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What, Me Worry?

Publication Date: 2004-03-15

By detail the specific schoolwork of his daughter,
Patrick Shannon uncovers the mendacity of NCLB.
In advisory council meetings, which often resemble the adult version of the Chicken Little story, some accept the authority of the state and the economy to direct the day-to-day activities of writing in the school.

This commentary originally appeared in the Rouge Forum.


Yesterday the citizens of Pennsylvania were informed that half of the state's public schools failed to make adequately yearly progress in reading and writing according to the state's standards set in order to comply with the federal government's No Child Left Behind law. Ten schools in our county were on the list, including the ones our children attended last year. The local newspaper account explained that the failures could result from poor overall scores on tests given in grades 5, 8, and 11, the continued poor showing of just one subgroup in a school or an attendance level below 95 percent. Each of the failing schools now enters a school improvement sequence, which requires school district officials to inform parents that they have the right to send their children to any district school. If too little progress is deemed to be made next year, the district must fund private tutoring or other supplemental services for any student attending the failing school. If again the scores do not rise sufficiently during the next year, then the state intervenes, adopting a new curriculum, hiring new administrators or replacing teaching staff. If this too fails, the state restructures the district. In Pennsylvania, restructuring has included subcontracting some or all school duties to private corporations.

The Superintendent of our school district was quoted in the local newspaper as saying that the failures were an embarrassment and an aberration which can be remedied simply by more attention to the state standards and the importance of the state tests. She did, however, remind local taxpayers that our schools had the state's highest number of National Merit Scholars, one of the nation's top Science Olympiad teams, the top music program in the state, and the state championship in boys basketball. Her need to list some of the school's accomplishments in her response to the test results demonstrated the pressure which the federal government can exert on local officials. Accordingly, Pennsylvania set achievement standards for all subjects in order to receive Title 1 and other federal funds as block grants, and the district followed suit because its future seems to depend on access to these federal funds. But should I be worried about our children's futures in schools which need "improvement" according to federal policy?

Most policy research begins and ends with functionalist assumptions. That is, after a policy has been recommended or implemented to adjust schooling in order to ameliorate a concern, policy analysts study its process, content, and consequences to judge its adequacy according to the policy's projected outcomes. These analysts assume that any policy is a functional catalyst designed to prevent further breakdown in the system or to thrust the system beyond its status quo. From this angle, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) appears to be a deliberate, rational attempt to assure that all American students receive the same opportunities at school. Those opportunities must keep pace with the demands of jobs in a global economy. Moreover, NCLB seems to be a needed act of discipline for school systems that have been unresponsive to this national imperative for the last twenty years. The policy, then, can be seen as a needed centralizing corrective to failing localism.

The jury is out on whether or not NCLB is working toward its functionalist goals - it has certainly allowed federal officials more input into state and local school decisions, but has yet to demonstrate that students are better prepared in anyway for available jobs. Yet, policy analysts need not adopt functionalist assumptions because policy may be more a matter of the authoritative allocation of values than a natural, rational, and deliberative process. Policies begin with their makers' images of the ideal society, and they are intended to be operational prescriptive statements to realize that ideal. Ideals are based on values, and values do not float independently from social contexts. Therefore, policies have histories and social attachments. As John Prunty (1985) wrote, "the authoritative allocation of values draws our attention to the centrality of power and control in the concept of policy" (p. 136). Therefore, policy analysis requires not only examination of a policy's effectiveness on its own terms, but an investigation of the values embedded within it; of the images used to make the policy seem necessary and compelling; and of the real, expected, and unanticipated social consequences of the policy.

In order to probe the values, images, and consequences of NCLB, I examine one writer in the context of an alternative high school, which is surrounded by a "world class high school" system in a slightly less than world-class state educational bureaucracy. To be specific, Laura just graduated from Delta, a 7 - 12 school of approximately 140 students. The school is famous locally for its respect for students' bodies - no bells, double periods, no homerooms, open campus, upholstered chairs around tables. Delta also respects students' minds. It has a seminar advisory system, bi-annual planning sessions with parental involvement, weekly all school meetings, and parent/student/faculty advisory council. Since Laura first attended Delta in 9th grade, she has composed and polished a 45 minute documentary film, installation art, essays, a music video, letters, poems, song lyrics, plays, policy, photographic representations of Delta classes, schematic drawings, websites, advertisements, grant proposals, reports to funding agencies, and a senior project report. All of these compositions have been responses to class assignments in social studies, art, science, and English.

If you cornered the Delta teachers and asked them to theorize their interdisciplinary, multi-media, multi-genre approach to writing instruction, they would tell you that this is the way adolescent minds work. Students are interested in content, not in form by itself, and therefore, form must be taught in the context of unbridled pursuit of student interests. Within the context of their interests, students will experiment with forms in any medium. So Laura's documentary is about the struggle during the school district's attempt to add sexual orientation to the anti-discrimination policy; the installation art dealt with adolescent women's body image and advertisements; the music video juxtaposed John Denver's song Leaving on a Jet Plane with clips from anti-Vietnam War films in order to protest the song's patriotic use in the blockbuster film Armageddon; letters addressed the editors of our local paper; one play provided a one act conversation in which God and the Devil argue over who had more influence during the Renaissance; a second play sent Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman to save poor Sue from Jude the Obscure and Thomas Hardy; schematic drawings detailed how to rewire the computer lab; the policy eliminated the sexist language in the schools dress code; and the grant proposals requested funds for a Young Women's Health Center at Delta. Although all Delta students engage in similar assignments, none followed Laura's path. Rather each chose his or her content in which to work through the various forms of composition across the many Delta classes.

In correspondence with No Child Left Behind, the Pennsylvania Department of Education requires that all 11th grade students sit for three hours of writing examinations. Students are allotted one hour for each of three essays - narrative, informational, and persuasive. According to the state's writing standards, each essay will be evaluated according to rubrics on its focus, content, organization, style and conventions. Scores will be reported in three ways. The state will produce an aggregate score for all 11th graders. The District will receive a mean score as well. And students who "pass" the exam will receive a seal on their diplomas attesting to that fact. After a bitter battle, the state's intention to print the score on students' transcripts was eliminated from the policy. Students are not allowed to use a computer during the exam (although they must complete a questionnaire on their use of computers during regular classes). Nor can they use dictionaries or any other style aid. Simply they are asked to sit at a desk, grab their pencil and write on a prompt supplied by the state.

And in the end, these three hours and three essays define the state's performative ideal. According to the state, writing is the control of form on demand without the control of function or content. If this were not the true state ideal, then another form of assessment would be the capstone experience. For example, if the state possessed a different vision of writing, it might require students to submit a portfolio of their writing across the subject areas and school years. The state's ideal, however, suggests that you can write well about nothing at all, that assistance in writing of any sort is a sign of weakness, and that writers' development peaks at age 17. Technical control, independence, and speed are the foundational values, and print is the only valued medium. The state provides the image of the ideal writer as a monastic scribe who receives the prompt with clear expectations, leaving only the visual representation as a creative impulse.

Although immediately tied to NCLB, the Pennsylvania writing standards and assessment system is part of the two-decade old national movement to hold students and teachers accountable for the time and money spent in schools. This movement has historical roots in the school efficiency movement at the turn of the last century when schools were supposed to use business principles in order to prepare students for the jobs in industrial America. Attempts to translate written compositions into standard scores are direct throwbacks to the adaptation of scientific management principles for schooling. Test scores became the educational bottom line nearly 100 years ago. And the speed to score ratio defined educational efficiency. Currently, the state's writing system employs both measurement and speed to secure Pennsylvania and its citizens' places in the world economy. Our state, like many others around the country, is at the mercy of this economic agenda to reform schools in order to meet business needs, and at the same time, to cut the costs of public schooling, the largest governmental expense for social welfare. "Do more for less" and "you are on your own" are the watchwords for efficiency.

Pennsylvania suffers from these apparent contradictory goals. For example, at the same time that the state received a D- from Education Week for school funding equity, then Governor Tom Ridge usurped the authority for Philadelphia city schools because "the Philadelphia School district does not have the ability to right itself academically or fiscally." While cutting university and large school district budgets, Ridge spent millions to purchase, develop, and implement standards and assessments in order to create an image that the Pennsylvania education system is capable of educating students prepared for the high skill/ high wage jobs that await them in the global economy. In order to enforce school accountability and to attract corporate attention, the Governor hired the Standards & Poors accounting firm to construct statistical explanations for schools' success or lack of same.

According to the state, Laura has written little while attending Delta. In fact, she seems headed in the opposite direction from the state's ideal. That is, she composed few essays directed by prompts within limited time. Rather she worked collaboratively with others in order to conceive, construct, and polish her compositions. Each had an immediate purpose in her world in and out of the classroom. Although Laura completed the one Delta class that deals directly with narratives - Creative Writing - she used several media and maintained control of her content while writing those narratives. Laura's documentary doesn't qualify as ideal informational writing and her installation art doesn't make it as persuasive writing, although at the end of the composition process both met the state's rubric for successful writing. That is, they were well focused, deep in content, carefully organized, stylish as hell, and conventional fit (for those media). Few of the Deltoids (as Laura refers to them) have practiced much of the state's ideal writing performance. And, this mismatch in values has come to the attention of district administrators.

Following an embarrassing failure of the state's writing test by 31 percent of the AP English students in another local world class school district, our school district administrators applied pressure on all its schools to pay more direct attention to the writing standards and tests. Delta teachers are now required to limit students' options for representing their learning to print essay formats. Moreover, all such assignments are to be scored according to the state's rubric for the writing exam. Starting in seventh grade, students are to write three essays in each genre each year. The district permits school administrators and faculty to decide on the distribution of those essays across subject disciplines. As if this pressure is not enough, the state will implement high stakes exams in civics education, English literature, mathematics, and science over the next five years. With each exam, Delta teachers and students expect to lose more degrees of freedom to design their academic work together.

If left unchallenged, the state's ideal for writing and learning will slowly but surely replace the policies and practices that the Delta teachers have followed with Laura and other students. With nine samples each year and state tests at grades 8 and 11, the Delta teachers will either acquiesce to the federal/state/district pressure or cease to exist. Delta has taken the first step in the school improvement sequence set by the state. They have been identified as a failing school and now must improve their performance according to state guidelines within one year or start to hire tutors for their students. The strain of this pressure is already visible in the advisory council meetings at Delta. Most members recognize that the school's fundamental values of meaningful context, choice, and multiple media are what are at stake. Some see the power the state exerts as bureaucratic control of standards meets the technical control of the yearly essay quotas and periodic examination within the hierarchical organization of the school district and state. A few members acknowledge that the district's response to NCLB created an educational panopticon, apparently keeping continuous surveillance of the school's director, faculty, and students.

This new knowledge has led to hand to hand combat among the director, teachers, parents and students who, at times, disagree on what should be done. In advisory council meetings, which often resemble the adult version of the Chicken Little story, some accept the authority of the state and the economy to direct the day-to-day activities of writing in the school. They worry about students' abilities to find work and to prosper after attending Delta and seek ways to accommodate the district's new writing policies in the Delta curriculum. Others have started to identify the historical and social attachments of the state's policy on writing and are beginning to untangle the consequences of twenty years of media images of failing schools and economic dominance over civic concerns. Most members of the council, however, sit somewhere in between these two extremes, working toward practical middle ground as well. Their work will become more difficult with yesterday's news that the school is failing.

As concerned as I am that the NCLB inspired writing curriculum will choke the life out of the Delta writing program, and perhaps Delta altogether, I see the struggles at the Delta meetings as signs of hope. Those teachers, students and parents who are beginning to question the largely corporate values that the state has brought to their school are opening spaces in which to imagine a Delta future that would not correspond with the one projected by NCLB. These members see the contradictions between the rhetoric and reality of NCLB as spaces where the federal policy is vulnerable. For example, some members of the council have co-opted the rhetoric of economic necessity in order to justify Delta's interdisciplinary, multi-media, multi-genre approach to writing instruction. They use data from surveys of employers which suggest that new high skill jobs require writers who can use language in all its forms in multiple ways to get things done and to collaborate with co-workers. Few will be asked to write essays of any type. Of course this assault on NCLB concedes that business interests should direct schooling and it accepts employers' conception of high skill work in America. Even economists are beginning to questions these lofty characterizations of work in the future.

Another sign of hope is the growing legal challenge to high stakes testing system in Pennsylvania. For example, the parents of some of the 31 percent who did not pass the writing exam last year have filed a lawsuit challenging the validity and reliability of standards and tests which precluded their children from graduating with a writing sticker on their diplomas. At this point the Pennsylvania Department of Education has not released the test construction statistics to the public. Perhaps, they have none to release, as happened in the Chicago Public Schools with the history test. Of course, lawsuits are often reduced to money talking to power. But the well-to-do may be important allies in the challenge to NCLB because it may expose that "world class school districts" have schools that fail to make yearly adequate progress - like our district. Too much of that publicity may bring property values down. In the end, legal approaches might rely too heavily on the science of writing instruction. What are validity and reliability of tests? Educational scientists were the first to realize that tests could provide an educational bottom line. Time and time again across the 20th century, some among these scientists sold their expertise to the state to develop tightly coupled systems based on tests which they supported with mountains of statistics..

A more remote, but more engaging, sign of hope is the political struggle over the Pennsylvania government's interest in attracting lucrative corporate hog farms. I understand this struggle as a metaphor for what is happening to Pennsylvania's public schools. Pennsylvanians are told that corporate hog farms will bring new jobs to impoverished communities and make the state a player in the agricultural global economy. As I understand it, corporate hog farms are stops in the production of pork for public consumption. Agricultural corporations buy land, hire a manager, and then ship 3 to 5 thousand piglets from corporate breeding farms to the fattening farms in order to raise each hog's weight from 10 to 250 pounds. In order to increase the hog's weight, the farm manager loads the hogs with considerable amounts of grain, restricts their movement, and inoculates them with growth hormones. The hog's job is to eat and poop.

For a variety of reasons this state venture has attracted opposition from Greens, conservatives, traditional liberals, as well as farmers of all political stripes. Together these groups have bypassed the usual scientific strategies to set limits on hog farming in order to minimize the consequent smell and water contamination that always accompany these corporate ventures. Rather community members have passed laws in their townships that prohibit corporate farms. Ian Dietrich, a farmer from one of these townships, summarized the concerns:

I don't like the way they treat the animals. I don't like the conditions for the farmer. I don't like the smell. I don't like the potential to damage the water supply. I don't like the amount of antibiotics they use to keep the animals alive.

Ten townships have managed successfully to authoritatively allocate values in opposition to corporate and state values that they deem harmful to local citizens. The state, corporations and the professional organizations have responded that these citizens have no right to ban corporations and that the corporations know better how to farm and what's good for the economy than the locals. They have attempted to repeal the townships' rights to set zoning restrictions because they say that the new laws discriminate against corporations. Each such response stiffens the resolve in these townships, which are determined to demonstrate that they do have the authority to define what goes on in their jurisdiction when it does not harm or hinder groups of people..

The hope for education and democracy lies in the vivid demonstrations of literate democratic habits of mind among these citizen groups. They are poring through texts - legal, scientific, and economic - in order to learn more about themselves, testing their understandings of their history, cultures and values. They are relating this self-awareness to the lives of others and the social structures put in place to guide those lives. During these literate practices, they have become aware that those structures and their lives could be otherwise. That is, both could be more in their control. This awareness and their continued reading and writing have caused them to form coalitions across previously antagonistic groups and caused them to act in concert.

What makes their action unique is their choice to rely on ethics, history, and culture rather than on science and the market in order to direct their work. These citizens judged the rightness or wrongness of the actions to start corporate hog farming in their communities based on the virtue or vice of the motives which prompted the actions, the praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of the agents who would perform them, and the goodness or badness of the consequences to which they give rise. To set these ethical judgments in context, the citizens have taken inventory of the histories of their townships and the cultures that are present or ones that might arise because of the struggles. They acknowledge that hogs can be fattened more efficiently on such farms, that additional taxes might help their communities, and that scientists from outside their communities could establish "acceptable" levels of smell and water contamination. They weigh these scientific and economic "facts" against the consequent effects on community health, history, and culture. In these ten townships, the citizens have concluded that the whole thing stinks too much to allow it to happen.

There are important lessons within the civic courage demonstrated by these citizens. Many teachers face the same dilemma in different packages. Teachers are told that others know better about their work, and how to do it, and their lives, and how to live them. Publishers tell them what materials they need. Educational scientists explain how they should teach. And now with NCLB, the federal and state governments tell them when and how to assess teaching and learning. Moreover, the NCLB enforces the authority of publishers and educational scientists in schools. People who don't live in the communities require that teachers adapt to their suggestions because they know better than teachers how to educate America.

A first lesson to consider is the development of the chutzpah to question science and the market. The citizens don't doubt the scientific conclusions or economic predictions. They concede the scientific and economic pronouncements as facts. However, the majority in those communities refuse to elevate those scientific and market facts above the historical, ethical, and cultural facts that they know about their lives and their community. They decided that they do not want to live their lives as science and the market tell them they should. Although advertisers have taught most of us to be skeptical of business and the marketplace, most of us equate science with truth and progress. Yet, these citizens have learned that marketplace and science are a human endeavors, and not natural, universal or eternal. They've learned that people have developed the market and the science over time and people work currently to maintain them as disciplines or authority in our lives.

The basis for this questioning stems from the ability of both sides in the argument to produce scientific arguments to justify their positions. The coalition produced reports and experts who attested to the negative environmental impact of corporate hog farms, and the state and industry supplied endless streams of scientific documentation that "proved" that the smell and the water contamination are manageable and can be tolerated. This occurrence does not mean that all science is tainted. However, one of the most dramatic trends influencing the direction of science during the past century has been its increasing dependence on funding from government and industry. Rather it means that science has social entailments just like ethics, history, and culture. One is not subjective and the other objective. Outcomes depend on the values of the people asking the questions, setting the conditions of the study, conducting the investigations and interpreting the results. The corporations, professional organizations, and government officials who promote corporate hog farms value more pork, efficiency and profit. Their science attests to these facts. The citizens value clean water, fresh air, and local control. The latter established different criteria on which to base their science and their lives.

This power to develop the criteria is a freedom seldom mentioned in the current talk about school reform and writing education in the United States. Most often our freedom is defined by the metaphor of the market - we are free to buy what goods we find most appealing and can afford among the selection available. Within this metaphor, the choices are set before our freedom begins. We are free to choose, but not free to develop our choices. The writing tests in Pennsylvania demonstrate this fact to students, if they have not already intuited it themselves. Delta writing curriculum, although a failure by NCLB standards, argues just the opposite. It suggests that Laura and other Deltoids should enjoy the freedom to make their own choices and pursue their own topics. That curriculum represents the values of faculty and student who seek to arm themselves with the literacies to engage in civic life as members of any coalition of their choosing.

My fear, then, is not for Laura as a writer who studied in a "failing" school. I fear that the rest of us will not demonstrate the civic courage of those who oppose corporate hog farms in Pennsylvania.

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