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A Conversation with Susan Ohanian

Posted: 2008-03-18

This interview is from educationoasis.com


JSC: You've written and spoken extensively about contradictory and exploitative language within the "Standardisto" movement. Would you distinguish between the concept of "standards" and ?standardization?? Why or why not?

SO: Standardistas proclaim that standards are a guarantee of educational equity. Standardization of the curriculum promises the same thing. Don't let any teacher or curricular quirkiness disrupt a perfect conveyor belt trip to education excellence. For everybody.

The cynicism underlying the claims is profound. Handing out standards in the name of preparing everyone to meet the high skills that will be demanded for employment in the twenty-first century is as cynical as handing out menus to homeless people in the name of eradicating hunger. Does it matter how carefully the menu calibrates its offerings to the federal Food Pyramid, advising people to be sure to choose 6-11 daily servings from the bread/cereal/rice/pasta group, 3-5 servings from the vegetable group, and so on?

Let them eat cake. Let them take calculus.

It's not fashionable these days to say that some students can learn trigonometric functions and some can't--or don't want to. When did we decide that calculus is more important to the nation's well-being than welding or band? I don't want to argue about who will and who won't take calculus or read Hamlet. I want us to sit down and discuss at what age we start training kids to think that if they don't go to college, they will be failures (with the converse that if they do go, they will be successes).

JSC: What exactly does corporate America stand to gain by a "failure" of the public school system? How should conscientious teachers and parents view corporate offers of "sponsorship" for education?

Some corporate interests want privatization of education, sort of a capitalist free-for-all--for their own gain. But corporate gain goes deeper than how many books and tests McGraw-Hill sells. There's a larger pattern at work. We see a similar attack on the working class as seniority rights, pension benefits, health coverage are reduced. And outsourcing makes everyone vulnerable. It suits the power brokers to have a scared, compliant workforce where everybody is competing with everybody else for survival. In a dog eat dog world of cutthroat competition, there isn't much hope for solidarity--or for democracy.

So start 'em early. Train young children that their standardized test score is all that matters and they will grow up to be workers who follow orders. Train young children that they will never be good enough, and they will blame their lack of success on themselves, not on a system designed for them to fail.

JSC: When you recently visited Santa Monica to speak at a local bookstore, a school board member stood up to argue that standardized tests "weren't working" for a large percentage of Santa Monica students. Her implication, intended or not, was that testing is fine for those who perform "adequately." What dangers or traps lurk inside this line of argument?

I taught third grade in a school that rigorously grouped kids according to their reading scores. They didn't even bother with euphemism: the kids were designated high, middle, low. By request, I had the low readers. Reading took up nearly half the school day, but the school was also departmentalized, so that I had mixed groups for social studies and science. A child with serious developmental delays and emotional problems mainstreamed into my reading group but increasingly he asked to stay for more of the day. When he appeared in the social studies class, a girl from "high" reading exclaimed, "Charles is weird." Her tone was superior and dismissive. Her friends laughed. Charles ran out of the room.

I told the children how shocked I was, that "low" readers supported Charles, never laughing at him or making him feel anything but a regular part of our group. I talked to them about what high reading scores did and didn't mean in terms of important community values like friendship, cooperation, loyalty. I told them the school was wrong when it isolated children into categories of superior and not-so-superior but that they could overcome these categories and if they did so, their lives would be better for it. It so happened that Cathy, the child who called Charles weird, was warm and caring. She took my message to heart and wrote Charles a note of apology, asking for another chance to be his friend.

People who make it into the lifeboats think they deserve to be there. The wealthy think their own good fortune comes from their own superiority. This attitude even infects wonderful third graders who, when finding themselves in the top reading group, aren't aware that test scores are more a function of zip codes than any innate talent. Being infected with a notion of superiority and entitlement stunts little kids' development as members of a democracy. They deserve better--and our society needs better.

JSC: Teachers are vocal among themselves with concerns about testing and test-prep mania--yet they are often forced to embrace textbooks and ancillary materials published by the same companies which make the tests. How might we confront this blind spot? What makes it difficult?

This is hard for me to answer without sounding morally superior, but here goes. Under a tough new regime in my district, a reading inspector visited schools, making sure that teachers were on the page of the basal indicated in their lesson plans. By this time I had worked in the district for more than 10 years, had even been named the district's first Teacher of the Year.

So I used my clout to good purpose. I was quite vocal about refusing to use the basal. People waited with glee for the Inspector's visit to my classroom. He blinked--offering a last-minute excuse for his non-appearance.

My point here is that veteran teachers must abandon the longstanding teacher culture of cooperation and compliance with Authority. They must stand up and say "No." Nobody is going to do this for teachers. Grumbling in the faculty room goes nowhere. Corporate and political interests oppress teachers because they can. Teachers must organize and take back their profession.

JSC: As a new English department chair, I attended District meetings of all English chairs to discuss textbook adoption. However, real conversation was often derailed by excitement over which company would offer the best gimmicks--filet mignon at a luncheon? red and white wines at the door? tote bags? notepads? etc. How should teachers in leadership positions respond to base consumer appeals--especially when District officials themselves play up such enticements to distract from substantive conflicts over policy and materials?

Lobby the school board to ban gimmicks. Ask the board for a policy on what is required--and what is disallowed--from publishers.

SC: A teachers' union in Colorado recently voted to connect teacher financial incentives to student performance on standardized tests. While applauded by some as a move towards accountability, few have commented about how this move provides teachers with financial motives to "sell out" their students to bad curriculum. What are your thoughts on the responsibility of teachers in this context?

We have already seen that the pressure to escape NCLB labeling has brought an increase in cheating on tests. I can't even fathom what tying students' scores to money in teachers' pockets will do. Can't you see the kindergarten teacher eliminating "show and tell"--because her pay will be based on children's knowledge of phonemes?

We already see this across the country--where children who score low on pre-tests are kept in from recess, art, music, P. E., so they can practice their skills on mountains of worksheets. I shudder to think of what other "wastes of time" will disappear from schools when a teacher's income is tied to test scores.

I would remind people of the World of Opportunity in Birmingham, Alabama, which rescues high schoolers pushed out of schools. There, 522 African-American students were "withdrawn" from school right before the administration of the state tests. The schools were in danger of being taken over by the state if they didn't improve their test scores. Of course the easiest way to improve scores is to get rid of low scorers. What maneuvering will go on in elementary schools to get rid of low scorers? More labeling? More behavior expulsions?

We must acknowledge and honor resisters. When California started awarding bonuses for student performance on the state test some years back, a few teachers stood tall and refused it or donated it to a test resistance advocacy group or some other favorite charity.

JSC: While ill-defined concern over "teacher quality" gets a lot of press at the moment, how might one play devil's advocate to argue that underqualified--or underconfident--teachers are precisely what standardization, with its "teacher-proof" materials, actually demands?

Clearly, lining up behind a behavioristic curriculum of test prep requires teachers who don't think too much. And I think there's something else at work.

In my new book, Why Is Corporate America Bashing Public Schools? (Heinemann), I discuss the new requirements for paraprofessionals. Under NCLB, they must earn 2-year college degrees. Take a look at the math requirements:


Read these hyper-qualifications for paraprofessionals along with news that corporate committees are advocating $100,000 salaries for top teachers in a restructured profession with tiers of professionalism. Pay a top teacher $100,000 to direct a horde of paraprofessionals to use the direct instruction curriculum. Parents will be assured that Paras, who make $9 an hour, have college degrees. This scheme will be a big money saver and will further cement corporate values in the schoolhouse.

JSC: It's ironic that, while we claim we want students to be "lifelong learners" and "critical thinkers," schools seem to expect passivity and acquiescence from teachers themselves. You've had your own experiences in this regard. How might you explain the paradox?

I have to admit that all the hoopla about critical thinking has always offended me. Like mom and apple pie, everybody claims to be for something called critical thinking. Fat chance. Even though I've never understood the distinction between thinking and critical thinking, I know that if schools ever encouraged or allowed people to think for themselves, we'd have a democratic revolution dismantling the current power structure. Since jobs in our society are distributed on the basis of social class, it is in the interest of the corporate-politico Standardistas to keep independent thought out of the schools--for teachers and learners.

JSC: John Taylor Gatto writes that the compulsory nature of public education itself is the source of many problems in American education. How do you respond? To what degree does systemic compulsion affect any large- or small-scale efforts at progressive reform?

For my whole professional career I was a strong advocate of compulsory schooling. I was vigilant and relentless about getting every kid on my rolls into my classroom. For example, when I asked 7th graders, "Where's Tom?" kids told me he hadn't shown up to school since the second half of first grade. I found Tom, using legal means to force him into school. And this was a story with a happy ending. I adored Tommy and he ended up excelling in school.

Nonetheless, with the current curriculum madness, I drop my support of compulsory schooling. I can't support forcing children to endure an oppressive behaviorist curriculum that demeans and diminishes them. I can't support forcing kids into schools that have abandoned kindergarten playhouses, school music programs, P. E.. I can't support forcing kids into schools that award prizes for reading books.

I won't support compulsory attendance until schools adopt a Happiness Index.

Philadelphia child psychiatrist Robert Kay has a solution I like. Compel kids to come as far as the school playground. Then it's the teacher's job to entice them into class.

JSC: What kinds of questions would you recommend parents ask teachers about curriculum? How can parents and teachers unite to combat mindless standardization?

I am serious about advocating a Happiness Index. There was an item in the New York Times a few months back. McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken are sponsoring research to find out answers to such questions as Are cows ever happy? Do pigs feel pain? What do chickens really want? Putting aside for the moment, the question of whether McDonald's and KFC are being disingenuous. Just consider that these questions are no longer asked about children in school. The fact that it is inconceivable to imagine the current U. S. Department of Education or any politician sponsoring research to find out answers to such questions as Are 7th graders ever happy? What do 8th graders really want? should give parents and teachers pause.

Why isn't a child's Happiness Index taken as seriously as her algebra score? Why don't we ask kids, What do you really want? Ask that--and then shut up and listen to the answer.

These questions are neither frivolous nor rhetorical. The corporate call for high standards and No Child Left Behind's number crunching steal away childhood, setting schools on a course that will produce angry children who grow up to be adults whose values are skewed and who are mad as hell to boot.

Some food retailers have introduced labels indicating that an animal "was raised with care." Can schools do any less? Every teacher, every year, must be able to testify that every child was educated with care.

JSC: Auditing a recent graduate-level Education class, I was mortified by the extent to which participants themselves--fellow teachers and future teachers--modeled lax and glib attitudes they would probably deplore in their own classrooms. How does working as educators oblige us to model habits of openness, generosity, and depth in the world of adults?

I think the scariest realization I had as a teacher is that you teach who you are. Every minute of the day, kids are watching--and learning--from your every response. And the very intense and difficult environment that school is offers plenty of opportunity to react badly. I learned this very early in my career. After Christmas break, half a dozen 7th graders classified as "tough" came to class, proudly brandishing fountain pens. That had been their gift request--a writing implement like their teacher's. If they were so intent about my pen, what else were they noticing?

When I taught 3rd grade, Jennifer came into class crying because she realized she'd forgotten her house key. This latch-key child was very aware that her mother couldn't miss work; she knew her mother depended on her to go home promptly after school and call. We were both aware of the -30 degree weather outside. I hugged Jennifer, wrote a note to the secretary asking for permission for her to use the phone. "Call Mom and see if she has a solution. Tell her I'll wait here with you until she gets off work if that's necessary."

Jennifer returned with the news that Mom had arranged for her to go to a friend's house after school. I said, "Your mom is terrific" and turned back to classroom business.

The next day Jennifer said, "My mom says 'thank you.'"


"For saying she's terrific."

This incident still gives me chills. The classroom is always hectic at the beginning of the day; the school secretary was a dragon and I had to write a subservient, ingratiating note. I could have snapped, "Next time, remember your key" or just "OK, get to work." That such an almost careless remark could have such import made me realize how important all teacher remarks are.

My other proof comes from the Metropolitan Diary section of the New York Times, where every Monday they offer human interest anecdotes about life in the City. After making an (illegal) right turn on a red light, a woman was pulled over by a traffic cop. He handed back her papers, advising her to drive carefully. She blurted out, "Aren't you going to give me a ticket?"

He looked at her. "You were my first grade teacher."

I spent three days listing my students who probably would give me a ticket and those who wouldn't. I think it's not a bad image for teachers to look at every student as a probable traffic cop.

Related Links:

You may visit Susan Ohanian's website at: http://susanohanian.org

You may purchase Ms. Ohanian's latest book, Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? at your local bookstore, or online from Heinemann or Amazon.

?2004 Jo Scott-Coe

About the Author: Jo Scott-Coe is writer and veteran teacher in California . Her commentary, ?Nobody Likes a Brainiac,? appeared in the Los Angeles Times in March 2004. She has poetry forthcoming in Nerve Cowboy and Pearl, and is the author of two screenplays: One Bad Apple and No Child Left Behind (Boil the Frogs Slowly). She will teach creative writing at UC Riverside beginning Fall 2004 .

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