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Insults to the Soul

Posted: 2009-11-05

It is disheartening to see that things have gotten worse since this was written. And NCTE, my professional organization, didn't learn anything from past Standardisto forays but now is entering the field of writing rules about what should happen in middle schools.

I got so steamed up writing this essay that I kept going and One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards is the result.

Teachers are usually the last ones to show up for school reform. Actually, most of us don?t get invited. When Family Circle magazine wants to know the up-to-the-minute buzz on the schools, they ask Rush Limbaugh. Yes, that's outrageous. But The New Republic?s idea of asking Anne Tyler to give her take on school reform wasn't much better. I'm a fan of Tyler's novels, but her reminiscences on the smell of chalk dust offered small illumination on the realities of schooling in the 1990s (and The New Republic didn't print my complaint letter either).


A few months back I was elated by finally being invited to the reform roundtable. USA Today asked me to write an op ed piece on President Bill Clinton's education plan. But then they shot the messenger, a metaphorical slaughter, to be sure, but it left me in tears. Hey, maybe I cry easily: second grade teachers who insist kids should learn commas in apposition and school chiefs who posit Moby Dick as the hallmark of high school excellence reduce me to tears every time. And now it's USA Today's notion of school reform that?s got me blubbering into my tea.

When the USA Today editorial committee didn't get the point of my first piece, I wrote a second piece, coming at the argument from a different direction. And then a third and a fourth. Finally, after my fifth rejection,I called "uncle." Although I have published a number of pieces in USA Today and am very familiar with their style requirements,I finally realized that unless I changed my message and supported a national test, I was never going to get this one right. The editor, a gentle-sounding, caring- sounding sort of man, spent a whole lot of time trying to convince me that national tests are what this country's schools need. On my probing, the editor admitted he knows his third grade daughter's reading level as revealed by standardized tests. He could not tell me why it would be a good thing for him to be able to compare her reading score with the scores of children in Alabama and Alaska. Pressed to the wall, the editor admitted he thinks his daughter's teacher is excellent. He conceded I'm probably excellent too. But, he wants a national test so that "those other teachers out there," the lousy ones, will be forced to shape up. Over and over, he asked me, "How can we know a teacher is doing her job without national tests?"

Although this argument reeks of Senator McCarthy carrying that never-opened briefcase containing the names of Communist spies working in government jobs, I will concede that I know some unfit teachers. But surely to think that a national test will force them to pull up their socks defies everything we know about tests and motivational strategies and bureaucracies.


But this penchant for testing does bring to mind one of my favorite stories. Some years ago Esquire Magazine editors asked prominent people, people who had achieved great success in all walks of life, if they would take the SATs and let Esquire print the results. The answer was unanimous: "No way! Are you nuts?" Of course even very accomplished adults don't want to be known by the numbers they achieve on tests. We leave that ignominy to young children.
Declaring that Standards and a national test and other bells and bangles of reform will make every eight-year-old a reader may be good politics, but it doesn't take the savvy of a parsnip to know this isn't going to happen.

Even a homogeneous nation has its anomalies. When I visited Japanese schools I kept asking parents, teachers, principals, and members of the Tokyo Board of Education where the man scrubbing the train station floor or the woman pulling weeds along the highway median strip fit on their carefully constructed educational ladder. Nobody
would answer such a rude question.

My years as a teacher show me that nonreading
eight-year-olds and teenagers too obnoxious to be allowed on the regular campus all need the same thing. And it isn't school uniforms, a new test on the uses of flax, or Moby Dick. It isn't technology either. Cut through the hallucinatory hype surrounding the Internet, and you find a dead end of gossip, infomercials, and silly homepages.

I don't want to sound like a whiner looking for excuses, but parents don't send me standardized kids. At least one-fourth of the kids in the U.S. live in poverty and sit in school buildings that are crumbling around them. I look at my roster for a typical seventh- grade class: a deaf child, a legally blind child, a girl who has been to three schools in four months, a girl who skips school to turn tricks in a nearby college dorm, a non-reader who is escorted to school by a police department aide, four immigrants who don't speak English, a child mainstreamed from a class for the emotionally disturbed who rolls up on the floor in a fetal position and quacks like a duck. And so on.

And if I had the space, I could tell you a
heart-warming story of each one of those kids making a connection with a book. Connecting individual kids with individual books is my glory as a teacher. The fact that Keith was fifteen years old when he read his first book ("All the way through, Ms. O, honest. I read the whole thing. You wanna hear me?") does not mean that his previous teachers needed higher standards. I do think it is a testimony to my very high standards that Dr. Seuss's Hop on Pop was there for Keith when he needed it?in the eighth grade.

Keith is an extreme example, but the fact
that many students don't read on grade level
doesn't mean that they are destined to be losers. The fact is that graduates of our increasingly heterogeneous high schools are 60% more likely to go to college than are their Japanese counterparts, and the workers we send to industry are 30% more productive.

Odd, isn't it, that while the Japanese don't acknowledge failure in their schools, we seem so unwilling to talk about success in ours?

A few years ago I was wandering around the Boston Book Fair on a Saturday morning when a big black man came up to me, handed me his business card, and invited me to dinner. I remembered Leon as the obstreperous eighth grader who, in an exceptional commentary on textbook standards, led a pack of his peers in dumping all the social studies texts out of the third floor window into the snow. Leon remembers me as the teacher who taught him to love books. I guess you have to be a teacher to realize the magic of this moment. USA Today rejected this story as not universal, not significant, not proof of professionalism. All I know is that I now bask forever after in the glow of being the kind of teacher whose student grows up to be the kind of man who spends a Saturday morning at the Boston Book Fair.

I wrote about some of my students for USA Today. And each time he rejected a piece as talking about kids who were "too unusual," the editor spent another hour trying to convince me that we need that national test. Finally, through tears of exhaustion, I told him "no more." I wonder which one of us was more frustrated at our inability to make the convincing argument for school reform. My argument was too local--"the
poignant story of individual students did not
strike him as universal. For me, his argument
was too general. If you're going to talk about the culpability of teachers, then you'd better be prepared to name names.


I'm not really surprised that the flagship paper of the Gannett chain would take the political-corporate road labeled school reform. It?s convenient for these guys and their corporate cousins to blame teachers for downsizing, the balance of trade, drug use, and illegitimacy. CEOs rake in 100 times the wages of their Japanese counterparts while giving us junk bonds and stores stocked with schlock made in China. Who's kidding whom? We accept goods from this human rights violator because we want to sell them Pepsi and pizza. But when the Pepsi--or Coke--or Kentucky Fried Chicken--or whatever hucksters tell me to reform myself, I want to ask for a reality check.

The question I want to ask is why the NCTE leadership chose that same deceptive road, offering only the rationale, If we don?t do it, somebody else will? If NCTE hadn?t waddled along in the line of reform ducks, if they?d pointed to the myriad of documents they have produced over the years detailing what it means to be an excellent English teacher, surely that act of defiant conscience would have sent a powerful message?to the public and to teachers as well.

I won't repeat Patrick Shannon's persuasive
argument detailed in "Mad as Hell" (January 1996, Language Arts), but I urge everyone to read it. In addition, for teachers who need a jolt of good news: every October Phi Delta Kappan publishes The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education, wherein Gerald Bracey continues his demolition work on the hoaxes and myths that mar the public perception of our schools. And for more data, there's The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America?s Public Schools by David Berliner and Bruce Biddle. "Standardized tests provide no evidence whatever that supports the myth of a recent decline in the school achievement of the average American student," (1995, New York: Addison-Wesley). When I quoted this sentence from The Manufactured Crisis to the USA Today editor, he changed the subject.


I'm not sanguine about our schools. I want plenty of changes. I want genuine alternative curricula for the kinds of students who have filled my life?the misfits who are not going to master algebra, not going to read Moby Dick. Yes, yes, Moby Dick. The wonderfully awful thing about writing about
education is that you never have to make anything up. If John Silber, chairman of the Massachusetts State Board of Education has his way, students will read from a core list, including Milton's sonnets and Moby Dick. Silber points out that such a core list makes it easier to assess students on the statewide exams soon to be required in grades 4, 8, and 10. Now, you know and I know that anyone who says high schoolers should read Moby Dick:

1) Doesn't know any fifteen-year-olds;

2) Has never read Moby Dick;


3) Has read Moby Dick, has a fifteen-year-old in the house, and wants to get even.

But I worry that a whole lot of the curriculum on the reform agenda exists on the "get even" premise: I suffered through this when I was in school. Why shouldn't these kids suffer too? The sad part is that Moby Dick is a great book. It wasn't until I was 42 years old that I'd sufficiently recovered from my college experience to try it again. But I was piqued by repeated references to its greatness. Writers I admire admire this book, and so at age 42 I read it again. Or I should say I read it for the first time. In college, I was dragged through it and passed a test on it. Okay, I confess: at 42, I still skipped the rope-tying stuff. But the point is that it's a pity that in the name of Standards, in the name of reforming schools, we ruin so many wonderful books by prematurely forcing them on kids.

People give easy praise to the classics these days, the great works of literature. OK. Here's a bit of advice from the great American poet Walt Whitman:

Take off your hat to nothing known or

unknown . . .

Re-examine all you have been told at

school or church

or in any book and dismiss whatever

insults your soul.

Dismiss whatever insults your soul. I admit I'm insulted by NCTE's Standards Consensus Series. It seems apparent that the documents rise from a dunghill of profit motive
rather than from a reform impulse. I worry about the state of the core when exercises touted as exemplars of "core beliefs" ask middle graders to write about what animal, season, fruit, and vegetable their most valued possession reminds them of. I worry about what strange bedfellows NCTE is pulling together in the name of reform when I see a coloring book page for middle graders
to color as they read four lines from Longfellow's
The Wreck of the Hesperus. The teacher is advised to have a copy of the full poem on
hand--in case any student wants to read it. Books in the NCTE Standards Consensus Series, for which no editor's name appears on the title page, are filled with this matter to insult our souls.

In "Self-Reliance," Emerson tells us that character teaches above our wills, that "virtue
or vice emit a breath every moment." This is
scary stuff. If we take Emerson to heart and
believe that every time we breathe we send out rays of virtue or vice, then why aren't we
worried about the character of the people running our schools rather than about how we can compare the students in Alaska with those in Vermont? And what can we say about NCTE's breath when we look at the tripe traveling along under the name not just of standards but of Standards Consensus? Did the post office forget to deliver my ballot?

I, for one, am uneasy about all this blather about teachers as professionals. Professionalism has a lot to answer for, particularly when it employs a language to shut out people who don't belong to the guild. I'm thinking here of doctors and lawyers and people who write Standards documents. People who worry about being professionals seem to spend a lot of time thinking about tests and outcomes. Me? I'd rather be known as a nurturer, somebody who always has an
eye out for the bird in the window, a person who has enough faith in kids and books to believe that tomorrow will take care of itself.


We teachers who aren't hung up on professionalism have the luxury of approaching what we know with humility; we know that we rarely grab hold of more than a small corner of the truth. We are ever impressed by how much we don't know, ever aware that we teeter on the edge of doing something stupid.

Professionals tend to let one reform or another consume them: vouchers, standards, whole language, constructivist math, heterogeneous grouping, across-the-curriculum themes, teacher empowerment, portfolios, site-based management, block scheduling, school-within-a-school. We nonprofessionals poach, grabbing a little here and a little there, avoiding the bandwagons, choosing what we need for particular circumstances and offbeat kids. I'm reminded of Richard Argys' remarks in the English Journal theme issue inviting veteran teachers to reflect on their craft (September 1996). Argys notes that it is difficult "to imagine an educator lasting until retirement without developing a talent for breaking rules." How true. But I doubt that "a talent for breaking rules" will ever be acknowledged as an important prerequisite in any professional teaching standards or reform efforts.

In closing, I take my text from Dr. Seuss' Uncle Terwilliger, whose advice on eating popovers will serve teachers well when considering education reform:

Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.

And be careful what you swallow.

"My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers"

Copyright 1997 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.

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