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Standardized testing's 'shame machine'

Susan Notes:

The Good News is that John Kuhn is a public school superintendent willing to speak truth to power. I only wish more educators would follow his lead.

by John Young
April 10, 2012


The amazing thing is that John Kuhn is what he is ΓΆ€” a public school superintendent. Doubly amazing: His school board apparently has his back.

Otherwise, what Kuhn is doing would be like dousing his career in kerosene and flicking his Bic.

Kuhn, superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District in North Texas, is assuming the status of Patrick Henry on the abomination known as "school accountability."

He's become a firebrand on behalf of an increasing number of Texas school districts ΓΆ€” more than 100 ΓΆ€” that have signed on to a resolution saying standardized testing is "strangling" their schools.

"The government has allowed state testing to become a perversion, growing like Johnson grass through the garden of learning and choking to death all knowledge that isn't on the test," writes Kuhn.

This fixation, he said last month at a "Save Our Schools" rally in Austin, "is killing ancient wisdom like debate, logic and ethics ΓΆ€” deep human learning that once provided this state a renewable crop of leaders who knew courage instead of expedience, truth instead of spin, and personal risk for the public good instead of personal enrichment and re-election at all cost."

I never saw a causal link between "school accountability" and the venal state of today's politics. However, now upon reflection, having observed roughly a quarter century of both from Texas, the bosom of the "accountability" cult:

Guilty as charged.

As Kuhn noted, Texas, which last year cut $5 billion from public schools, is spending $500 million on a new generation of tests to further strangle them.

Kuhn isn't the only one using "perversion" to describe the testing overemphasis bleeding public education of its vitality. So did Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott recently:

He called testing a "perversion of its original intent," one that had led states to increasingly control every wink and nod of every educator in every state.

"What we've done over the past decade," said Scott, "is we've doubled down on the test every couple of years and used it for more and more things to make it the be-all, end-all" of K-12 education. "You've reached a point now where you've got this one thing that the entire system is dependent upon. It is the heart of the vampire, so to speak."

I have to say, what Scott and Kuhn have said takes guts. Then again, if one pays any attention at all to public education as now practiced, one could not possibly come to any other conclusion.

One problem is that unlike educational leaders who speak Kuhn's poetry, too often districts want robots who speak in numbers, rubrics, algorithms. They seek data-driven humanoids bearing the latest scripted methods for teaching, often costing an arm and an elementary school. They guarantee higher test scores. Often, they deliver.

What they don't deliver, and aren't even sure they can identify, is real education.

Said Kuhn, the testing system "has sought to make our children quantifiable shells of people, their guiding light of curiosity snuffed out by an idiot's opinion of what constitutes a human education."

Worst of all, designed and reinforced by elected types who don't really buy into the whole concept of public schools ΓΆ€” dreaded means of lifting the rabble they serve ΓΆ€” "accountability" isn't meant to help these schools thrive but to punish and shame them, all the better to advance the agenda of vouchers and for-profit charters.

Kuhn calls this the "engine of shame."

"No matter what, the only crime of the public school teacher in 2012 is his or her willingness to embrace and teach broken children. If that's a crime, then find us guilty. If caring for the least of them makes us unacceptable, then bring on your label gun. We're not afraid."

Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

— John Young
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