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On Assessment, Accountability, and Other Things That Go Bump in the Night

Posted: 2009-07-06

This essay is from Language Arts â Vol. 86 â No. 5 â May 2009. Published by NCTE, I think it is to the editors' credit that they would publish an article containing strong criticism of the organization (of which I'm a longtime member).

NOTE:The quotes in bold were featured as breakout quotes in the journal.



Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

--T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917)



RAAAHHHRRR!

--Michelle Knudsen and Kevin Hawkes,

Library Lion (2006, n.p.)



While doing research for this article, I stumbled across the fact that after getting run off from Johns Hopkins for consorting with his graduate assistant, noted behavioral psychologist John B. Watson went to work for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in the Graybar Building in New York City. As I read this, I went into shock--it was Emily Dickinson's concept of zero at the bone from her poem "The Snake" becoming corporeal. As it happens, decades after Watson's era, I landed a job at J. Walter Thompson, thrilled to be working in the Art Deco building that leans up against Grand Central Station. Before long, though, architectural delight was obliterated by my apprehension that I was engaged in an evil enterprise, and after six months I quit. This stunned my fellow workers because:



⢠I had just passed the test admitting me to the companyâs prestigious copywriting program.



⢠I was alone in the city and didnât have another job.



Over the years, I've wondered at my temerity. I was alone with no job, 3,000 miles from home. I was raised to be responsible: do the job you have to do. But working in the department that cast talent for TV commercials, I found I just couldn't be part of the cattle calls for child actors.



Now, all these decades later, I realize I was driven out of the Graybar Building by the ghost of John B. Watson, whose perverted brand of science was certainly palpable in the disreputable work we were doing. In addition to being what a 1928 New Yorker profile described as the "showpiece of J. Walter Thompson" (MacGowan, 1928, p. 30), Watson popularized his theories in McCall's and Harper's, advocating a mechanistic approach to child rearing:



Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. (Quoted in Buckley, 1989, p. 162)



Watson sounded rather like our current "No Excuses" folks, when, in 1930, he wrote:



Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select--doctor, lawyer, artist--regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors. (Quoted in Hulbert, 2003, p. 119)



In Watson's utopia, the authority of experts was institutionalized in a technocracy managed by behavioral scientists (Buckley, 1989). Watson's granddaughter, actress Mariette Hartley (Hartley & Commire, 1990), writes in her account of family tragedy, "Grandfather's theories infected my mother's life, my life, and the lives of millions" (p. 14).



Like our current entrepreneurs operating under Reading First, Watson called his flimflam science. Today, in the name of science, his presence infects our schools.



DATA DATA DATA

Why did the Standardisto cross the road?

To kill the chicken and sell the data.

(Ohanian, 2008, p. 26).




The so-called scientific provenance of today's standardized test data sell is pretty much the same as that used by Watson to hawk Ponds Cold and Vanishing Cream, Baker's Coconut, and Unguentine. A November 2008 video conference heralding the publication of a new book from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute captures the spirit:



The incredible power of data to ensure that we meet our common goal of educating every American child to the levels required to compete in our global, knowledge-based economy . . . make data useful so it can follow students across the knowledge supply chain.



Knowledge supply chain. Indeed. My hope is that the teeth of people who talk like this should rot.



Not surprisingly, Education Week acts as cheerleader for this data worship:



Imagine an afternoon when a teacher can sit down at a computer desktop and quickly sort through reams of data she'll use to plan lessons for the next day. She'll look over attendance records and test scores ranging from the students' first years in school right up to that very day. Sheâll see the courses her students have taken and every grade theyâve received. She'll compare every student's achievement against state standards to decide which students need review and which ones are ready to move on. (Hoff, 2006, p. 12)



Articles like this need a discordant note, such as researcher Gerald Bracey's neat recap: "There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all" (Mathews, 2006, A6). As Sam Smith of the Progressive Review points out, "It is at moments when the status quo is thoroughly shaken that the media most faithfully performs its duty as stenographer to the powerful" (email list, March 16, 2004). Or, in Amy Goodman's words (from Democracy Now!), media is a megaphone for power.



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 the 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" (personal communication, 2003). Many assaults on childhood in the name of accountability cross my desk. Here

are a few:



⢠"Too old? Too bad. What good is it to move him on if he cannot read?" -- a teacher's remark about a boy spending three years in her kindergarten (Weber, 2003, p. A1).



⢠"Nap time needs to go away [for preschoolers]. We need to get rid of all the baby school stuff they used to do."

--Andre J. Hornsby, then-Prince George's County school chief, sentenced Nov. 25, 2008, to six years in federal prison for a conviction on corruption charges (Trejos, 2004).



⢠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 ( (personal communication, September 12, 2007).



⢠In hopes of keeping the world safe for their second-grader, Michigan parents mortgaged their home to pay for skill drill at Sylvan Learning (personal communication, April 2006).



⢠After mandatory summer school in Chicago, Paige, 11 years old and in 3rd grade for the third time, told a New York Times reporter that other kids are "like little bitty ants." Asked why she was held back again and again, Paige grew quiet and then answered, "I guess the teachers didn't like me" (Davey, 2005).



⢠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" (James, 2002).



⢠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 (October, 2005)



⢠Wanting to be "cutting edge" and to emphasize the importance of data, a California school instituted this ritual greeting: The principal greets children by asking their reading level (personal communication, October 2006). Did you get that? First-graders reciting their reading proficiency as a requirement for greeting the principal. Modest Proposal: Let's have adults greet everyone with a recitation of their SATs and their weight.



In 2005, the Washington State 4th-grade test, the WASL, 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 didnât understand a test question. The teacher consoled them, saying, "Donât worry. Just do your best." The teacher received a written reprimand, because any conversation with students is forbidden during test time. The reporter assured the public (source data lost) reading the paper, "Test results were not affected and will remain valid in the system's bank of testing data."



Which of these meanings of "valid" do you suppose was operative?



1. Well grounded; just

2. Producing the desired results; efficacious

3. Having legal force; effective or binding



Data without conscience will be the ruin of our collective soul. What good are the statistics if our hearts are cold?



THE MEDICAL MODEL



At the same time they're bloviating about schools for the global economy, corporate politicos hector educators to employ a Medical Model, as though children were a disease to be cured. Well, consider this: one study (O'Neil, 2004) found that only 30 percent of height measurements taken in primary care practices are accurate. Think about it: if a pediatrician can't accurately measure a child in the simplest dimension--height--surely it is past time for educators to stop repeating the blather about the transcendent evidential quality of standardized reading tests. As Gerald Bracey (2005) 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."



Poet, farmer, teacher, and conscience of our age, Wendell Berry (2006, p. 28) writes,



Science

at the bidding of the corporations

is knowledge reduced to merchandise;

it is a whoredom of the mind. . . .



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. If you remain unconvinced, hereâs one more fact about the Medical Model: according to Allen Roses, Senior Vice President of Genetics Research, GlaxoSmithKline (Connor, 2003),

"The vast majority of drugs--more than 90 percent-- only work in 30 to 50 percent of the people"

(p. 1).



Michael Lewis's (2007) account of his infant son's hospitalization with Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) has telling significance for teachers as they think about data collection, medical models, and what it means to be a professional. With RSV, medicos admit that it's a matter of waiting the condition out; medicine can't do much except attach the baby to a machine that measures blood oxygen, and, if numbers indicate he's about to suffocate, attach him to an artificial respirator. The only reason he's hospitalized is to keep him near that respirator until his condition improves on its own.



Lewis's role is to watch that oxygen monitor and call for help should the numbers go bad. Every time he gets the infant to sleep, hospital personnel come in to collect data unrelated to the oxygen level, waking the infant, causing him to scream and wreak havoc with his oxygen. Bill collectors, nurses, doctors, interns, floor cleaners, linen changers--all have their appointed rounds in the medical model. Finally, Lewis barricades the door so no one can get in without climbing over him.



Then I hunker down, like some Montana

survivalist, and wait for the enemy. The first

assault comes about 10 o'clock that night: a

new nurse.

"Can I help you?" I say curtly.

"I just want to look at him."

"Why?"

"We're supposed to," she saysâwhich is to

say that even she knows she serves no good

purpose. . . .

"Nope," I say.



After this happens a few times, word circulates that there's a nutcase in that room, and medical personnel stay away. The baby improves, and Dad takes him home.



There's a lesson here for teachers. Asking "Why?" could be the first important step in the needed revolution. Why are we testing young children on nonsense words? Why are we teaching plural possessives to second-graders? And remember: after "Why?" comes "Nope."



PROFESSIONALISM

God said, "Let there be teachers,"

And they were not without form

Nor void.

Nor in need of

Corporate scripts.

(Ohanian, 2008, p. 16)



Among what it calls its "bedrock beliefs," NCTE

declares, "As members of NCTE, we believe in: The professional integrity of teachers. Teachers continually refine their professional knowledge and combine it with their knowledge of each student to make wise decisions about assessment and instruction." Modest Proposal: NCTE should compile and publicize a list of schools where teachers are not allowed to put these bedrock beliefs into daily practice.



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. Where are the statements from NCTE, IRA, ASCD, NEA, or AFT fighting against the assault on teacher professionalism? NEA seems to stake out the common position (Zinn, 2005): 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. (See Ohanian and Kovacs, 2008; Packer, 2007; Wilson, 2008.)



NCTE members should ask why the organization has formed an alliance with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a lobbying organization dominated by the high-tech industry that supports NCLB and has the stated aim of "ratcheting up" new assessments. A fine word, ratchet. Check it out. In 21st Century Skills and English Map, [pdf file]a document NCTE produced for the Partnership offers this "outcome" for 4th-graders: Leverage strengths of others to accomplish a common goal. In the NCTE document, this outcome [sic] that has 4th-graders learning how to leverage each other sits next to Demonstrating integrity and ethical behavior. I believe this constitutes disturbing evidence that NCTE is perilously close to forfeiting any role as watchdog over honesty and clarity in language in favor of the tsunami of the marketplace.



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 does't make you a teacher any more than sitting in a pizza parlor makes you a thick-crust pizza with pepperoni. A pedagogy of submission requires intellectual denial and emotional bulletproofing. Actual accountability involves risk, choosing truth over safety. In the words of Christian existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich (1973), "Decision is a risk rooted in the courage of being free" (p. 51).



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.



When I read Vermont's application for a Reading First Grant (Vermont State Department of Education, 2003â2004), Henry David Thoreauâs 1854 remarks came to mind: "I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State." In its grant for Reading First monies under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), 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] R[eading]

E[xcellence]

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 SBRR programs are achieving

desired results. (p. 10)



Read your own state grant application--if you dare. Nobody got a grant without a promise of delivering uniform assessment and the corporate scripts that travel in their wake (Ohanian, 2007). And whether NCLB is renewed or not, the corporate-politico agenda lives on: Conscript teachers into silence and stupidity.



And things could soon get worse. Resurfacing in the December 2008 Wall Street Journal, former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner (2008), 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."



I take great pride in my identity as a teacher, and I worry about us being overcome by Victimhood; I worry that Thomas Hardy's Tess (1891)may be right in her apprehension that being a victim once means being a victim henceforth. But victimhood shifts blame and denies responsibility, presuming that teachers can stand for years as great mutes, escaping through their silence any personal accountability. The old maxim is Qui tacet consentiret: Silence gives consent. Our collective silence allows this to continue.



These days, in a diversion from genuine teacher accountability, weâre hearing a lot about teachers adding value. Here's Pedro Noguera (2004), insisting that "all teachers should be able to demonstrate that they add value to the knowledge and skills possessed by students . . ." (p. 76). And how are these skills and this knowledge determined? Standardized test scores, of course. Added value. I stumble across a Business Roundtable imperative like this and figure it's time to pull out my ubiquitous asparagus story, most definitely a story of teacher accountability.



I feel justified in doing this because in an interview about Collateral Damage (Nichols & Berliner, 2007) on C-Span, David Berliner insisted that when teachers offer up their anecdotes, they should call them data. Ohmygoodness. Think about it. For decades Iâve been claiming that We teachers are our stories, and now we have it on very good authority that these stories have been data all along.



I'll get to the asparagus, but first, let me offer some "data." 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." How about that? I taught an African American boy who grew up to be a man who finds it worth his while to spend a Saturday morning at the Boston Book Fair. Value doesnât get any better than that. 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.



As much as I cherish this data, I always seem to return to the asparagus letter (Ohanian, 2001). When I announced to my seventh- and eighth graders 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.



And, as they say in the TV ads for the 43-blade knife that whistles "La Marseillaise" and shines shoes, there's more. Today, Michael is a chef in an upscale restaurant, making a whole lot of money. So where's the "value added" here? All I know is I'm claiming partial credit for Michael's success. After all, I introduced him to an interest in asparagus.



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.



To be a teacher,

You have to decide who you're willing to obey

And who you're willing to kill.


(Ohanian, 2008, p. 39)



As Garrison Keillor (2000) reminds us, "You can go your whole life and not need math or physics for a minute, but the ability to tell a joke is always handy." Harold Lichten, a lawyer commenting on the civil service exam, revealed another important truth. "If you have a fire in your home, you really don't care whether someone got a 99 on the exam. You want someone who's tough, courageous, strong, and willing to walk through a fire to save you" (Sege, 2005).



STUPID TEST TRICKS

When you see a car hurtling toward your child, you push him out of the way before you engage in conversation about Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Until we stop the abusive standardized testing in elementary schools, I refuse to talk about a better kind of test. 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 wouldnât 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 (1966).



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 under the heavy oppression of "Do well or repeat fourth grade." 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 afterword 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, "Donât 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 Afterword, 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 (Hill and Larsen, 2000) is a must-read. Must. No matter what your level of expertise in deciphering

reading tests, this book will knock your socks off. 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. With the current corporate political cry for a national test, I urge people to draw on this book to examine the disreputable reading tests offered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). I've done some preliminary work (Ohanian, 2005), but much more needs to be done.



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 HarperCollins. 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 (2006) 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.



To the credit of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, their tests are not secret. You can visit their website and take a look at globs of tests. Here is a special irony--MCAS tests include this notice: This document printed on recycled paper. So the Standardistos care about trees. We can hope that one day they will exhibit the same concern for the well-being of children.



Adrienne Rich (1986) reminds us, "When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing" (p. 199). For example, 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 (1995) edited collection The Moral Compass, are in the folklore genre. There are two stories about rural children and their dogs. Highlights magazine holds the copyright on half of the items. 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. Teachers are forbidden to bring in books not in their scripts. California schools gave up on the idea of staffing schools with professional librarians long ago (in many cases, giving up on even the idea of libraries), and public libraries have been forced to cut resources drastically. Oh, and a subscription to Highlights costs $29.64.



In a poetry anthology, Amy Auzenne (1999), 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.



Now here is the difficult question for teachers: Who bears more responsibility for this assault on childhood?



a) The people who produce the high-stakes tests and scripted curricula



b) The people who demand they be inflicted on children



c) The people who use these materials in classrooms



THE TIME IS NOW



Don't mourn, organize.

--Mother Jones (Foner, 1983)



Justice cannot be won without organization.

--Rich Gibson (2006), The Rouge Forum



At least once in your lifetime, take a risk for a principle you believe in--even if it brings you up against your bosses.

--Daniel Schorr (2003), on his 87th birthday



Look for the truth exactly on the spot where you stand.

--Howard Zinn (2005), quoting a Buddhist mantra



Forget improving the assessments. We need to look at our students' present day lives. For starters, take another look at the opening passage of our Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Please note: It doesnât say pursue happiness everywhere Except in School.



A Happiness Index for students offers schools a corporate model radically different from the Business Roundtable/Jack Welch/Eli Broad/Bill Gates/Lou Gerstner/Michelle Rhee/Paul Vallas/Joel Klein/Arne Duncan approach. The Happiness Model draws on the research funded by those corporate giants McDonaldâs and Kentucky Fried Chicken to find out answers to such questions as Are cows ever happy? Do pigs feel pain? What do chickens really want? (Barboza, 2003). Can our schools do less? It wouldnât be that hard. Just try asking your students--today--to suggest one thing that would improve their school day. The simplicity of their suggestions will surprise you.



Wendell Berry writes often of the accountability of words and of deeds faithful to words. If we "stand by our words," insists Berry, then we must speak in specifics about this child and this curriculum. When we are unable to do this, we fall back on the slippery language of public relations and Global Marketeers, which means abandoning our students to abstractions.



Funny thing: Standing by our words is good for us. Psychologists at the University of Sussex found that people who get involved in campaigns, strikes, and political demonstrations experience an improvement in psychological well-being that can help them overcome stress, pain, anxiety, and depression (Study Finds Protesting Is Good For You, 2002).



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 official, 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. It starts locally, with you.



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