Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sham Standards: Governor Kasich and the Standardized Testing Fetish

A GOOD FRIEND OF MINE and a very fine math teacher, Steve Ball (twice “Educator of the Year” at Loveland Middle School after the award was instituted in 1990), is retiring soon. Last night a few of us got together to talk about where U. S. education is headed. Steve laughed and admitted he had “survivor’s guilt” about getting out of the profession just in time. 

No one at the table, including two other winners of “Educator of the Year,” and none of the teachers I talk to these days, thinks education is headed in the right direction. 

It’s too bad many “experts” have convinced themselves and a lot of obtuse politicians that standardized testing is going to save us—and for anyone that believes this is the way to go in Ohio, I have one word: mercantilism.


CAN YOU DEFINE MERCANTILISM? Probably not. But when the State of Ohio put its bureaucrats to work a few years ago and came up with a list of social studies standards, some knucklehead decided eighth graders needed to know about this 17th century economic theory.

I doubt anyone has cared about mercantilism since the seventeenth century. I don’t and I always loved teaching.  

Unfortunately, most teachers I know, and I speak only for the good ones, believe the fetish for standardized testing is slowly killing what is best in our schools. For me, the last few years I taught, “teaching to the test” seemed almost unethical. 

I found it sickening. 

Here’s my favorite example. I served in the Marines from 1968-70, but sat at a desk in Camp Pendleton, California. So I don’t pretend to be a hero. Still, I know something about learning in its truest forms and I have a lot of connections with veterans. After the 9/11 attacks I started bringing in combat veterans to talk to my classes. The program grew each year, until in May 2008, I was able to line up fourteen men, representing five different wars, and divide them up so that our 700 students heard three different speakers or groups of speakers. Joe Whitt was a Pearl Harbor survivor. Mark Adams dodged missiles in an F-16 over Baghdad in 1991. Seth Judy was badly wounded in Iraq in 2003. That gives you some idea of the quality of the visitors. 

Now consider this a moment:  nothing these veterans would say could show up on a standardized test. Technically, the entire day was wasted. 

Dave Fletcher, a friend of mine at Loveland Middle School, continues the program today. Recently, I went out to speak to students myself, along with a group of real heroes, including a gentleman who served in bloody combat in Vietnam in 1969-70. Here’s a capsule version of what Ace Gilbert, who has spoken to Loveland students for several years, said and if this isn’t learning in the purest and most important sense, I’ll eat the next standardized test I see and won’t ask for ketchup. 

ACE FREELY ADMITS, when he speaks to teens, that he has a hard time dealing with some of what he saw decades ago. He’s not alone in that, either. In 2008 our program would have included fifteen speakers, but the morning of the day presentations were scheduled a young Iraq veteran started having flashbacks and his mother had to call and apologize and say her son wasn’t going to make it. I begged her not to feel a need to explain and asked her to tell the young man I appreciated his service. Three years before, I had an old marine who fought at Iwo Jima come out to school. Marvin Burdine was shot in the back by a Japanese sniper and spent ten months in the hospital; but when he talked to classes sixty years later he said he had nightmares for a month afterwards. 

So Ace isn’t alone—and he wants students to know there isn’t much glory in combat. He tells them the Marine Corps trains you to take orders, to be able to kill, but you “never trained for the fact that your best friend could die in your arms.” On November 11, 1969, his unit launched an assault against dug-in North Vietnamese troops holding a high hill that the Marines wanted. Sometime during the day, Bobby Hamel, his buddy, was wounded, but fell into a deep shell crater in a position too exposed to reach. 

That night, Ace finally helped carry Bobby back down the hill, but it was clear the young marine might not make it. Ace told him to hang on, that medevac helicopters were coming. His friend grimaced and said, “If you really like me, get some help.” Around 6:30 a. m. on the 12th the sound of choppers gave them both a moment of hope and Bobby turned his head to see “and his soul left his body.” That’s how Ace tells it and his audience is silent. And now they know something about war and the sacrifices that patriotism may require. 

I’ve seen Ace talk to hundreds of students over the years and he never loses an audience. Never. He’s funny at times, sad at others, even angry. He uses a little strong wording; but when he’s done the kids sense what it means to fight for your country. Ace talks about nights spent in the jungle, posted for ambushes, senses so attuned to noise “you could hear a mosquito fart.” Naturally, 13 and 14-year-olds appreciate that line. 

Mr. Gilbert was a machine gunner. On his first nighttime ambush cut down nine enemy soldiers at close range with one burst of fire. So he knows what it’s like to see men die and thinks about some of the enemy soldiers he killed even now. He speaks of dead friends as “forever nineteen” in his mind and you know it isn’t easy. Again, teenagers relate. Ace has to be prodded to admit he won two Purple Hearts. One came when he stepped on a land mine. “It felt like I got kicked by a supersonic mule in the ass,” is how he puts it and again he has the rapt attention of students. 

IT’S JUST TOO DAMN BAD he doesn’t talk about mercantilism. In a world where Governor Kasich wants more testing in more subjects and teachers’ pay based on test results, Ace is just moving his lips for no reason. 

He’s a fantastic speaker and makes students laugh and cry and sometimes wince. He makes them see what it means to be truly patriotic. 

Unfortunately, you can’t put that on a standardized test. 

If you’re a teacher who cares about real learning, like Mr. Ball and Mr. Fletcher, and me, you think, “This is nuts.”

1 comment:

  1. John,
    With a little more time this summer I am going back and reading some posts a second time. I remember hearing all of the heors you brought to LMS speak. I'll tell you as a 12 year teacher those days stand out as some of the best. I remember bring drinks aound and asking now if I could talk about real life in my class like this maybe I could get better attention. Man I am no where near retiring but wish I too could go out with you and Steve. I am scared out of my wits about why my poor children will be taught (5 and 3 now) and tested on...