ITEM: Prostate Cancer
New York Times, Sept. 12, 2002
Headline: Prostate Cancer Surgery Found to Cut Death Risk
Lead: For the first time, scientists have shown in a rigorous study that surgery to remove a cancerous prostate gland can reduce the risk of death from the disease.
Boston Globe, repeated from Washington Post, Sept 12, 2002
Headline: 2 Studies Find No Advantage to Prostate Surgery
Lead: Men with prostate cancer who decide not to undergo surgery and opt to have only the symptoms of the disease treated do just about as well as men who are not operated on…
NOTE: Both articles cited the same study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Item: Good Teaching
New York Times, Feb. 19, 2003
Headline: ON EDUCATION; Defining Success In Narrow Terms
Lead: The students, the parents, the teachers at Gonzales Elementary thought they had a terrific school
Closing: All that matters anyway is a school’s performance on one test per year. It’s perfect for politicians and bureaucrats in Phoenix and Washington who are far too busy to leave their offices and spend a day at a real school.
The New York Times, Dec. 5, 2019
Headline: There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows It
Lead: “Thank God for Mississippi.”
Closing: And when children are taught in ways that line up with the science, they can learn.
Sex and Syllabification. Conjugal Consonants. And more!
National Reading Tribunal News Channel
NRT Adjutant General Back from Kindergarten War Zone Set for Appearance on Sat Nite Live
Congress Passes Bill Sylvan Airport Passenger Phonemic Awareness Test now mandetory. Ultra-Business travelers lobby for hardship exclusion.
Classroom Bomb Threat a Hoax Toledo, OH. Police blew up brown paper bag which contained bologna, not embedded modifiers. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Umlauts secured the site.
Cruise/Cruz sign up for Spielberg’s first phonics ballet Differential Cryptanalysis of the CR Blend set for release in the Spring.
Bickering Stalls Schwa Stimulus Package Pompeo warns partisan controversy swirling around the President’s plan threatens national security.
Calls for National Guard Lesson-Monitoring Locals keeping their neighbors safe
Special Report NRT Special Counsel warms: extended blends resistance cells proliferating 60 Minutes Special
Trump in Florida to announce Hispanic Sentence-Diagrammer-of-Year Award
RESEARCH MATTERS The Effects of Phonemic Instruction on PreSchoolers Who Own Turtles: A Model-Based Metanalysis Special report from the US Dept of Agriculture
The Effects of Computer-Mediated Phonics on the Acne Severity of Middle-School Readers Special Report from US Dept of Energy
The Effects of Phonemic Intervention on At-Risk Youth Allergic to Eggplant Special Report from Arne Duncan at the Emerson Collective
Attack on Phonics! Are Your Children Victims? Learn about keeping your loved ones safe from this assault Phonicsfirst.com Tonight at 6
What Makes an Economy Grow? PHONICS Business Roundtable warns that 93.8% of Americans live in phonics poverty, subsisting on fewer than five short vowels a day. Co-authors Louisa Moats and Madonna announce Good News: Final Solution is clear and near. Tune in for Phonics Good News! Marathon
Partisan Bickering Mars Passage of Schwa Compromise Bill in Senate Will parties pay a political price? Sean Hannity reacts on Live at 6
Speak up! Should anyone receive a high school diploma without first demonstrating homograph proficiency? Meet this Fortune 500 star who says NO! Live at 7
UP CLOSE & PERSONAL Chicago family without access to 16 rules for syllabification hit hard. Hear their painful story. Live at 8
Phonemic Awareness NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH taking on terror Only YOU can keep our communities safe Live at 9
Shakespeare’s Schwas Thomas B. Fordham Institute Special Report Streaming video
IN THE POPULAR PRESS STOP Rationalizing Evil! Why I Believe in Dipthongs, Bill Gates, New York Times Op-Ed
Professorial Terrorism: Stifling Vowel Digraphs on Campus New York Times front page
The Case for Phonics Vouchers New York Times Business Section
How a Phonics Advocate Spends Her Sundays New York Times Sunday
The Phonics Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind New York Times front page
The Phonics Disaster: What Lazy, Ignorant, Abusive Teachers Don’t Want You To Know New York Post front page
The Phonics Disaster: What Lazy, Ignorant, Abusive Teachers Don’t Want You To Know Fox News at 6
The Phonics Disaster: What Lazy, Ignorant, Abusive Teachers Don’t Want You To Know @realDonaldTrump, twitter
U.S. Ranks 813rd in Consonant Blends “The family that sounds out together, stays together,” advises Rev. Franklin Graham at Phonemic Awareness Congressional Breakfast
JUST RELEASED! Index of Phonemics Freedom by Daughters of American Dipthongs “No home should be without it.” –Emily Hanford
Vowel Voice Stay informed! Daily e-mail updates. Send us your questions! vowelvoice.gov
Consonant Crisis If you think college education departments are cleaning up the phonics mess, think again. Special Guest: Ivanka Trump, honorary chair, President’s Consonant Task Force Sunday at 11
Phonics First Rushh Limbaugh takes on secularists and feminists working to bring down Phonics First Today at 2
Autographed Copy of 10 Stupid Things Couples Do to Mess Up Their Short Vowels Tune in at 8 to secure your copy.
12 Steps to Phonics Renewal Enroll now and receive 17-blade blender and Reid Lyon’s Collected Works phonicsrenewal.edu
Golden Oldie: Why I’ll Pick Up a Gun for Phonics!–Charlton Heston
Phonics Prayer of the Day phonicsprayer.com (paid advertisement)
Has phonics deficiency ruined your sex life? Help is just an e-mail away. Enroll now: firstname.lastname@example.org
McPhonics Learning Center GRAND OPENING planetphonics.com
In-depth, self-paced courses on specific strategies and issues related to Phonics Power ASCD EMPOWER, 1-day pre-conference Institute
Phonics Doesn’t Have to Be Boring! Join us for 1-day Education Week Webinar (greatest number of disreputable endorsers in one place)
Fun, fast-paced, and systematic phonics Success for All (endorsed by Google)
Thirteen Ways of Looking at National Education Policy
By Susan Ohanian
Apologies to Wallace Stevens who must be rolling in his grave.
Among 6,346 Congressional mandates,
The only puzzling one
Was imperatives about all children.
I was of three minds,
Like a desk
On which there are three pencils.
The Learning sat in the publishing conglomerate mist
It was a small part of The Program.
A child and a teacher
A child, and a teacher and Learning
I do not know which to prefer
The beauty of All Children
Or the beauty of Grade Level Mastery,
The student reaching proficiency
Or just after.
Proficiency filled the huge whiteboard
With barbaric blips.
The shadow the student
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin publishers of tests,
Why do you imagine Proficiency?
Do you not see how learning
Lurks in the classrooms
Of the teachers despite you?
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms:
But I know, too,
That the student is enmeshed
In what I know.
When any learning is acquired
It marks the edge
Of one of many circles.
At the thought of students
Only the bawds of Congress
Would cry out in ecstasy
Or corporate complicity.
He walked past classrooms
Once, a fear pierced him,
When he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
Times are changing
Learning must be mastered.
When it is proficieny time
And testing time
And ever preparing to test,
Learning’s meaning sits
With the Business Roundtable.
Apps, Schwas, and Other Things that Go Bump in the Night
The most popular article at The New York Times was “Top 10 Must-Have Apps for the iPhone, and Some Runners-Up.” Well, I don’t have an iPhone, but more important, probably, I don’t have a clue what an app is.
No, don’t write and tell me. Please, please, please don’t do that.
I once confessed I didn’t know what a schwa was, and I got tons of mail explaining these creatures.
I still don’t know.
I still don’t care.
I figure apps are the result of one night of unbridled passion between a schwa and Bill Gates, and I don’t give a damn.
I can’t resist listing what you get if you put “app” into a Google search:
- Asbury Park Press (That’s New Jersey, leading me to say, “Ask for an app, and you end up in New Jersey.”)
- Association of Professional Piercers (ain’t the Internet great?)
- a pharmaceutical company in the Fresenius Kabi Group
- American Apparel Common Stock
- Amyloid precursor protein whose primary function is not known, though it has been implicated as a regulator of synapse form
- The Atom Publishing Protocol
- Anderson Power Products, an industry leader in the design and manufacture of high power interconnect solutions for rapid prototyping to production volumes
And so on and so on.
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
Pro-Child Checklist for Teachers in the 21st Century Economy
Make sure each of these is done at least once a day.
1. Invite students to tell a joke or read a riddle out loud.
2. Make sure students engage in extended reading of books of their own choice.
3. Invite students to visit the library and bring back some amazing fact.
4. Read aloud from a variety of texts: chapter books, poems, newspaper articles, picture books, joke books.
5. Send notes home to at least 3 households, recounting something good that happened for and with their child.
6. Ask children to volunteer information on someone who was helpful–within the classroom or elsewhere in the school.
7. Ask children to volunteer information on something good that happened for them this day. If a child can’t do this, ask yourself why not.
8. Ask children to volunteer information on how the day could be improved tomorrow.
9. Find a way to send a positive vibe to the most annoying child in the class.
10. At least once a week invite a child to be “Teacher for 15 Minutes,” and learn from the way they parody you.
11. Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul;
Data is King
Happiness is No Longer in Anyone’s Lesson Plan
–from “Spring,” When Childhood Collides with NCLB
P. O. Box 26
Charlotte, VT 05445
Phoneme segmentation fluency,
Hallowed be thy name.
Happiness no longer
In anybody’s lesson plan.
Data is all.
Look up the synonym for data
And you get “poop sheet.”
The poop was beaten gold.
Send Education Trust the recipe.
The Business Roundtable,
Education Trust, Bill Gates,
And New York Times editorial agree:
If you can’t count it,
It doesn’t count.
Where’s the measurement device
For CEOs, politicos, media pundits,
Parents, neighbors, mothers-in-law?
What counts for
Actuaries, admen, airline attendants, archeologists, astrologers, auto mechanics,
Bakers, bankers, baccarat dealers, Bingo callers, boatswains
Candlestick makers, cardiologists, cartographers, chimney sweeps, clergymen,
Data miners, dentists, die cutters, door hangers, drafters, drapers, drummers,
Economists, editorialists, electricians, embroiderers, escorts, euphemists,
Farmers, fingerprint technologists, firemen, flagpole sitters, florists, forklift operators,
Gardeners, gazebo builders, glass blowers, graphic designers, grocery baggers
Handwriting experts, handicappers, home health aides, hotel clerks, hypnotists,
Ice cream makers, insulators, insurance agents, interior decorators
Jacks-of-all-trades, janitors, jewelers, journalists, judo instructors,
Kennel operators, keno runners, kitchen remodelers, knife sharpeners,
Labor organizers, lab technicians, landscapers, lawyers, legal secretaries, loggers,
Machinists, magicians, manicurists, milliners, ministers, morticians, musicians,
Naturopaths, necromancers, nuclear engineers, nursing home owners, nutritionists
Occupational therapists, oceanographers, oil tycoons, optometric technicians, orderlies,
Pest controllers, pharmacists, pianists, plumbers, pole climbing instructors, psychiatrists, puppeteers,
Quarry miners, quick draw artists, quilters, quiz show hosts,
Radiologists, realtors, recruiters, riggers, roofers, rubber stampers, rubbish removers,
Security guards, software engineers, sportscasters, statisticians, stockbrokers, surgeons,
Tattooers, taxi drivers, taxi dancers, taxidermists, telemarketers, tree surgeons, tutors,
Umpires, upholsterers, urban planners, urologists, used car dealers,
Ventriloquist, veterinarians, videographers, violinists, vivisectionists,
Wedding planners, wait staff, welders, Windows Explorer technicians, window washers
X-Ray technicians, xylophonists
Yacht builders, yeomen, yoga instructors, yurt builders, yes-men,
Zeppelin inspectors, zitherists, zookeepers, and Zoroastrians?
We only test the young.
Test ’em until they move on
To the real world
Or are broken by the Standardisto hammer
Standards are the hammer the corporate-politico-media cartel uses
To crush children
Trumpeting with each blow
They’ve hit the nail on the head.
Media pundits call it cultural transformation;
Teachers call it the destruction of a generation.
It is not the business of eight-year-olds to search for scatological humor in their kill drill.
Some Are More Equal Than Others
By Susan Ohanian
This essay, written decades ago in Phi Delta Kappan, seems to speak to our current woes.
We could revolutionize education if we asked every prospective educator at every level just one simple question: Read any good books lately?
Phi Delta Kappan February 1997
I DIDN’T really expect to be asked to join my hometown superintendent search committee. But when the school board put out a call for “community input,” I wrote a column for the Sunday paper, offering my adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s school board test. Vonnegut once suggested that every candidate for school board should be hooked up to a lie detector and asked if he’s read a book from start to finish since graduating from high school. So why not hook up prospective superintendents to that same lie detector? And curriculum supervisors and teachers, too? We could revolutionize education if we asked every person connected with the education of children, “Read any good books lately?”
First the schools; then the nation. We could extend Vonnegut’s test to all candidates for public office. Probably too radical an idea, that. We’ve always demanded more from our school personnel than from our politicians. Still, I like to think about how the political process in this country might change overnight if we applied a literacy litmus test.
I want to know that the people in charge are literate. I’m not looking for textual deconstruction or even a plot summary; I just want to know that the people in charge can talk enthusiastically about something they’ve read recently. Although book lists go against my teacherly instincts, I think we could come up with some sort of point system for renewing educators’ contracts and certifying congressmen as eligible to stand for reelection: one point, say, for Steve Garvey’s autobiography or for books by Dick Francis, John Grisham, and Erma Bombeck; five points for Anne Tyler, Tobias Wolff, and Edward Hoagland; 10 points for Stephen Jay Gould, David Halberstam, Gore Vidal, and Calvin Trillin; 15 points for books in a foreign language, books on modern physics and mathematics, poetry books, and Edward Abbey.
We could argue about how many points dead authors are worth. I worry about people who scream for something they call standards in the schools and then try to convince kids that the only good author is one who’s been dead at least 100 years. I’d also award bonus points for familiarity with Squirrel Nutkin, Miss Nelson, Max, the Scroobius Pip, Henry and Mudge, the Stupids, Ramona, Madeline, Eloise, Amelia Bedelia, the Cat in the Hat, the Pinballs, Anastasia, and the hundreds of their literary fellows.
A school superintendent or a member of Congress who reads poetry? Knows children’s books? What a thought! But reading Squirrel Nutkin or Ramona the Brave into the Congressional Record would set a higher moral tone than much of what gets in there now. And you can’t offer to others what you don’t know intimately yourself. If we want and expect literacy for our children, we cannot continue to muddle along with aliterate leaders, people who are indifferent to books.
Mine was a modest proposal. I expressed the hope that my local school board would look for a leader who wouldn’t take the Fifth Amendment when asked, “Read any good books lately?”
I didn’t really expect to be invited to join Schenectady’s superintendent search committee — and I wasn’t. Nor did I really expect people to take my point system literally. As a gadfly, I was hoping to stir readers to think about what books they value and what books they hope their children’s teachers value. I hoped people in a few faculty rooms might even argue about my selections — and propose better choices of their own. I know that the level of faculty room discourse would be improved immensely by a discussion of books rather than the usual topics.
NAIVE ME. I was unprepared for the barrage of accusatory letters from teachers. One correspondent stopped just short of calling me a Nazi. If you lack an argument, just cry “Fascist Nazi (Chauvinist/Feminist/Whateverist) Pig!” Or how about “Cultural Elitist!” Or maybe “Vegetarian Anarchist!”
There is an insidious rumor running amok in educational circles today. In literature-based, whole-languaged, and otherwise book-dedicated circles, it’s become more than a rumor; it’s risen to the status of manifesto. Otherwise reasonable people are insisting that all books are equal.
It’s a free country. Let a teacher read anything she wants. But if she is to make smart decisions in guiding the intellectual and social development of the children in her care, then we’d better hope she is acquainted with something besides Danielle Steele or Stephen King. Why would I give bonus points on a salary scale to people in our schools who read modern physics or contemporary poetry? Because 20 years of hanging around schools has shown me that we don’t have many people in our schools who are familiar with either poetry or physics, ancient or modern.
One letter writer established her credentials as a “certified English teacher” before proclaiming that “people learn from all media.” She said if we’re going to inquire about people’s reading habits, then we’d better inquire into their last arithmetic transaction. And then we’re one step away from checking their I.Q. scores. Indeed.
Another teacher insisted, “Under no circumstances should [children] be taught that there are different quality grades which should be assigned to books.” She decried me for implying that Anna Karenina is worth more than one of the Nancy Drew mysteries. Indeed.
I confess that I’m deeply troubled that English teachers could be so opposed to anything that smacks of respect for intellectual pursuit. Granted, we live in an anti-cerebral country — a country that erects shrines to people who hit and chase balls but one in which not one person in 100 can name a living poet or historian, let alone quote anything either has written. It seems a pity that we guarantee that schools reflect the worst parts of our society by insisting that schools, too, be anti-intellectual. Businesses and industries invest heavily in trying to select applicants who best fit their needs. But the schools regard it as elitist to question the reading habits of those who seek employment. Schools consider it beside the point whether one teacher in 100 can quote a living poet or historian.
Many teachers insist that all books are equal. Some say that all media are equal.
I disagree. I have spent the past couple of decades trying to get books into the hands of students, and they know and I know that some books are more equal than others.
More than 20 years ago, when I was a fledgling English teacher in New York City, I learned that you can’t inspire in others what you haven’t experienced yourself. I signed up for after-school sessions designed to increase the poetry savvy of teachers. I remember the disgruntled rumble in the hall when W. H. Auden pleaded with us to put “To a Daffodil” in mothballs. He made a moving case for our obligation to teach contemporary poetry — but not too contemporary. Auden said he doubted that any good poetry was being written about the Vietnam War. “It’s too close,” he said, cautioning us against substituting yowling for poetry.
When an English teacher doesn’t read poetry, she doesn’t know anything besides what she herself was taught. When she sticks to “To a Daffodil,” her students never know that poetry remains alive. Likewise, the science teacher who is really the football coach and who doesn’t know quark from quartz is cheating his students. You can’t inspire others to know what you don’t know yourself.
As a longtime teacher I reject both the position of the cultural absolutists, who think every ninth-grader should read Great Expectations, and that of the laissez-faireists, who pretend that reading about Nancy Drew has the same value as reading about Anna Karenina. Chanting the mantra “It doesn’t matter what they read, just so long as they read” works only in the very short term. It works only to hook reluctant readers on books. Once a teacher has set her hook, then she must nudge, prod, and entice readers into meatier fare. To pretend that it doesn’t matter what people read is to say that they are not capable of growth, that they aren’t worthy of intellectual challenge and discovery.
Twenty years of working with “reluctant readers” — a term I dislike but use because it is a convenient code — of all ages has convinced me that a teacher’s own literateness is her best resource, her best strategy, and probably her only hope. When a teacher acts on the knowledge that she likes Dick Francis as well as Donald Hall, she fills her classroom with a variety of books. She honors what children choose to read and watches for the moment when she can nudge them to try new authors, more challenging books. To encourage a child to read Nancy Drew stories without ever pushing her to Madeleine L’Engle or John Bellairs is criminal. Hey, I’ve read every Dick Francis — and I have such a hard time with delayed gratification that I read them in hardback. I like to think that’s balanced by my reading of Wendell Berry and Donald Hall in hardback too. The sad fact of the matter is that faculty room evidence shows us that even Dick Francis would be a stretch for too many of our colleagues. I know this is not a nice thing to say, but filling your classroom with beautiful picture books is not enough. We must face the fact that a teacher who does not nourish her own spirit with adult words severely limits her own professional options.
Yes, there is a certain stage in a reader’s development when we can say, “It doesn’t matter what he reads, just so long as he reads.” But this platitude quickly turns sour. It is professionally indefensible for a teacher to pretend that it doesn’t matter what students read.
For a school community — and for the larger community surrounding it — to pretend that it doesn’t matter what the teacher herself reads is more than slothful; it is dishonest and ruinous. The school that ignores the literacy of its teachers is a school that doesn’t care about its students. Likewise, the community that ignores the literacy of its teachers is a community that doesn’t care about its schools.
I ONCE TAUGHT at an alternative high school where I was responsible for 40 disaffected students who can best be labeled “none of the above.” I filled our classroom with copies of the local paper, the New York Times, the Daily News, and paperbacks of every type — best sellers, thrillers, mysteries, romances, joke books, science fiction, sports, biographies, essays, how-to books, cookbooks, poetry, and classics. I discovered early on that an alternative program needs to look like a real school. Even if students never read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Tale of Two Cities, or Romeo and Juliet, they like knowing that these books are there. They will occasionally pick up one of these chestnuts and say, “Yeah, I’ve heard of this.” Students, especially students who are not in the mainstream, need the security of knowing that their school has all the things a school is supposed to have.
So I stocked the shelves with a smattering of the classics, and every few weeks I took a few students to the local bookstore to help choose more books. I required my 40 students to read for half an hour a day — a rather minimal amount of time, I thought.
They were amazed. They said they read more in one month in our school than they had read in their entire school careers, a sad commentary on the state of reading in our schools. They were amazed to see me read half an hour a day and during my lunch break. They asked me about my books; some of them borrowed my books. Truants from Life by Bruno Bettelheim was a favorite. Students liked reading about kids who were worse than they were. Those malcontent high schoolers were astounded to discover books they liked to read. They wondered why they’d never discovered this before. So did I. For me, being a teacher who encourages reading has always meant walking a narrow line between ignoring students’ interests and pandering to them. For me, it’s a line that avoids both Stephen King and Great Expectations, a line that forced me to say to third-graders, “No, I’m not going to read the Little Pony book you got for Christmas to the class.”
My high school students enjoyed giving me a hard time, needling me to buy The National Enquirer and horoscope magazines. I told them there were certain levels to which a teacher couldn’t stoop. They understood that. Just as my third-graders understood very clearly that Charlotte’s Web is meatier and more satisfying than a book of Garfield cartoons.
I never came right out and told them that. I didn’t have to. When you immerse children in wonderful words every day, they develop their own high standards, and I can prove it.
Toward the end of the school year, when I won a publisher’s grand prize for the best idea for involving parents in school reading, my prize was 100 paperbacks. The publisher expected me to choose a few prepackaged sets. No way. I told my third-graders that they could each choose two books for themselves and two for the classroom. The negotiations for those book choices were as intense as those that led to the end of the baseball strike.
In a school that rigorously sorted students, those third-graders, lumped together as the bottom readers — kids who from September to December told me every day how much they hated reading — spent a week arguing and negotiating on how to make good choices. They ended up choosing books “you want to read more than once.” I’d put their choices up against those of any selection committee made up of teachers.
A third-grade teacher doesn’t get kids relishing books by ordering a class-size set of Heidi any more than a junior high teacher achieves that goal by ordering a class-size set of The Old Man and the Sea or The Red Pony. But settling for Curious George or Where’s Waldo? or Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing isn’t the answer either.
Before I get lots of angry letters, I’d like to make it clear that Heidi was my favorite book in third grade and that Curious George and books by Judy Blume were on my shelves, readily available to students. I just didn’t inflict Heidi on my students, and I didn’t read Curious George or Judy Blume aloud. My third-graders knew I didn’t care for George, and they liked giving me a hard time about it, waving the book gleefully when they brought it back from the library. And George had a funny way of frequently ending up inserted between the pages of my plan book or stuffed into my briefcase. My students liked to tease me about George, but they knew my saying I didn’t like a book gave them the option of voicing their own discontent with a book. How can we pretend that all books are equal when we readers are so diverse?
THE literate teacher finds ways to convince her students that literacy is of value. One day I was helping seventh-graders do a project on good nutrition for their health class. The subject of a healthy breakfast came up, and they started griping about the cereals their parents bought, particularly oatmeal. “Listen to what Edward Abbey has to say about it,” I invited, grabbing a book from my desk. I read them a paragraph in which Abbey describes oatmeal cooked over a campfire as “viscous grey slime.”
Those seventh-graders were astounded by the nihilism of attacking such a sacred institution as oatmeal. Then they were delighted. They even wanted to know the definition of “viscous.” They liked the sound and wanted the sense, too. Finally, David grew thoughtful. “Mrs. O., you believe there’s a book for everything,” he said.
“Of course I do. Do you doubt it?”
“Nope. You don’t let me,” he laughed.
If I had a teacher’s pet, it was probably David. He was clever at avoiding work. (Who wouldn’t be after so many years of suffering because the letters just wouldn’t go in the right directions?) And he was totally charming. Not only was David my student in both seventh and eighth grades, but he had a double period of language arts. When he left I was disappointed that he still didn’t like reading, but I had the satisfaction of being able to name individual books in which he’d taken delight.
Then, when David was in 10th grade, he appeared at my door, letting me know he’d come for a serious talk. David asked me if he could come back to my class during his study hall. Since the high school adjoined the middle school, it wasn’t logistically impossible, but obviously the social and psychological gulf was tremendous.
Why did he want to do this? “Because my English teacher doesn’t make us read. She tells us to fill in workbook pages and look at the newspaper once a week. But that’s not enough,” he protested. “We need real books.”
“But you don’t like to read,” I said.
“No, I don’t. But a teacher should make me. It’s a teacher’s job to have books.”
In the end, despite my misgivings, I couldn’t refuse David. But in the end, he didn’t come. School bureaucracy put up barriers — how could they possibly deal with a 15-year-old who declares his English class inadequate?
Of course, a teacher who thinks a once-a-week reading of the newspaper is “good enough” for reluctant high school readers is a soul sister of the primary teacher who banishes the bottom reading group to skill sheets or workbooks. Such teachers do not personally know the power of the word. Such teachers have no inkling of a teacher’s influence. Even reluctant seventh-grade readers will ask to borrow a book when they see their teacher reading Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? during sustained silent reading. Introduce one Amelia Bedelia book to primary graders, and before the end of the day there are no copies left in the library. And children come in the next day with the Amelias they’ve found at the public library. And three months later when the book club offers an Amelia, they buy 48 copies.
I like to tell the story of the first book club order I placed for the third-graders in that bottom reading group. In September I had to order seven books myself to make the minimum order of 10, and two of the student orders were for posters. In January the book club offered an Amelia Bedelia book. My students ordered 48 copies. They ordered for themselves, for their cousins, for their neighbors. When Leslie got her copy, she clutched it to her chest and burst into tears. “I’m so happy,” she kept blubbering. When Charles got his, this troubled boy, who was mainstreamed into my class from a sheltered setting for the emotionally disturbed, opened it to the title page and stared for a long time. “This is mine, right? That means I can write my name right here — the way you do in your books.”
I found out that, when I read a chapter book aloud to my third-graders, half a dozen parents in the working-class neighborhood got hold of copies of that book and read it to the family at home. Parents told me their 8-year-olds loved hearing the same chapter repeated, and everybody else in the family enjoyed the books, too. As they ended one book, families speculated on what kind of story I’d choose next.
Even though I didn’t know until later that these parents were also reading my chosen read-alouds, I knew of my influence with the children; I knew that I didn’t dare choose anything second-rate. I always laugh when people say they read to their students each day. With those third-graders, I read about 10 times a day. I read funny stories, sad stories, poems to start the day, poems before lunch, poems after lunch, and poems to end the day. For chapter books that extended a week or more, I read Beverly Cleary, E. B. White, Farley Mowat, Rudyard Kipling, Patricia MacLachlan, and others. In another year the choices would be different, depending both on the children and on my own reading.
All of us, whether we teach high school or first grade, need to grapple with these issues of literary content and merit because we aren’t teaching for today. We’re teaching for the future. I was Denise’s English teacher for a long time. Denise, a student so recalcitrant she failed seventh grade twice, still writes to me. She tells me about taking her own children to the library every week. She says her kids like Flat Stanley almost as much as I do. Denise writes about introducing her children to the Stupids, to Frog and Toad, and to Madeline. She writes, “I can’t wait until they’re old enough for my favorite book. You know what that is. The Great Gilly Hopkins.”
I like to think that Denise’s children will be readers because in being a reader myself I was able to help Denise become one. A belligerent, foul-mouthed teenager, Denise found a soul mate in Gilly; Gilly helped her look at the world and at herself in new ways. I have a letter Denise wrote me in October of ninth grade. She reported she was doing pretty well in school; she’d been suspended only twice. Need I add that Denise was innocent of irony? She wrote that she was trying to decide whether to become a teacher or a bartender.
A year later, in 10th grade, she limited her options by dropping out of school. But she left school with something she’d learned in her long stay in seventh grade; she dropped out with the knowledge that books could enrich her life. And so, for the sake of Denise’s children and grandchildren, I entreat school interview committees to ask applicants for jobs at any level, “Read any good books lately?”
Resisting the Specter of Fierce Neatness
I insist that teaching is messy and that teachers must fight to keep it so. I apologize for the formatting. It looks a whole lot better in the journal in which it was published:
Voices from the Middle, Volume 12 Number 4, May 2005.
You will try. And try again. And again. And you will smile. Because it’s so much healthier than crying or throwing up.
Whenever my principal complained about my mess of a desk with “Cluttered desk, cluttered mind,” I responded in kind, “Empty desk, empty mind.” In our tough city school, this ritual exchange Substituted for, “Have a nice day.” Appearances notwithstanding, I admire tidiness, and yes, I’m tempted by the Lorelei lure of all those sleek organizational systems on the Web offering me a beautifully organized Future. But life intrudes, and I’m skeptical of form triumphing over substance.
Years ago, then-New York Times metro reporter Michael Winerip wrote a fascinating piece about a member of the Association of Professional Organizers, people paid top dollar for organizing other people’s closets. Winerip asked to see the professional organizer’s own closet and reported that for every piece of clothing, this woman keeps a note card of matching accessories: With her green suit, she always wears her green shoes, amber pin, and beige pocketbook. “I never have to think about anything, it’s great,” she said.
I used to pull out this clipping when speaking at conferences, insisting that teaching isn?t neat and tidy and predictable; we can’t always wear the green shoes with the amber pin. We have to clean our own closets, and though some suggest otherwise, we can?t hire somebody to invent and arrange our curriculum. Or expect kids to read Tuck Everlasting or Call of the Wild or To Kill a Mockingbird on schedule–just because there’s a grand plan. Think about it; the graveyard is a neat and tidy place.
The professional closet organizer is a great counter-metaphor for teaching as a craft of uncertainty. It is a counter-metaphor for a profession where you have to think about a lot of things at the same time and can never count on being able to present the same lesson twice. Nonetheless, decrees are issued, dictating everything from the reading schedules to the bulletin board content. Daily, teachers send
desperate messages to my Web site telling me about the scripts they must follow in an effort to keep all kids on the same page. The Georgia Department of Education, for one, offers lessons. Grammar and Sequencing Work asks students to rewrite each grammatically incorrect statement about Lord of the Flies into standard discourse. In a teacher tip, they provide Web sites containing important quotes from the novel–so teachers can rewrite Golding’s words, inserting “mechanical errors to allow other students an opportunity to correct them.”
If that possibility doesn’t leave you breathless,the Georgia Department of Education also offers General Accommodations for Non-Readers. Here is my favorite: Rewrite student’s text using pictures for key words, using Writing with Symbols software. I respectfully suggest that the teacher choose a different novel for those who can?t read the one she is trying to teach.
How School Is ‘Spozed to Be
My mother insists that she sent me to school as a lefthander, but noticed in second grade I was writing with my right hand. She asked me what was up and I told her that I?d learned that in first grade. She asked me why I hadn?t told her what was happening. How could I? A kid only knows how school is ‘spozed to be by attending one. As a first grader, I figured school was where they made you do things their way. Or else.
That experience just rolled off my back. My searing memory of first grade is being relieved I wasn’t Jimmy, the kid with the pinched, scared scowl who couldn’t make the letters go the right way. He was so terrified of our teacher’s high standards that periodically he peed in his pants, leaving the puddle of his failure on the wooden floor.
I knew it then and I know it now: Something is seriously wrong when schools cause kids to panic. I draw my teaching credo from memories of Jimmy and from advice I received my first week on the job. Hired by the New York City Board of Education on an emergency credential to fill in at a high school larger than my home town, I complained to my department chair that one ninth grader refused to read the prescribed Johnny Tremain. The chair advised, “Then find a book he will read.” That solution stayed with me for the next 20-plus years: Find a book they will read. At once practical and wise, this simple advice speaks to the heart of this issue’s theme: how best to teach individual middle schoolers who have learning differences, physical handicaps, and social and emotional problems that make learning even more challenging than it is for regular middle schoolers.
Regular middle schoolers: now that’s a thought. Surely the wonderful reality of middle schoolers is their dominant irregularity. Our job must be to welcome and nourish students whose irregularities interfere with their learning, not to march them lockstep through state standards and testing. Getting all children in the class through the best literature has to offer is not the same as helping children learn what they need to learn. Far from it.
P. L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act Providing the necessary materials for my two blind students that first year was small potatoes compared with the resources, talents, and dispositions required to accommodate students with cognitive, developmental, and/or emotional problems. After leaving New York City, I taught in a middle school that used P. L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, as an excuse to put students with special needs into educational freefall. The Red Pony for all.
Youngsters dumped willy-nilly into the mainstream were left to suffer embarrassment in front of their peers when they couldn’t read aloud or solve math problems at the board or locate rivers on a map. Predictably, chaos and hysteria ensued, with teachers more hysterical than students. Discipline problems piled up in the principal’s office. When teachers complained, they were told that students were mainstreamed for social reasons–“to learn how to get along with others, to make friends, to increase their self-esteem.”
Pardon me? Isn’t sitting all day–in every class–as the kid who doesn’t get it rather damaging to self-esteem? I worried then and I worry now that people who claim that all children can work on the same subject but at different levels of complexity shortchange those children who need something different. The everybody-can- learn-everything crowd says, in effect: Give every child Lord of the Flies or Foundations of Democracy or Modern Biology. The Robins can read the whole book; the Blue Jays need read only half; the Pigeons can copy the table of contents five times (that is, if the teacher doesn’t have time to rewrite the text, substituting pictures for difficult words). The Robins can dissect a frog; the Blue Jays can watch a movie about a frog; the Pigeons can play leapfrog. In this environment, the Pigeons are cheated from learning what they can learn?and what they need to know.
In The Broken Cord, Michael Dorris provided a heartbreaking account of his adopted son Adam’s struggles in school. When Adam was 18, Dorris laid out report cards documenting his progress over the years. One report announced that Adam had “demonstrated good ability and understanding with regard to our unit on geometry,” but Dorris knew that at age 18, Adam couldn’t tell time and had no notion of money. And despite yearly report cards that proclaimed Adam’s great progress in making friends, Dorris noted that, in all his school days, his son “never once received so much as a telephone call or an invitation from a ‘friend.'”
When I read that, I cried–for Adam and for my own students. Dorris’s book challenged my basic curriculum convictions: In the name of helping students mainstream into other “regular” classes, what had I failed to teach them that they needed to know–and that they could have learned? Wouldn’t Adam have been better off learning to make change than participating in a unit on geometry?(1)
I know that good teachers can bring children with reading difficulties into a literature circle and help them participate in that group’s interactions, but I question whether this is good enough. The hard question we must ask is if that time might not be better spent in helping students find books they can read on their own, without crutches. I want these students to spend more time reading books than talking about them.
Trying Something Different
Language arts classes were held in our middle school every day, but at one point, those students identified with reading difficulties came to my partner and me during half of them. This meant that kids with the lowest skills were getting half as much exposure to The Red Pony as their more able peers. It’s no wonder they ended up in the principal’s office.
My partner and I decided to approach the principal with a plan: abolish remedial reading and declare us fulltime language arts teachers to the school’s rotten readers. We threw in a caveat: we wanted them for two periods a day (and we had a plan for fitting it into the schedule). It didn’t ta long for the principal to see the benefit of turning those kids over to teachers who never sent students to the office.
I know, I know. Segregating students goes against so many progressive tenets. I recognize the pitfalls, not the least of which is condemning students to a low-level curriculum and the absence of stimulating contact with non-disabled peers. Nonetheless, we argued that for readers in crisis, extreme measures are needed. Our students had plenty of so-called socialization opportunities in the school day. For language arts, we wanted to provide a safety zone. Our language arts class didn’t offer grand discussions on literary classics, but for two periods in their school day, students were free from the stigma of being the rotten reader in the group, and they found daily success working on material at their individual levels. Parents expressed enthusiasm and gratitude for this success. Nick’s mother called in tears. “You’re not going to believe this but we were halfway down the driveway heading for our vacation. Nick insisted he had to go back and get his book. I don’t know that he actually read during vacation, but he wanted that book “just in case.” This is the first time in his life he’s wanted to take a book anywhere.”
I wish the standards setters and the curriculum developers who insist on raising the bar as they shout “No excuses!” could have heard Arnold’s oral report on George Washington. He told his audience of eight, “When George was born his father looked at the dollar bill and said, ‘I think I’ll call him George Washington,’ and that’s
how the baby got his name.”
I must have looked startled because Arnold addressed his next remarks directly to me, “You have seen his picture right there on the dollar bill, haven’t you?” He reached into his pocket, pulled out a dollar and held it up. “That’s how he got his name. Right off the money.”
At the end of the report, one of the students
In our class, Keith,(3) a 14-year-old seventh grader, read his first book. This was after he bluffed his way through a three-year-stack of National Geographics, biographies of Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, and Babe Ruth. Plus a set of encyclopedias. These encyclopedias were one of two junior sets our librarian had managed to snag from a closing elementary school. The library in our new, multi-million dollar school housing seventh and eighth graders had been stocked by a Standardista who didn’t stick around to cope with the results. The library contained no picture books, no easy-read books, no riddle books. Instead, the shelves were filled with classics such as Absalom! or Crime and Punishment, books that even our advanced readers avoided. One day, fed up with Keith’s penchant for loosening the screws on our bookshelves so everything came crashing down and his whining insistence that he’d read every single book in our classroom, I grabbed Hop on Pop and shoved it at him. “Read this!” I commanded in a voice he recognized as non-negotiable. I walked away and Keith started turning the pages quickly, his method of reading all books. But then something caught his eye. He stopped and looked at a page, really looked. Then he went back to the preceding page and examined it closely. Keith stared at that page for a long time. Then he turned to the first page and started mouthing words.
As he hunched over that book sounding out the words, Keith did not move for the rest of the period. Other kids picked up on the enfolding drama and, unusual for this group of roughnecks, they remained silent in the presence of a miracle: Keith reading a book. I am not exaggerating when I say the rest of us presented a frozen tableau rather like that old game of “Statues,” while Keith, oblivious to the outside world, concentrated on his book. Keith finally looked up from the book and exclaimed, “I did it. I read this book.” He looked at me. “Seriously, Miz O. I read it. For real. I read this book. You wanna see?” It was a magical moment for Keith and for me. No matter what happens to Keith in his future, nobody can ever say he hasn’t read a book. Since that day, I’ve lived in three different states, carrying that tattered copy of Hop on Pop with me. Now I look at it and wish I’d given it to Keith, but at the time he didn’t ask for it and I clung to it as my red, white, and blue badge of pedagogy: find a book they will read.
Like anybody who loved the Son of Black Stallion or Rocky XIV, Keith moved on to other Dr. Seuss volumes. And when I brokered an agreement with his teacher for social studies credit, he presented a one-minute oral report on an easy-read biography of Daniel Boone to our class.
Although many of the students in our class were much more sophisticated than Keith or Arnold, all were at risk, and a classroom containing two teachers and a maximum of 16 students offered safety. Standardistas can talk until the cows come home about establishing benchmarks and gates and hurdles and moats, but insisting that everybody must learn the same things is a terrible fraud. When kids with serious learning difficulties are taught everything, they end up not learning much of anything. It?s far better to read Hop on Pop than no book at all.
My partner and I read aloud–books ranging from The Acorn People to Incident at Hawk?s Hill to The Great Gilly Hopkins to Flat Stanley. Yes, Flat Stanley. Volatile and vulnerable seventh and eighth graders need the silliness of Stanley as much as the deep ethical challenges of the Acorn People, which was, by the way, the perfect book for our group, which became known throughout the school for mentoring children with Down Syndrome; Keith was their greatest mentor.
I place high value on students hearing good words, but listening and appreciating isn’t reading. I insist that at its core, reading is a solitary act: each student sitting with a book–in silence. Of course there is a community of learners, but it still comes down to the kid and the book. Success in a language arts classroom is when each child finds a book that will knock his socks off.
Resist Much, Obey Little
When I taught at an alternative high school, our two-room learning center was officially part of the district, but our charge was to keep our irregular students out of the regular school. We had three rules: No drugs, no swearing, and read for half an hour a day in material not related to the curriculum. I judged a book a success when a student closed the last page and asked, ?Do you have any more?? Does any kid look up from mandated curriculum and ask, “Do you have more?” Students told me they’d read more books in three months at our center than they’d read in ten years in regular schooling.
I know some colleagues will agree with the inspector from the State Education Department: all this reading may be fine in its place, but it isn’t literature. Herr Standardista saw students reading Dick Francis, Max Brand, Paul Zindel, William Goldman, Paula Danziger, and Cynthia Voigt and complained about the quality of our literature. I pointed out that many of the students had also read Poe stories, Frank Conroy, Ambrose Bierce, Frank Stockton, James Thurber, John Hersey, and so on. One student borrowed Bettelheim’s Truants from Life off my desk. But the inspector insisted, “What major work do your ninth graders read?” I told him Janelle was reading a book that combined Romeo and Juliet with West Side Story. Herr Standardista wanted to see class sets. I wrote a letter of protest to the state commissioner of education, insisting that if they wished to send out any more inspectors, they’d have to do it after schools hours, as I would not again subject my students to anybody sneering at the books that overflowed our shelves and kept them reading.
When I showed Jack an article in Harper’s about Scrabble hustlers in New York City, he noted that serious players prefer the Funk and Wagnall’s Dictionary because it has lots of extra word lists, words beginning with the same prefix, and so on. I insisted that for launching his Scrabble career, our American Heritage Dictionary would surely be adequate, but Jack pestered until I ordered Funk and Wagnall’s. To tell the truth, I felt pretty good about telling my supervisor that a student had requested a dictionary recommended in Harper’s.
Jack moved to a back corner of the room, taking the Scrabble board and the new dictionary with him. He stayed there for six months. As the most obnoxious of the obnoxious, Jack probably started playing himself in Scrabble because nobody else would go near him, but then a passion for the quest took over. Jack sat there muttering, cursing, leafing through the dictionary. He spent long hours reading the dictionary. During this Scrabble marathon, Jack also read novels for at least half an hour a day, but he did no school assignments.
During Jack’s Scrabble study, none of his classmates asked me, “How come?” How come they were working on school assignments and Jack wasn’t? My experience is that most kids want to be “regular” and they don’t complain when oddball gets irregular treatment. The simple matter was that nobody wanted to be like Jack. Mysupervisor, however, couldn’t resist a few digs. He’d walk into the room, nod toward the corner, and say, “Jack still playing Scrabble?’ I’d reply, “Yes, he’s still working hard at it.” Give the man credit. Having hired me, he then allowed me to be responsible. I won’t pretend that my smile didn’t become a little forced by the third month and even desperate by the fifth, but no one can make a student study anything. Remember Frank Smith’s advice that when a student persists at the same irregular activity, doing it over and over, he isn’t wasting time, isn’t trying to get out of real work. Whether it’s a third grader reading Rumpelstiltskin 16 days in a row or a kid obsessing over Scrabble, he persists at that activity because he’s getting something important out of it.
Jack was engaged in the most difficult work of all–that silent, solitary, internal task of coming to grips with one’s self, with one’s own deepest needs. Jack’s work meant first changing his view of himself and later figuring out where he might find a place for himself in the world. Finally Jack decided he was ready, and he challenged me to a game of Scrabble. He trounced me badly. It was an electric moment, more wonderful than words can express. The immediate results were that other students wanted to play Jack in Scrabble and Jack started working on the school curriculum.
Arnold and Keith and Jack and a few other students have become such an important leitmotif in my professional career that I can?t stop telling their stories over and over. I knew at the time that Jack’s Scrabble work was important, but years later I’m still learning about what it meant. In Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, Stefan Fatsis shows the reader that Scrabble at this level is about weirdness, extreme weirdness. It?s also about linguistics, psychology, mathematics, memory, competition, doggedness. Scrabble at the national competitive level and with one out-of-kilter kid in a classroom set up for misfits is about mastering the rules; it’s about failure and it’s about hope.
Standing by Words
It is true that we are what we teach, but it is also true that the kids are what we teach. Six years of team teaching with someone who knew the 16 rules of syllabification didn’t heal my own hyphenation deficits, but it showed me a whole lot about teaching temperament. Except in our shared dedication to teaching both to and from individual student needs, we were polar opposites, and yet we liked and respected one another and worked extremely well together. Surely there’s no one best teaching style any more than there’s any one best learning style. What a teacher needs to do is find her own style and gnaw her own bone, ignoring the clamor of bandwagons that go careening by. In Jung’s words, “The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.”
Wendell Berry, Kentucky poet, farmer, and teacher, tells us what does apply in all cases. 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 stand by our words, we fall back on the dictates of Standardistas, resorting to the slippery language of public relations, which means abandoning our students to political abstractions.
Berry, W. (1983). Standing by words. Berkeley, CA: North Point.
Dorris, M. (1990). The broken cord. New York: Perennial.
Fatsis, S. (2001). Word freak: Heartbreak, triumph,
genius, and obsession in the world of competitive
Scrabble players. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Georgia Department of Education. (2001). Lord of the flies
grammar and sequencing work. Retrieved October 2, 2004,
Georgia Department of Education. (2002). General
accommodations for non-readers. Retrieved Feb. 1,2004 from
Ohanian, S. (1990). P. L. 94-142: Mainstream or quicksand? Phi Delta Kappan, 72, pp. 217?222.
Ohanian, S. (1999). One size fits few: The folly ofeducational standards. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Ohanian, S. (2001). Caught in the middle: Nonstandard kids and a killing curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Smith, F. (1985). Reading (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
(1) I wrote about this in ?P. L. 94-142: Mainstream or Quicksand,?
Phi Delta Kappan, November 1990, an article roundly denounced
by professors of special education. One group even
received grant money to write an article proving me wrong.
(2) Editor?s note: Susan has written full descriptions of Arnold
and his classmates in Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a
Killing Curriculum (Ohanian, 2001).
(3) Editor’s note: Keith’s full story can be found in One Size
Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards (Ohanian, 1999).
Susan Ohanian, a longtime teacher and freelance writer, is a fellow at the Vermont Society for
the Study of Education and the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University.
Capitalism, Calculus, and Conscience
This article was published in Phi Delta Kappan, June, 2003, pp 729-735.
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
,bre> 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.]
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 (blue-green algae).]
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
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’tmatter if it’s the same height when there is obviously a book that’s farther from the ground.
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 test questions.
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.
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 near-luxury segment.”
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, writesYou never asked about
my favorite color,
my first love,
the holes in my heart,
the state of my soul,
or the weight of your words
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.
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 http://www.childenvironment.org/. 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 speech.
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 anymore?
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 Pérez-Peña, “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 http://www.massrefusal.org/papers/dropouts.html.
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. Pérez-Peña, 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 Publishers, 1964).
9. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories, ed. Alfred Kazin (New York: New American Library, 1998).
10. Reality Check 2002, available at http://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, http://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 September 1999.
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 http://www.asce.org/reportcard.
23. Bein’s comments are at http://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.
CLB 10 commandments
Ten Commandments from the
US Department of Education
I. We are the State, which has brought students out of the wilderness of teacher-led classrooms and into the kingdom of test prep. Thou shalt have no other guidance before thee, and then it will follow as night follows day that No Child is Left Behind.
II. Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven images, not any likeness of anything that contradicts the Standards and their tests. For the State is a jealous god, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them who don’t obey.
III. Thou shalt not take the name of the Standardistos, thy gods, in vain. For the State nor the testing company will not hold him guiltless that takes their name in vain.
IV. Remember the Standards and keep them holy. The State blessed the tests and hallowed them. Thy adequate yearly progress scores shall comfort thee.
V. Honor thy Standards, that thy days as teachers may be long upon the land of direct instruction which the State gives you.
VI. Thou shalt not kill Standardistos.
VII. Thou shalt not have intercourse with any other than thy lawful Standards and test prep materials.
VIII. Thou shalt not steal time away from the Standards and preparation for the State’s tests for frivolous matters.
IX. Thou shalt not bear false witness against the Standards.
X. Thou shalt not covet lesson plans of bygone times. Nor shalt thou covet libraries, books, recess, art, music, nor anything that went before.
In these days comes the band of the Reading First 73 to preach to the multitudes.”Verily we say unto you seeking Title 1 funds, among the skills of reading, none is greater than Phonemic Awareness.”
Repent, for the kingdom of kindergarten schwas is at hand.
Blessed are those who follow the Standardisto drum roll, for theirs is the kingdom of government contracts.