, veterinary technician, ward clerk (medical), webpage designer. And so on.

Read the list again. People at such outfits as Education Trust claim that a high school diploma is useless, that everybody must go to college. Every one of these occupations requires a high school diploma. When we shut so many people out of useful and important work by linking the high school diploma of a student who has successfully completed all required course work to a standardized test, we all lose. . .

We must stop harming the children presently in our care. Right now. Today.

For example, we must shut down the enterprise in which a fourth-grader's passage to fifth grade depends on whether or not she correctly identifies the resource that contains information about the history of pretzels. Yes, after reading a passage about how pretzels are made, fourth graders were asked:

The best source of information about the history of pretzels would probably be a) a cookbook b) an almanac c) an encyclopedia d) a daily newspaper

If you think you know the answer to this question, try looking up pretzel in the encyclopedia.

Nothing. In an article about bagels from the December 31, 2003, New York Times, I did find a pretzel mention: "It wouldn't be Philadelphia without soft pretzels." More searching produced one sentence that might qualify as "historical": Old-time pretzel makers dipped the pretzels into a lye solution. I found it in my kitchen, in A World of Breads by Dolores Casella.

This is emblematic of the hubris embedded in standardized tests. Item writers with no connection to real children in real classrooms or even, it seems, any connection to real pretzels, invent inaccurate and devious and just plain stupid material.

No wonder they insist on keeping tests secret.

Here is a small example from a McGraw-Hill test inflicted on New York fourth graders . . . Children were asked to read a passage about a chance meeting in Princeton between a young girl named Julie who wandered away from her class field trip and a sockless man. An afterward informs young readers that the man was Albert Einstein, whose Special Theory of Relativity "is sure to play a big role in human expeditions to the stars." It also explains that the story is based on a real incident involving Mary Budd Rowe, "an education professor at Stanford University."

The passage ends with the rhetorical question, "Don't you think she was a great person to be teaching teachers?" As if any fourth-grader in the country cares who teaches teachers. For starters, fourth-graders are worrying about:

Why Julie wandered away from her school group.
Why Julie talked to a sockless stranger.
Why Julie changed her name to Mary Budd Rowe.

And then there's the problem that two of the three test questions focus not on the story but on the afterward, with its discussion of the Special Theory of Relativity.

A writing prompt accompanying this item offers this imperative:

Pretend you are either Julie OR Einstein. Write a letter to a friend describing your meeting at the fountain, and what you thought about the person you met. Use details from the story and the "Afterword" in your letter.

Very few fourth-grade boys are willing to pretend they're a girl. This leaves them with the task of writing in the persona of Einstein.

Such a test item gives us a small window into the source of the "reams of data," celebrated in Education Week and elsewhere, that teachers will use to plan their lessons when data rules the universe.

This item reflects a universal flaw of standardized tests. Many test items are based on reading passages whose readability level may seem appropriate to the grade level but whose questions are inappropriate to child development. They most definitely are not testing comprehension.

For anyone who administers standardized tests to children or whose children take standardized tests, Children and Reading Tests is a must-read. . . Using methods of discourse analysis, the authors examine representative material from actual reading tests, and they discuss children's responses. In short, they talk to children about why they chose the answers they did. In a sophisticated and nuanced revelation, we see how convincing are children's "wrong" answers and how tests fail to tap into their world views. The book is particularly attentive to the role culture plays in shaping children's understanding of what they read. . .

Both standardized tests required by the state and the NAEP distort literature beyond recognition.

This item from the Spring 2003 Grade 3 MCAS Reading Test shows how standardized tests draw children's attention away from what matters, getting them to focus on structural trivialities.

After reading "The Hen and the Apple Tree," a selection from Arnold Lobel's acclaimed Fables, the child is directed to:

Read the sentence below: She saw an apple tree growing in her backyard.

The word
backyard is a a) proper noun b) contraction c) compound word d) verb

Surely, no one would claim that recognizing "backyard" as a compound enriches one's reading.

Or aids comprehension. But of course children learn from everything they encounter. So now, third graders across Massachusetts are left with the indelible mark-branded into them by the state and the teachers who agree to serve the state-that Arnold Lobel cares a whole lot about compound words, and he writes stories in order to ascertain whether they're stupid or smart.

Certainly there is a place for compounds, but it is our job as professionals to be vigilant about keeping piffle in its place.

Arnold Lobel is dead and cannot protest this desecration of his work. The publisher who allowed this assault on children's literature is Harper Collins. MCAS test writers plow through a lot of good literature to make the assessments "authentic," and I confess that when I saw D. B. Johnson's Henry Hikes to Fitchburg mutilated by a test item writer, I burst into tears. D. B. Johnson did not create this work so kids would identify an adjective when they see it. . .

Of the eight items NAEP posts as samples from fourth-grade reading tests over the past decade, topics include an American female astronaut on Mir, crab hunting, wombats, and life in the American Colonies. Two items, a West African tale and a pour quoi story from William Bennett's edited collection The Moral Compass, are in the folklore genre. There are two stories about rural children and their dogs. . . Now, NAEP explains that test items are "taken from authentic texts found in the environments of students." Ask yourself about student access to such materials.

In a poetry anthology, Amy Auzenne, a young Texas student, speaks for many in her poem "The Question":

You never asked about my favorite color . . .
the holes in my heart . . .
or the weight of your words upon me. . .

If we are ever to return to pride in our profession, we must throw out the federally sanctioned absentee owners, the absentee experts, the profiteers and their lackeys whose job it is to bury public education. Instead, we must look to the particular knowledge, fidelity and care of local remedies. Speaking at the NCTE Annual Convention in Nashville, 2006, Richard Allington offered a brilliant strategy of resistance, recommending that every teacher examine the state code of ethics for teachers. Then, when ordered to read a script or to stop reading aloud or to commit some other abusive practice, teachers should say, "Please put in writing that you want me to violate the state code of professional ethics." Put it in writing.

At the end of "Casablanca" (1942), Louis Renault, the sly police offiicial, turns to Rick, the cynical American expatriate who runs a nightclub frequented by Vichy French and Nazi officials, and says, "Well, Rick, you're not only a sentimentalist, but you've become a patriot." And Rick replies, "It seemed like a good time to start." Now is a good time for us to start the national movement to return to our professional roots.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not an educator, or even very good at writing... but, is this sentence the best that could be written for a fourth grader?

"You look out one day at school and see your principal flying by a window."

“You look out”: Where? From Where? Through what?

“one day”: Wordy and unnecessary. Could/would there have been an alternative?

“You look out at school”: Oh... Ok, now I see why “one day” was added. Stupid pet trick, only couldn't “look out” mean that you 'look out' at school in case a teacher's eraser comes flying toward your head?

“You... see your principal flying by a window”: Ok, maybe it's not obvious... but, if I saw a man (or woman) actually flying through the air I'd be pretty surprised. Is this a test on a 4th graders knowledge of idiomatic expressions... like “to fly” vs. to flit, to run, to walk hurriedly, etc.

Also, wouldn't it have been better to have specified that the principal was specifically flitting past YOUR window vs. a window in the building across the street?

How about:

You look out through the school's window, and notice the school principal running past.


While sitting in your classroom, you see Principal Skinner briskly running toward Groundskeeper Willie's shed.


You look out through the classroom window, and see your school's principal walking quickly across the playground.

Just saying....

-Da Theorist

May 15, 2009 2:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it just me...or did Da Theorist just reach a whole new zenith of perfect irony?

May 15, 2009 5:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

quote the tremendous article: "...Richard Allington offered a brilliant strategy of resistance, recommending that every teacher examine the state code of ethics for teachers. Then, when ordered to read a script or to stop reading aloud or to commit some other abusive practice, teachers should say, "Please put in writing that you want me to violate the state code of professional ethics." Put it in writing."

Even more brilliant would be if parents put in writing their own requests for their children's teachers to do this. Informed parents prepared to defend teachers as complying with both the codes of ethics and the parents' own demands would make all the difference?

May 15, 2009 5:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great essay - and I haven't even finished reading it. A question is ask every time I read about these pedagogical practices is: Why do we, why does anyone, put up with this kind of abuse? Who are the people that force it on us, and why do we accept it?

May 16, 2009 9:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My daughter wrote a poem for a state test one year in response to the writing prompt. Got a 0 for the prompt. She is creative.

I agree about the High School Diploma issue - - Passing a "Certification test of Skills" and getting a High School Diploma. Should be two different things.

And companies should have greater latitude to ignoring the rules.

We have laws that prohibit discrimination. The State "Graduation tests" discriminate against people with a lack of skills.

The only good reason for testing is if it PROVIDES a solution to the perceived problem. So if you don't pass the minimum, you should get free help. No penalty - - help.

"Watch what you measure, because you get what you measure".

We are measuring for meeting minimum standards. Some parents don’t realize minimum is the “Pass” point. They don’t realize, that the child should actually be striving for a higher level.

Teachers are told not to tell the parents that the student needs additional help, because if they do the school might have to pay for it and the schools are always running short on money. So parents are told their child who is in the bottom of the class is doing fine, don’t worry, kids go through stages.

The goal should be removing barriers for each student to reach their full potential.

May 16, 2009 9:57 AM  

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