Publication Date: 2011-08-05
This article was published in Phi Delta Kappan, June, 2003, pp 729-735. You can access it online here
IN JUNE 2002, in a 4-to-1 decision, the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court ruled that it's okay to rip off the children of New York City. The Appellate Division judicial crew overturned a landmark ruling by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse. DeGrasse had outraged Gov. George Pataki and his business and political cronies by ruling that New York's state funding system deprived city children of their right to a basic education. Responding to the complaint of a coalition of parents and teachers, DeGrasse ordered reforms to bring certified teachers, reduced class sizes, up-to-date texts, and upgraded technology to city schools that lacked all these things. He ordered that all New York City schoolchildren must be afforded the same kinds of educational opportunities as children in more affluent sections of the city and in the suburbs.
In DeGrasse's decision "reform" didn't have any of the tricky nuances employed by the Business Roundtable or the U.S. Congress, among others. For DeGrasse, reform meant spending money to make education more democratic by making sure that all children in New York had equal access to the types of schools that affluent students consider their due.
Politicians and their corporate handlers didn't sit still for such a ruling. Equity is not on the capitalist, corporate, congressional agenda. Along with their brethren around the country, politicos in New York operate according to the rule handed down from the education summit convened at IBM headquarters when Bush the Elder was in office and Clinton was the "education governor" of Arkansas. This rule decrees that schools must find their gold in high standards and the hoopla surrounding testing, not in the public purse. These fellows draw on what passes for research and is issued by those at Heritage, Fordham, Manhattan, Cato, et al. -- ideologues who chant the mantra, "We've tried throwing money at schools. It doesn't work. Pull up your bootstraps, and raise your test scores." Right. Their slogan might be, Just Say No to Low Test Scores. Money doesn't solve problems; high-stakes tests solve problems.
Led by Gov. Pataki, the state of New York appealed DeGrasse's ruling. And there we have education for the global economy in a nutshell: the state sues to make sure education remains better for the rich and worse for the poor.
The Global Economy Swamps the Schoolhouse
In writing the New York Appellate decision, Justice Alfred Lerner explained why city children must be treated differently from children living in more affluent areas. "Society needs workers in all levels of jobs, the majority of which may very well be low-level." That's a direct quote.(1) Thus does the global economy engulf the schoolhouse, and the children are discarded as so much refuse. The method is clear: announce that schools must prepare all to be high-tech workers; then cook the books so that 20% to 30% fail the high-stakes tests and don't receive diplomas. That's the test failure rate. Hordes of others, seeing they aren't going to pass the test, drop out before reaching the 10th grade, where the exam is administered. To make the 10th-grade passing rate look rosier, more and more districts are holding students back in ninth grade, and dropout rates are increasing in middle school. Examining data from the Massachusetts Department of Education, noted analyst Anne Wheelock has reported a 300% increase in dropouts from middle school between 1995 and 2000.(2) Dropouts from middle school. That's what happens when you start retaining children in primary grades.
The global economy needs these dropouts. If schools are successful in turning out swarms of well-educated youngsters, who's going to flip our burgers and clean our toilets at minimum wage? Who'll sell merchandise for Wal-Mart? Work in day care? Take a look at the job projections from the Center for the Study of Jobs and Education in Wisconsin.(3) They include data on jobs throughout the U.S. and provide irrefutable evidence of what Gerald Bracey has called the "algebra scam." In short, the job market for mathematics-dependent work is narrow. Tom and Ray Magliozzi, NPR's Car Talk guys, periodically make this same point on "Car Talk," asking, "What makes the people at Educational Testing Service think that half of life is mathematics?"(4)
Historically, our schools have always been a sorting system for business and industry, providing winners and losers. But the current mania for high-stakes testing overlays all school experience with terror, convincing children as early as kindergarten that they aren't good enough for the global economy. It's a variation on the Jesuit adage, as quoted by Arthur C. Clarke, "Give me a boy for six years, and he is mine for life."(5) Provide children with a 12-year curriculum of anxiety, and chances are they'll grow up to be compliant workers, grateful for whatever the global magnates dish out. Or maybe they'll grow up to be mad as hell. It's a gamble big business seems more than willing to take.
Anything Beyond Eighth Grade Ruled 'Aspirational'
We can hope that one day the media that now format as news items the publicity releases issued by the Business Roundtable and Achieve, Inc., will figure out that Appellate Justice Lerner is just stating baldly the marketplace truth that few dare speak aloud: "An eighth- or ninth-grade education is adequate to provide the skills required to enable a person to secure low-level employment."6 Maybe the media will one day acknowledge that our nation runs on low-paid employment. Maybe one day newspapers will publish a labor section next to the business section; maybe some reporter will point out that the global
economy doesn't have jobs for hundreds of thousands of high-tech workers adept at algebra and calculus; maybe the reporter will even notice that this job scarcity and the fact that the Business Roundtable and their Standardisto cohorts have pressured schools into making higher math a prerequisite for a high school diploma are related. The global economy -- and the local
one too -- needs plenty of service workers. The crime is not that people work at these jobs. The crime is that they are not paid a living wage to do so.
Even so smart a reporter as Eileen McNamara of the Boston Globe, while damning the MCAS (Massachusetts
Comprehensive Assessment System) test, called its emphasis on math a "noble thing."7 Reality check: no, it's not noble. Far
from it. Neither our children nor our society is well served by hyping mathematics as the ticket to fame and fortune. This
hype is a sham and a delusion, serving to distract the public from underlying social and economic problems of inequity and
injustice. Unwilling to admit they wouldn't know the Pythagorean theorem from an overcooked turnip, the press passes on to
the public the claim that everybody will need higher math to find a place in the global economy.
When I was young and suggestible, I slogged my way through a fat calculus book8 because the man I loved, a physicist,
couldn't come to grips with the fact that he was marrying someone who'd never taken calculus. He gave me the ugly blue
book for Christmas. And the next Christmas I gave him a fat notebook filled with the worked-out problems. Even though I
never could grasp much significance in those numerical and algebraic manipulations, I'd suggest that doing calculus for love
is a far better reason than those provided by the bloated rhetoric of the Standardistos.
A few years later, my husband came to my multi-grade classroom and helped some precocious second-graders invent a slide
rule. He did this not to develop drones or even hotshot mathematicians for the global economy; he did it to help three
children see the beauty and wonder of mathematics. This is a point the Standardistos don't seem to grasp: you develop
mathematicians by helping children find the marvel of mathematics, not by issuing high-stakes testing threats.
But now, in New York, we find ourselves in a situation where, instead of arguing over whether every student should have to
master higher math to get a high school diploma, we're faced with judges who think it's just fine that "some kids" drop out of
school altogether after eighth grade. Judge Lerner and his three cronies acknowledge that many New York City children go to
school in deplorable conditions, but they insist that this is acceptable --
because it is not the court's job to set an "aspirational" standard. Lerner and company determined that an eighth-grade
education is everyone's constitutional right. Anything beyond that is "aspirational." Surely it's just a coincidence that more
than 70% of New York's 1.1 million public schoolchildren are Hispanic and black.
The Celestial Standard
In his short story "The Celestial Railroad," Nathaniel Hawthorne describes the seduction of finding an easy way to get to
heaven -- traveling on the celestial railway.9 The cast of characters is right out of any commission on standards and testing:
Mr. Smooth-it-away, Mr. Live-for-the-world, Mr. Hide-sin-in-the-heart, Mr. Scaly-conscience. Any teacher in the nation
could supply a roster of names of local, state, and national education functionaries to match these characters.
When Hawthorne's narrator boards the train, he takes it for granted that Mr. Greatheart, the man of experience and spirit, will
be the chief conductor. But Mr. Smooth-it-away explains that Mr. Greatheart is no longer the man for the job. When, as a
sop, the Directors offered Mr. Greatheart a job as brakeman, Greatheart left in a huff, proving that sometimes, when snake oil
is all that's being sold, you don't have to buy it. As Mr. Smooth-it-away confesses, Greatheart's departure suited the Directors:
"It left us at liberty to choose a more suitable and accommodating man."
Suitable and accommodating. There you have the definition of education leadership today -- from the professional
organizations to the unions to the local boards of education. When the Directors at the Business Roundtable and their politico
allies shout, "Test!" today's functionaries ask only, "How many questions?" and "How high do you want the bar?"
Hawthorne's apprehensive narrator fears he'll end up in the ditch, but Mr. Smooth-it-away assures him that "the difficulties of
this passage, even in its worst condition, have been vastly exaggerated." Today this is replayed in the Education Week/Public
Agenda polls.10 Funded by Standardistos, reported by Standardistos, and quoted as legitimate research by Standardistos to
justify the destruction of children, these polls deny that the educational ditch is being dug deeper and deeper.
Education Week reports that parents, teachers, and students have no complaints about standards and even believe that the
tests have improved education. They report that students polled insist they could and should work harder. Maybe Education
Week forgot to poll the kindergartners in Atlanta whose superintendent insists they don't have time for recess or those in
Kansas who are supposed to learn copyright laws or those in Maryland whose school leaders have zapped art, music, and rest
time in favor of "rigorous mathematics," or those in California who take pre-SAT-9 tests so that, in the words of the
principal, they'll be ready for the bar exam.
I used to say that the good thing about writing about education is that you don't need to make up anything to enliven the
narrative. These days, it would be impossible to make up anything weirder or more vicious than what's going on in the
schools every day. Maybe the people at Education Week should poll the 10th-graders in Massachusetts who took the whacko
state math test that is a requirement for graduation. Or they could poll the graduate engineering students who had trouble with
the same questions. Or they could interview the Virginia teachers who complained about the third-grade test's suitability and
then note that the passages were moved over to the seventh-grade test. Or they could talk to parents in New Jersey, where
only six students out of 90,000 received top marks on a writing test. Do the parents of the 89,994 other students laud the
tests? Do they believe them?
One day, maybe the pollsters will ask, "Who vomited on the test?"
High-stakes testing mania harms every child in public school. Take New Haven, Connecticut. There, nine teachers were
pulled from their classrooms to drill low-scoring students full time. Their classes were covered by aides. So low-scoring
children get a curriculum of test preparation while medium- to high-scoring children are deprived of their teachers. Hartford
is using the same strategy. There, in the lowest-scoring school, kids get an after-school "power hour" -- an hour of test drill --
and three-hour "super Saturdays." More drill. Former Superintendent Anthony Amato told Hartford principals to do whatever
they had to do to get scores up on the "high-stakes, die-on-your-sword exam."11
Also in Hartford, when third- and fifth-graders move to fourth and sixth grades, high-stakes testing years, the teachers move
with them -- until the die-on-your-sword exam is given in October. Then, test out of the way, the teachers move back to their
regular grades. This means all students in grades 3 through 6 get new teachers in October. All for a test.
Can anyone call this education?
Speaking to the Commonwealth Club in October 2002, Daniel Ellsberg noted, "Anyone can be as dumb as he has to be to
keep his job."12 Although he was talking about officials of the state department in Washington, D.C., he could just as easily
have been describing teachers: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
The three toughest exams in the country -- called "world class" by their handlers -- are New York's, Virginia's, and
Massachusetts'. California is working hard to catch up. Gov. Gray Davis laid out his ambitions in his 1999 state-of-the-state
message: "While a number of other states require students to pass a statewide minimal-skill exam in order to graduate from
high school, California does not. I believe we need to do even better. I am proposing a rigorous high school exam, second to
none in America." So now we have a competition among governors as to whose exam is bigger.
Now the set-in-congressional-concrete numbers for proficiency, the "adequate yearly progress" numbers of No Child Left
Behind, put Standardisto governors and their education bureaucrat minions in a Catch-22: states with high standards will find
it impossible to meet the adequate yearly progress goals. A few states with tough standards have already figured it out and are
pulling back. Others are sure to follow, showing clearly that the emperor has no clothes. Standards have never had much to
do with students but everything to do with political grandstanding and corporate malfeasance.
Choosing Expediency over Education
Business alliances and their political and media cronies insist that we standards-and-testing resisters are exaggerating. But
exaggeration is impossible. Just consider the title of the meeting co-sponsored by the National Alliance of Business and the
Conference Board: "The 2002 Business & Education Conference: The New Era of Education Reform: Corporate
Opportunities to Strengthen Tomorrow's Workforce."13 Sponsored by Merrill Lynch, Pfizer, and ETS, this conference was
presented with assistance from Prudential Financial, ACT, Johnson & Johnson, Target Corporation, State Farm Insurance,
GlaxoSmithKline, AOL Time Warner Foundation, Thomson, DBM, and the McGraw-Hill Companies. Anyone who has
studied Standardisto behavior knows that these are not strange bedfellows. The invitational message to invitees begins, "Dear
Colleague: A new era of education reform began with enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act. For the first time, the
federal programs [and] state and community effort to improve student achievement will be aligned. No Child Left Behind Act
provides new incentives and opportunities for business engagement."
New incentives and opportunities, indeed. They will come on the backs and on the hearts and souls of fourth-graders.
Anthony Amato was billed as a featured speaker at the conference.
Dismissing children's vomit and tears and anger as "only anecdotal," these thugs and the pollsters who ask them how things
are going are conspicuously silent about the child abuse that concerns resisters. In defending the MCAS, Massachusetts
Commissioner of Education David Driscoll told the Boston Globe that he knows fourth-graders are crying, but "that's the way
the world is." There it is -- the difference between a teacher and a Standardisto: teachers stop for a 9-year-old's tears. Of
course, if they stop on testing day, they risk losing their jobs in Tennessee, New Jersey, and Florida, to name just three states
where teachers are forbidden to talk to students -- or to look at the test they are making students take.
So far, columnist Bob Herbert is the only New York Times regular to denounce the New York Appellate Court decision as
"destructive and shameful."14 Herbert's column is the only place I found the words of David Saxe, the one justice who
dissented. Saxe wrote that "chronic underfunding . . . has also led to deterioration of school buildings, overcrowding,
inadequacy of textbooks, library materials, laboratory supplies, and basic classroom supplies, and, in some schools, even an
insufficient number of desks and chairs." Justice Saxe pointed out that, if one followed the logic, the ruling meant that the
state had "no meaningful obligation to provide any high school education at all." What a bonus for number-crunchers trying
to balance budgets: just eliminate high school and put those kids out into the global economy.
Only the Kappan and Substance -- the education newspaper of the resistance, published by George Schmidt, an English
teacher fired by the Chicago Board of Education for laying bare the stupidities of the Chicago test -- have published the story
of the 522 African Americans pushed out of school in Birmingham, Alabama. In danger of district schools' being taken over
by the state if test scores didn't improve, Birmingham Standardistos chose expediency over education. They simply got rid of
the low scorers. Some students were pushed out of school on their 16th birthdays.
When the World of Opportunity, established by a teacher with a conscience and a belief in kids, opened to give these students
another chance, school district functionaries sabotaged its efforts. When the Standardistos label a student uneducable, he's
supposed to stay uneducable. Even though these Birmingham youths aren't supposed to succeed anywhere, they are defying
the odds. So far, 15 have earned their GEDs. Tell parents in every state about the behavior of the Birmingham board of
education, and the reaction is shock and disbelief. Tell reporters around the country about it, and they don't bother to reply.
Blood on the street is news. The destruction of kids' spirits is not news. It's only anecdotal.
Massachusetts papers are beginning to notice "the missing" in that state. Even the Standardisto Boston Globe now
acknowledges that a "significant number of the students in the class of 2003 who failed the high-stakes MCAS exam in the
spring of 2001 and who did not take the retest in December of 2001 have dropped out of high school."15 So far, more than
6,000 in the class of 2003 in Boston won't pass with a state department of education-approved diploma, though some
rebellious school boards are granting their own diplomas. One can only speculate when Massachusetts' Standardisto tribe of
Mr. Smooth-it-away, Mr. Live-for-the world, Mr. Hide-sin-in-the-heart, and Mr. Scaly-conscience will admit that something
is wrong -- not with the students but with the test and with the standards that drive the test.
There was public outrage over the whacko MCAS math test administered in the spring of 2002. So the Massachusetts
legislators cut health insurance for 50,000 chronically unemployed and homeless people and spent the money they saved on
tutors for students whom Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara characterized as "doomed to fail a discredited test." 16
McNamara reported that a Boston Globe analysis found that more than half of those who took the test could not answer more
than half the multiple-choice questions. Even students who were talented in math were stumped by poorly worded problems
that also stumped engineering students in graduate school. With the phone at the state department of education ringing off the
hook with complaints, the solution was to lower the required number of correct answers. So much for "standards for testing."
So much for an absolute body of knowledge that every high school student needs to know to be successful in the world.
The reality is what it has always been: the test is rigged to guarantee winners and losers. But once middle-class America is
told that its kids are losers, there's a rush to readjust the standards and redefine "success." MCAS aficionados can join the
club: National Computer (renamed NCS Pearson) used an incorrect math answer sheet, resulting in 8,000 Minnesota high
school students being incorrectly told that they'd failed part of the state's graduation test.17Harcourt Measurement, which
markets the SAT-9 and supplied the state of Georgia with a custom test in 2002, can't figure out why the results are so
bizarre. 18 State education officials in Ohio commissioned a study that shows that scores on the reading portion of the Ohio
fourth-grade proficiency test can't predict whether students will succeed in fifth grade, but the Business Roundtable loves the
test anyway. 19 When CTB/McGraw-Hill gave New York City incorrect results, sending thousands of students to summer
school, then-Mayor Giuliani insisted that parents should say "thank you" -- because their children got those extra months of
schooling (in sweltering buildings).20 Children of politicians and corporate leaders mostly attend private schools and don't
have to take the tests their parents inflict on public-schoolers.
All of these Standardistos operate on the Software Producers' Rule for Living: ship whatever you damn well please, and let
the end users find the bugs. And Standardisto fellow travelers rebut complaints by asking, "What do you suggest as an
alternative?" An alternative to terrorizing and abusing children with high-stakes tests which, at best, distort and diminish their
education and, at worst, ruin their lives? Funny thing, when the Georgia test couldn't be lifted from its statistical sludge,
Standardisto educationists actually told reporters for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution not to worry, because the test wasn't all
that important anyway. If the results never come in, these fellows say, then they have "many other ways of measuring
students' abilities."21 What ways might these be? The judgment of teachers and principals. In the words of the chief
academic officer of the DeKalb County schools, "While we may have the Stanford 9 information later, or if we don't end up
getting it at all for this year, teachers will still be working with children." Out of the mouths of Standardistos! Next thing you
know, some bureaucrat will figure out that, if test results don't matter, then the logical conclusion is to scrap the tests.
A National Report Card Everyone Ignores
When the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released its 2001 Report Card for America's Infrastructure,22 school
buildings received the lowest mark, a D-. What this means is that our schools are in worse physical shape than our bridges,
our transit systems, or our hazardous waste disposal systems. Ironic, isn't it, that the crumbling concrete we wouldn't stand for
in a highway is acceptable in a school? And, not wanting some folks to be inappropriately aspirational, our elected officials
sue for the right to keep the schools crumbling.
Media functionaries make hay over the failings of schoolteachers. Where were the banner headlines and newspaper editorials
decrying this structural D- handed out by the engineers? Maybe the Washington Post, New York Times, Denver Post, Los
Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, and their brethren were just so exhausted from touting how one reading program or another
that bypasses teacher experience, savvy, and intuition is going to make every child a reader by age 9 that they had no energy
to consider this devastating report card from the ASCE. Of course, the ASCE report card has the temerity to reflect the way
we actually treat children rather than showcase a for-profit ideology about how to get all the kids sitting in rows and grunting
out a prescribed curriculum.
Robert Bein, a civil engineer and president of ASCE, noted, "When you've got kids in Kansas City attending class in a former
boys' restroom, something is desperately wrong."23 Nationwide, more than 60% of our schools need major repair of roofs,
exterior walls, windows, plumbing, and lighting. Not surprisingly, the largest number of schools with deficient conditions
serve the poor. Affluent districts don't stand for reading classes next to the toilets or rat droppings on the windowsills.
San Francisco Chronicle staff writers Nanette Asimov and Lance Williams wrote searing articles about how, for 24 days in
the summer of 2001, high-priced attorneys grilled 13 witnesses, ranging in age from 8 to 17, "trying to topple their testimony
that California students don't have enough textbooks and that many classrooms are vermin-infested, overcrowded, and with
temperature either sweltering or freezing."24 Up to September 2001, the case had cost California taxpayers $2.5 million, and
it hadn't even gone to trial. Lawyers hired by the state were paid $325 an hour to fight the class-action lawsuit, which asks
that minimum standards for "basic educational necessities" be set. Lawyers' tactics included trying to intimidate children with
such questions as, "Did the mouse droppings you saw on the floor affect your ability to learn U.S. history at all?"
State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton observed, "It would be better to sit down and negotiate than depose a bunch of
kids and scare the s--- out of them."25 Some would say that guaranteeing all children a vermin-free school with toilets that
flush, a roof that doesn't leak, and up-to-date materials is a fundamental part of democracy. But New York and California are
fighting hard to keep some children more equal than others.
Maggots, Mosses, and Other Misfortunes
Items from the Virginia Standards of Learning Assessments: Spring 2001 Released Test in science -- for fifth-graders -- offer
a glimpse of test insanity. I haven't met any teachers who, if they wanted to figure out what fifth-graders know, would ask
them where maggots fit in the life cycle of horseflies. The little quiz that follows could be a provocative item of conversation
in communications with politicians, corporate CEOs, media pundits, and other Standardistos.
1. What is the correct order to show the complete life cycle of a horsefly? [A sketch of each item is provided.]
That last question requires some extended commentary. I was sort of bemused to realize that I'd spent so much time trying to
figure out if that book on the table was at the same height as the one on the second shelf. Then I watched as my husband, a
physicist, got sidetracked by that same concern. There he sat, eyeballing that book on the table, forgetting for a moment that
it doesn't matter if it's the same height when there is obviously a book that's farther from the ground.
a) D, B, C, A
b) D, C, B, A
c) A, D, C, B
d) C, B, D, A
[Do all those letter combinations confuse you? How do you think fifth-graders felt?]
2. Sound waves travel best through
[Political sound travels best through stacks of money. "Follow the money" is becoming the
mantra of the people trying to figure out what the U.S. Department of Education is up to.]
3. Which of these belong to the kingdom Monera?
[For adults fortunate enough to have attended school in low-stakes days and who don't have a
fifth-grader handy to ask, the kingdom Monera includes prokaryotic cells without nucleus or
membrane-bound organelles. It is divided into two subkingdoms: eubacteria and cyanobacteria
4. Tornadoes are most likely to be produced from which type of cloud?
[If you get stuck, substitute Vaseline, Mentholatum, Listerine, and Oleomargarine.]
5. The internal parts of a cell are suspended in a jelly-like liquid called the _?_.
b) cell membrane
[If you get stuck, substitute Cirrus, Stratus, Cumulus, Cumulonimbus.]
6. Which instrument could tell you that conditions are right for flying a kite?
[Virginia testing experts liked "anemometer" so much that they offered it on several items. Are
they sure humidity might not be important?]
7. [The item pictures four bookshelves.] Which picture shows the book with the most potential energy?
a) book on floor by bookshelf
b) book on fourth shelf up
c) book on second shelf up
d) book on table by bookshelf, apparently at same height as second shelf up
If a professional physicist gets distracted, what's a fifth-grader to do? And just what is the point of these distractors? Are they
a test of one's resolve to hold firm to Plato's caves? Are they red herrings stuck in just to sort out the gullible from the
resolute? Ask a fifth-grade teacher to say what percentage of her students are highly distractible. Then think about how many
fifth-graders will spend 15 minutes daydreaming about the nasty yuckiness of maggots instead of moving on to the next 37
These seven questions are just a small sample. Many questions, such as the one showing a penny with a tick next to Lincoln's
nose, require responses to diagrams, graphs, and so on. One shows a girl facing a flagpole early in the morning. By studying
the shadows cast, students are to figure out what direction she's facing. There are questions about magnetic fields,
chlorophyll, invertebrates, kinetic energy, moon revolutions, photosynthesis, watersheds, periscope construction, the Earth's
tectonic plates, the parts of a plant, pulleys, levers, fossils, and on and on. It is staggering to consider the curriculum required
to teach all this disparate, disconnected piffle.
If you want evidence of why students in Virginia are vomiting on test day, go look at 12 pages of similar questions
(www.pen.k12.va.us/VDOE/Instruction/2001sol/science_5.pdf). And then check out what fed-up parents are doing about it.
Here's the website of Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs (PAVURSOL): http://www.solreform.com/.
One can only wonder why, in the face of this blatant child abuse, so many are so silent. Daniel Ellsberg, probably the most
famous whistle-blower in recent decades, the fellow who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, has just one regret: he wished
he hadn't waited so long to blow that whistle. It is also of interest that, while Ellsberg was indicted for his deeds, the case was
thrown out because of government misconduct.
Changing the Definitions of 'Aspirational'
On the same day that the appellate court in New York reached its decision that the state need only supply its children with an
eighth-grade education, thereby ensuring a ready supply of minimum-wage workers, the New York Times published a special
32-page advertising supplement, The New Luxury: Changing the Definition of "Luxury Car."26 Coyly putting the reader on
notice that "the old luxury car paradigms just don't apply anymore," this supplement offered an index: the new luxury, history
of luxury cars, near-luxury sedans, mid-luxury sedans, true luxury sedans, and ultra luxury. For those who haven't been
following the standards of car labeling, the Times explains, "Mid-luxury is what used to be the luxury car segment, before
manufacturers moved their most expensive models into the high-luxury stratosphere and their inexpensive models into the
Not to stretch a metaphor into petulance, but these car labels do sound a whole lot like the way politicians and pundits label
students: below-proficient, near-proficient, mid-proficient, true proficient, ultra proficient. And like the cars in the garages,
the labels on the students correspond to zip codes. What is most striking is the statement that "mid-luxury is what used to be
the luxury car segment." My, oh my. In the name of producing "ultra" kids, the current kindergarten curriculum has become
what used to be called first grade, and the fifth- and sixth-grade curricula are insane for any grade. Anybody who doubts this
should take a look at the standards for English language arts across America. Look at when the state poobahs say students
will master the semicolon. Then ask yourself how many members of Congress could put a semicolon into its proper place in a
sentence. Nonetheless, state mandates demand that all kids be ultra. These days, insisting that teachers must produce a school
full of students who all test above average isn't just a Lake Wobegon joke; it's an imperative from state legislators who
wouldn't recognize a statistical impossibility if it laid 16 eggs on their hairpieces.
University graduate students had trouble with questions on the Massachusetts math test, but the politicos insist that the test is
a fine and dandy measure of high school proficiency.27 In 2002, when the failure rate on the New York physics test soared,
the education commissar announced, "Let them take it again," sounding more and more like a latter-day Marie Antoinette.
Time and time again, Richard Mills has proved himself incapable of acknowledging that something might be screwy about
the mandated state tests.
I admit that I wouldn't know Brembo brakes or adaptive dampers from a begonia and that a whole lot of details in the Times
supplement on ultra-luxury cars went right over my head. Not long ago, I admitted to my husband that, when registering at a
hotel, I couldn't answer the question as to the make of my car, so I just wrote "Silver." But as car-brand-disabled as I may be,
I recognize snotty superciliousness when it assaults me. Just to be sure the reader understands the aspirational class of the
writer of the luxury car supplement and just in case this same reader fails to pick up on the significance of the fact that the
writer owns an upscale pickup but his wife drives a "luxury sedan," the writer of the supplement offers: "I just raced 922
nautical miles from Miami to Baltimore as one of 12 crew members on a 60-foot, $3-million V060 sailboat." This tidbit has
nothing to do with the advertising supplement, but consumer cognoscenti aren't known for hiding their heads in barrels. And
this supplement is all about the consumer cognoscenti, those folks who insist one can never have too much. They're the ones
who used to say you couldn't be too rich or too thin.
Now the power brokers insist, "There's no such thing as too much testing in public schools." But students in private schools
don't have to take any of the high-stakes tests to pass from fourth to fifth grade or to earn their high school diplomas. The
government assumes that money buys competence. People who can pay upwards of $20,000 in tuition don't have to worry
about their third-graders failing the test for fourth grade. We've long known that money buys justice, and now it buys a free
ride for the private school 9-year-olds while their public school peers spend 17 hours or more taking tests to prove they're
adequate. And the tests are so scary that Harcourt even provides directions in the manual about what to do when children
vomit on their tests.
The Rich Find Ultra Luxury; the Poor Buy Toilet Paper
It's doubtful that the people who came up with the idea for the Times supplement on ultra-luxury cars worried much about
how parents in Birmingham, Alabama, to name just one locale, would come up with the money to pay for all the crayons,
scissors, glue, pencils, paper towels, dictionaries, antibacterial soap, and toilet paper on their children's school supply lists.
Yes, toilet paper. Many school lists around the country also ask each child to bring a ream of 20-lb. printer paper.
In Connecticut, the state with the highest per-capita income in the nation, school systems statewide spend an average of
$147.68 per student, per year, on textbooks and instructional supplies, but Hartford can afford just $77, only 52% of the
statewide average. Hartford school enrollment, by the way, is more than 92% minority, whereas nearby towns are less than
5% minority. Ironically, people living in affluent districts don't have to send in soap and toilet paper; people in poor districts
do. The rich get richer; the poor send toilet paper.
Does anybody reading the New York Times -- or the Boston Globe -- care that two years ago the city of Boston budgeted
about $55 for each elementary student's supplies, and out of that money, a school is supposed to pay for photocopy expenses,
postage, classroom libraries, chalkboards, easels, print cartridges, file cabinets and folders, reading tables, floor mats, pens,
paper, textbook and workbook replacements, and other basics?28 Does anybody care that on 31 March 2003, 71% of Boston
teachers, plus all the school nurses, received "excess" notices?
It has taken me years to come to the realization that the media don't see teachers or students. How else can we explain that
they take the pronouncements of Lou Gerstner or Achieve, Inc., or the Business Roundtable as gospel on matters of education
but regard teachers as somehow "partisan"?
In the opening stanza of "The Question," Amy Auzenne, a 19-year-old from Texas, writes
You never asked about
An old-fashioned note, that, almost quaint. Imagine schools these days finding time to ask students questions that aren't
shipped in from McGraw-Hill or Harcourt and taking the time to listen to the answers. Maybe caring about what students
think can't happen until power brokers decide that what teachers think matters. And no teacher in America is holding his or
her breath until that happens.
my favorite color,
my first love,
the holes in my heart,
the state of my soul,
or the weight of your words
The Lack of Concern for Things That Harm Children
If you want a newspaper to print something that lays the blame for children's problems on anything other than incompetent
teachers, then take out an ad. On 5 June 2002, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine: Center for Children's Health and the
Environment ran a full-page ad with a huge banner headline that read, "Johnny Can't Read, Sit Still, or Stop Hitting the
Neighbor's Kid. Why?" The ad is hard-hitting and shocking, presenting evidence that has failed to catch the imagination -- or
attention -- of governors, members of Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, the Business Roundtable -- or the media.
These physicians and scientists paid big money to announce that they are deeply troubled that "12 million American kids
suffer from developmental, learning, or behavioral disabilities."
Are the kids' problems caused by bad teaching? No. Are the kids' problems caused by insufficient training in phonemic
awareness? No. Are the kids' problems caused by failure to perform up to world-class educational standards? No. Are the
kids' problems caused by poor performance on high-stakes tests? No. Are the kids' problems caused by their lack of vouchers
to enable them to attend private schools? No.
The Mount Sinai School of Medicine: Center for Children's Health and the Environment offers evidence showing that lead,
mercury, industrial chemicals, and certain pesticides cross the placenta and enter the brain of the developing fetus, where
they can cause learning and behavioral disabilities. An array of these "Why?" ads can be seen at
Where's the outrage from the Business Roundtable? From members of Congress? From New York Times editorials? From the
teacher unions? From the professional organizations of teachers? Obviously, it's more fun to blame teachers and parents than
to point any fingers at business and industry.
But here's a point of information to consider. Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and
former education columnist for the New York Times, observed that, if raising test scores is our goal, food might be the easy
answer.30 There's evidence to suggest that giving every schoolchild a good breakfast will raise test scores more than ending
social promotion, increasing accountability, or requiring more testing. It's a fact that iron deficiency anemia, twice as
common in low-income children as in better-off children, affects cognitive ability. In experiments in which students got
inexpensive vitamin and mineral supplements, reported Rothstein, "test scores rose from that treatment alone." So where are
the demands in Congress for an Eat for Success campaign? Plenty of us would march for No Child Left Unfed. Then we
could go for No Child Left Unhoused and No Child Left Without Health Care. Apparently, Rothstein's observations, based
on research that rarely gets noticed, didn't make points at the Times. The newspaper dispensed with his services.
Nobody Could Make This Up
Education coverage just gets curiouser and curiouser. On July 1 of last year, Elisabeth Bumiller wrote an article that appeared
in the online New York Times and was headlined, "Bush, in Cleveland, Applauds Court's Voucher Decision." In paragraph
17, Bumiller wrote that Education Secretary Roderick Paige celebrated his team's voucher victory by using the militaristic
exhortation that Cleveland is "ground zero for freedom of choice in public schools."
Surely not. Surely no one could be so crass or so stupid as to use such a metaphor. I rushed to other papers and found the
same phrase again and again. The Washington Post called Paige's language "blunt." Perhaps "demented" would be more
accurate. This militaristic metaphor is as shocking as the Supreme Court decision that inspired it. Ask 1,000 people what
"ground zero" means to them, and how many do you think will mention "freedom of choice in the schools"? Nobody --
unless, maybe, they are standing in the Oval Office. Or in Cleveland Playhouse Square when the President is making a
Nobody needs reminding that Ground Zero is where the bombs fall. And the buildings. The tragedy of 9/11 is etched into our
national memory forever. The final death toll from Ground Zero in New York is 2,823, with only 289 intact bodies
recovered. Teachers and parents report that children attending school near Ground Zero suffer ongoing anxiety and
nightmares. So what are Paige and his handlers up to? Is the use of such imagery with regard to vouchers just crude
ignorance? Opportunism? Buffoonery?
Maybe it's prophecy. If you look at vouchers as part of the agenda of dismantling public education, then the Cleveland
decision can be seen as ground zero -- at least, the first stage of the demolition. Maybe Paige wasn't speaking metaphorically
after all. Maybe he was spilling the beans on the corporate/political agenda.
So why did the New York Times choose to omit any mention of Paige's remarks in Bumiller's article in the July 2 print
edition?31 Did someone decide that this ugly reference falls outside the bounds of "all the news that's fit to print"? Or is
something else going on? When the Standardisto psyche rules, no child abuse is too great. In Indianapolis, students were
required to continue state testing on September 11 and September 12, 2001.32 Officials reasoned that students should be able
to compartmentalize their emotions. So while the rest of the grief-stricken country sat numbed by the events, students in
Indianapolis were ordered to set aside their emotions and concentrate on the tests required by the state. There was no editorial
outrage. As famed investigative reporter George Seldes noted, "It is possible to fool all the people all the time -- when
government and press cooperate."33
That newspapers and other media cooperate with the message of the corporate/political agenda isn't even debatable. Ask
yourself who gets more coverage on the topic of children's difficulties in school: the Business Roundtable or the Mount Sinai
School of Medicine: Center for Children's Health and the Environment? Whom does the media call on as experts on the
education of 8-year-olds? William Bennett, Chester Finn, and Lou Gerstner or a third-grade teacher in Des Moines? Who
gets invited to address the National Press Club about education? Ted Forstmann and his CEO pals hawking vouchers or Steve
Orel, a teacher at the World of Opportunity in Birmingham, Alabama?
What will it take to help the media see that the story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter offers more clues to the power of the
written word to transform the lives of poor minority children than all of the 1,200+ pages of the No Child Left Behind
legislation? What will it take to get the media to tell the story of the Birmingham 522, those Alabama students pushed out of
school right before the SAT-9 was administered so their predicted low scores wouldn't bring down the school averages?34
What will it take to get the media to admit that the "Chicago miracle" came from pushing out more than 10,000 students who
scored low on high-stakes tests? What will it take to get newspaper editorialists to launch a campaign to bring back
kindergarten as a "children's garden" and so save 5-year-olds from the abusive academic pressure mill? What will it take for
the teachers in Los Angeles and Houston and Chicago and Boston to say they are mad as hell and aren't going to take it
We need to ask these questions often; we need to ask them loudly. We need to demand that our press stop cooperating with
the corporate globalists and their political cronies. We need to do this for the children and for our own salvation. Hawthorne's
narrator acknowledges, despite all the overblown hype offered by the guides on the celestial railroad, that this technological
marvel never gets you to your destination. In the end, the celestial railroad is a chimera. Teachers need to face up to the fact
that a significant number of our students are never intended to reach the celestial standards held out by the corporate/political
sleight-of-hand artists. This reality tells us that it's past time for us to remember why we became teachers. We serve children,
not corporate America. For the sake of the children, we need to say out loud that, for all their bully pulpits, the emperors of
standards and testing have no clothes.
1. Richard PÃ©rez-PeÃ±a, "Court Reverses Finance Ruling on City Schools," New York Times, 26 June 2002.
2. Anne Wheelock, "Dropout Crisis Developing in Boston Middle Schools," available at
3. See http://www.jobseducationwis.org/.
4. Tom Magliozzi, "All Things Considered," NPR, 4 April 2001.
5. Arthur C. Clarke, 3001: The Final Odyssey (New York: Ballantine, 1997), p. 136.
6. PÃ©rez-PeÃ±a, op. cit.
7. Eileen McNamara, "State Savings an Illusion," Boston Globe, 21 July 2002.
8. Richard Courant, Differential and Integral Calculus, 2nd ed., trans. Edward J. McShane (New York: Interscience
9. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories, ed. Alfred Kazin (New York: New American Library,
10. Reality Check 2002, available at www.publicagenda.org/specials/rcheck2002/reality.htm.
11. Rachel Gottlieb and Robert A. Frahm, "Mastery Test Grilling Heats Up," Hartford Courant, 19 September 2002.
12. Daniel Ellsberg, in conversation with Phil Bronstein of the San Francisco Chronicle, Commonwealth Club, 28 October
2002, broadcast on WAMC, Albany, N.Y.
13. See http://www.conference-board.org/.
14. Bob Herbert, "Only the Minimum," New York Times, 27 June 2002.
15. Sandy Coleman, "Dropout Rates Worry Some Area Educators," Boston Globe, 29 August 2002.
16. McNamara, op. cit.
17. John Welsh, "Test Goof 'Flunks' 7,989 Students," St. Paul Pioneer Press, 29 July 2000.
18. "Thousands of Georgia Test Results On Hold Because of Company Error," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 25 June 2002.
19. Assessment Reform Network discussion group, www.interversity.org/lists/arn-l/archives/aug2001/msg00905.html.
20. Randal C. Archibold, "Board Now Says Summer School Was Wrongly Ordered for 8,600," New York Times, 16
21. James Salzer and Paul Donsky, "Time's Up for Test Scores: State Won't Wait for Fixes to Stanford 9," Atlanta Journal-
Constitution, 17 August 2002.
22. American Society of Civil Engineers, 2001 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, available at
23. Bein's comments are at www.asce.org/reportcard/index.cfm?reaction=full.
24. Nanette Asimov and Lance Williams, "Governor Davis vs. School Kids: High-Priced Legal Team Browbeats Youths
About Shoddy Schools," San Francisco Chronicle, 2 September 2001.
26. Special Advertising Supplement, New York Times, 25 June 2002.
27. Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education discussion group, http://www.es.umb.edu/edgwebp.%20htm#MCAS.
28. Susan Ohanian, What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 2002), pp. 114-20.
29. Lydia Okotoro, compiler, Quiet Storm: Voices from Young Black Poets (New York: Hyperion Press, 2002).
30. Richard Rothstein, "Lessons: Food for Thought? In Many Cases, NO," New York Times, 1 August 2001.
31. Elisabeth Bumiller, "Bush Calls Ruling About Vouchers a 'Historic Move,'" New York Times, 2 July 2002.
32. Kim Walker, "ISTEP-Plus Testing During Tragedy Draws Mixed Views," Indianapolis Star, 18 September 2001.
33. George Seldes, The George Seldes Reader (Fort Lee, N.J.: Barricade Books, 1994).
34. Two substantive articles on the Birmingham 522 are Steve Orel, "World of Opportunity Background," and Susan
Ohanian, "Grant Pulled on Successful Program," Substance, April 2002.