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Child Abuse in Harlem

WARNING: This is very ugly. What was done to 4th graders in the name of excellence will haunt you. The names have been changed to protect the guilty.

by an anonymous classroom observer

Scene: A 4th grade classroom. The teacher, Ms. Marsh, is midway into her whole group math lesson when the Vice Principal, Ms. Barry, walks into the room. All students are at their seats with their math materials on top of their desks.

Ms. Barry circulates about the room placing yellow sticky notes on each childís desk in the top right corner. The sticky notes have the studentís name and score from last yearís statewide 4th grade ELA test. When she has finished, Ms. Barry interrupts the math lesson and begins giving a lecture on setting goals for the year and improving scores on the next ELA test coming in January. During the lecture she refers to a chart on the overhead that shows a diagram of the levels 1-4 (1-not meeting, 2-partially meeting, 3-meeting, 4-meeting standards with distinction) into which each childís score falls. Ms. Barryís voice carries a direct and cautionary tone. The classroom has become entirely silent.

As Ms. Barry continues to explain the importance of the test and relevant scores she asks the students falling into each category (1-4) to raise their hands and identify themselves. When she reaches the level three category she makes a statement about getting into a good middle school; she says that in order to enter a quality school the students must move into level four.

Throughout the lecture all studentsí eyes wander to each otherís sticky notes. Samís score is a 624, only 12 points above the level one cut-off. During the lecture Samís body is unruly and he does not raise his hand when Ms. Barry asks the level 2ís to identify themselves. He shakes his feet and legs, bounces his knees, licks his lips frequently while occasionally biting his nails. He stares at his desk and his neighborsí desks and only looks up directly to Ms. Barry three times during the fifteen minute lecture. Throughout the time, Sam uses his hand to attempt, without drawing attention, to cover his score. Eventually, seven minutes after the sticky note was placed on his desk, he folds the bottom under so that the score is no longer visible. When Ms. Barry has finished at 9:05 Sam rapidly removes the sticky note, fiercely crumples it into a ball and shoves it into his desk.

During these fifteen minutes I could feel the tension in the air. Sam was so visibly anxious and upset, it made me nauseous to just imagine what might be going on in his mind. I was appalled that any such lecture, comparison, and public humiliation would be acceptable much less performed by an authority figure the students were expected to respect.

Sam is the third lowest scoring student in the classroom, besides the two ESL students below him. As his neighbor at his desk cluster slyly peeked at his score I could see the damage being done. It was like being told to share your worst secret, the most embarrassing thing about you.

Several questions are in order. How has Sam internalized this event? How has this affected Samís vision of the upcoming year? How is Samís relationship with reading and writing impacted by the experience? Sam was not alone in trying to cover or hide his score. His physical reactions indicate he may have experienced this event as a sort of public shaming. It is impossible to know exactly how Sam has internalized the experience, yet I feel I can say it has not worked to create or reinforce a positive self-image for Sam.

— anonymous
personal communication




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