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All the News That’s Fit to Print

Publication Date: 2010-12-14

Think about how you'd feel if you had an invitation from the New York Times, putting you among "experts" offered to contribute 300 words.


12/9 6:45 p.m. From New York Times to Susan Ohanian: We are putting together a discussion on our online opinion forum, Room for Debate, about stress among high school students. These discussions are meant to be mini op-eds (about 300 words by a variety of experts addressing a specific question.

Here's the question: A new documentary, "Race to Nowhere," is hitting a nerve among parents across the country who are worried about the levels of stress that their school-age children are experiencing: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/09/education/09nowhere.html?src=me&ref=homepage. What can schools -- and parents -- do to turn down the heat?

12/10 7:53 a.m. Room for Debate submission by Susan Ohanian

"Race to Nowhere" accurately portrays the heartbreaking stress schools place on children. The fear of "not being good enough" now begins with standardized requirements for Pre-K. Although the Times review emphasized the pressure felt by suburban students preparing their resumes for the Ivy League, a Vermont high schooler with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) wrote six pages of expletives on his federally-required test.


You f_ _ _ ing a_ _holes.
I have been taking these f_ _ _ing tests since first grade and I am f_ _ _ing sick of it. I know I can't spell. You know I can't spell. I have more important things to do than this bulls_ _ _ test. . . . This is a f_ _ _ing waste of time. You could spend this time teaching me something.

Suspended for inappropriate behavior, this youth missed out on the lumberjack test he'd planned to take the next day. The state of Vermont owes him an apology for going along with federal mandates insisting that one size fits all.

The pressure will get worse. The US Department of Education bribed states to accept Common Core Standards and has dished out over $300 million for tests to accompany these standards. Wordsworth and Jane Austen for all.

Parents and teachers must fight for childhood. Say "No!" to Barack Obama, to Thomas Friedman, to Ben Bernanke, to Oprah, and to everybody else who mouths nonsense about educating workers for the global economy, trying to put the blame for our economic woes on the backs of schoolchildren.

We need artists, bakers, lumberjacks, manicurists, welders, and yurt builders, as well as people who study math and science in college. Let's respect the variety of skills needed in our communitiesâ"and make sure everyone receives a decent wage. Talking about "Race to Nowhere" is a good place to start.

Editorial Process: The Expletive Problem

1:35 p.m. New York Times to Susan:
Unfortunately, I can't use your anecdote about the Vermont kid, so I've tried to rework the piece to make your point.

Edit: And although reviews of the film have emphasized the pressure felt by suburban students preparing their resumes for the Ivy League, they aren't the only ones affected by this obsession with standardized testing. What about the high school student who doesnât want to go to college, who would like to be a lumberjack? Or what about the kid who would rather be taking his truck driver's exam than being forced to sit through another standardized test --the ones he's been taking year after year since first grade? OR SOME SUCH

2:33 p.m. Susan to NY Times: I "fixed" the expletive problem. I guess I can understand that a family newspaper has certain issues, though I know that the student's words pull at heartstrings. I read them at my Bank Street College Biber Lecture this fall (They bill it as the annual lecture that sets the tone for the year).

Edit: And although reviews of the film have emphasized the pressure felt by suburban students preparing their resumes for the Ivy League, they aren't the only ones affected by this obsession with standardized testing. What about the Vermont high school student who filled his test booklet with six pages of rage at the one-size-fits all test required by the federal government? When he was suspended for "inappropriate behavior," he missed the lumberjack test he wanted to take. I get hundreds of similar stories at my website from desperate parents and grandparents.

3:49 NY Times Edit: What about the case of the Vermont high school student who filled his test booklet with six pages of rage at the one-size-fits all test required by the federal government? When he was suspended for "inappropriate behavior," he missed the lumberjack test he wanted to take. The state of Vermont owes him an apology for going along with federal mandates that are a disservice to our children.

The Thomas Friedman Problem

Original Text:
Parents and teachers must fight for childhood. Say "No!" to Barack Obama, to Thomas Friedman, to Ben Bernanke, to Oprah, and to everybody else who mouths nonsense about educating workers for the global economy, trying to put the blame for our economic woes on the backs of schoolchildren.

1:35 New York Times Edit: Parents and teachers must fight for childhood. Say âNo!â to everybody who mouths this nonsense about educating workers for the global economy, trying to put the blame for our economic woes on the backs of schoolchildren.

2:33 p.m. Susan to NY Times: Why has this paragraph been stripped of content? Saying "everybody" doesn't hold anyone responsible. Is one not allowed to criticize the influential people who mouth the global economy nonsense? I want the original paragraph back.

3:49 NY Times to Susan: Regarding your penultimate paragraph, our feeling is that it seems odd to blame such a large audience -- celebrities, etc. -- when the fault lies with the policymakers and education experts, so hopefully you're okay with that tweak, which goes back to most of your original wording.

NY Times Edit: Parents and teachers must fight for childhood. Say "No!" to political leaders and education policy experts who mouth this nonsense about educating workers for the global economy, trying to put the blame for our economic woes on the backs of schoolchildren.

7:17 p.m.: Susan to NY Times: I wrote a book called Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools, detailing why the fault most definitely does NOT lie with education experts. The current education policy was planned by the Business Roundtable with help from politicos like Gov. Bill Clinton and IBM chief Lou Gerstner. Obama has come late to the party, but he's there. Thomas Friedman, for one, frequently orates about our economy depending on schoolchildren taking college prep curriculum. And his words are quoted by CEOs and politicos. I'm willing to take out Oprah, though every teacher would know why her name is there.

Conclusion

That was the end over the exchange. I did not hear from anyone at the New York Times again. A note on the editorial "we" (our feeling is...) Writing on language in the New York Times Magazine (Oct. 3, 2010), Ben Zimmer says it is unlike that Mark Twain ever made this remark often attributed to him: "Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial 'we.'"

Over the course of the edits, the New York Times removed the suggestion that the state of Vermont should apologize to the high school student and I Okayed it. When they substituted "truck drivers" for "yurt builders," I pointed out that in that sentence yurt builders represent a whole group of people who don't want to be standardized, but I agreed to the change. When I stood firm on laying blame for student anxiety at the feet of Obama, Friedman, and Bernanke (offering to remove Oprah as a gesture of compromise), suddenly the New York Times reinstated the state of Vermont apology and the yurt builders. I interpreted this as an attempt to get me to yield on Obama, Friedman, and Bernanke "Give her back the yurt builders, so she'll shut up about Friedman!"

Although the New York Times initially addressed me as an expert, in the end neither my research nor my opinion counted for a hill of beans. Five people contributed to Room for Debate on Dec. 13, 2010, blaming student stress on a variety of things including AP classes, homework, too many after-school activities. Nobody blames Thomas Friedman.

I know that not one reader in 10,000 will understand the Friedman sentence. And of those who do understand it, not one in 100,000 will think I was right to destroy my chances of getting into the New York Times by insisting on it. After all, doesnât getting our words into the New York Times validate us as genuinely important? The problem is that I happen to believe that op eds should increase public understanding of a fundamental issue, not just preach to the orthodoxy of those who already agree about some collateral damage. I wanted people to puzzle over why Friedman's name is there. I hoped a few might even ask some questions.

Most will think the New York Times won. Maybe so. But I think their victory would have been bigger had I gone along with the offer to remove that sentence.


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