Monday, June 6, 2011

Limiting Real Education: The Curse of Standardized Testing

ONE REASON MOST OF THE "LEADERS" IN EDUCATION favor standardized testing is because most of those "leaders" never had to spend any time in a classroom. That's right. They were too busy leading!

You have Michelle Rhee (3 years in a classroom) and that's about it. Bill Gates, Chester Finn, Jr., Joel I. Klein, Davis Guggenheim, Arne Duncan and six other U. S. Secretaries of Education never taught a day in their lives.

So they think education is about "standards."  Good teachers know education is about "learning."
Worth teaching this poem?
A bureaucrat shouldn't be deciding.
What scares me, of course, is the idea that if we keep following the path we're on now we're going to end up with the IRS model in the classroom. We're going to have a system in which technocrats decide what teachers must do.
The efforts we've seen so far don't give me much confidence.

Consider the "standards" listed in the eighth grade Ohio social studies curriculum in 2008. Here was all the guidance teachers were given on what to cover in the period following the Civil War:

INDICATOR 11: Analyze the consequences of Reconstruction with emphasis on:

A. President Lincoln’s assassination and the ensuing struggle for control of Reconstruction, including the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

B. Attempts to protect the rights of and enhance opportunities for the freedmen, including the basic provisions of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution.

C. The Ku Klux Klan and the enactment of the black codes.

What exactly does the State want kids to learn? Should students know who John Wilkes Booth was, for example?

Normally, I would argue they should.

The reasoning is simple. Every assassination in this country leads to comparisons; and mentions of Lincoln and Booth, or Kennedy and Oswald, often follow. (No one remembers James A. Garfield and Charles J. Guiteau.)

When the State of Ohio designs it's standardized test the bureaucrats forget a central tenet: that education, generally, and history, specifically, must somehow be useful. We should be asking: Does it serve a purpose to know why Johnson was impeached? Students need to know that the president (and other top government officials) can be impeached. They should understand that this protects us from tyranny.

They need to know what "tyranny" is, as well.

So, I’d say  if we're going to talk about Johnson, we throw in Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, more modern examples.

The real standard, not some manufactured standard designed to “measure” what we teach, is how much students learn and how much they can use what we teach in later years. I have no problem focusing on the struggle for equality. I always covered the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which ended slavery, granted citizenship to blacks and guaranteed "due process" rights under state law, and gave black men the right to vote, in that order—because the question of justice goes to the heart of what makes this nation great.

NOW, IN THE AGE OF THE TESTING FIX, I live in fear that the State of Ohio may ask students to discuss which amendment is which. I know adults don’t know. I know that I have never needed to know.

The fight for equality, however, has been brutal and there our focus should lie.

Since the issue of race has loomed like a dark cloud even unto this day it seems wise to look at Jim Crow laws (black codes) and segregation. Apparently, though, the State will not use the term “Jim Crow.” I believe it is a common usage.

Well, then, should I teach it?

When I do this unit, I start by asking students to list five ways blacks and whites were once legally separated. After a couple of years, I can predict which examples classes will always give. I write them down on the board ahead of time and pull down a map to cover my prediction. The five are: SCHOOL, BUSES, RESTAURANTS, DRINKING FOUNTAINS and in SPORTS.

I want to teach more. I don't want to stick to wimpy "standards." I want students to understand the depth and breadth of the racial divide and the antipathy that made Jim Crow laws seem necessary. So I compile a handout giving as many examples as possible:
The sad era of “Jim Crow” began officially in 1887. Florida started the process by ordering the separation of black and white passengers on railroads. Mississippi copied the idea, adding “Colored” and “White Only” waiting rooms. Other Southern states fell in line. But most made one exception: if a black nursemaid was caring for a white baby. Soon states like Alabama and Georgia had separate homes for the deaf, blind, and mentally ill. The races were divided in prisons and on chain gangs. By 1890 Jackson, Mississippi had instituted “Jim Crow” rules in city cemeteries.

Think about it, I say to my class. You’re blind! Isn’t everyone black if you’re blind? I pantomime a sightless person searching for a Negro, a futile proposition. I put my hands on some student’s head and ask, “Are you black, because if you are, I don’t like you!”

What about cemeteries? I ask: Do any of you think you might care who is buried next to you when you die? The kids laugh and I believe they are laughing at the idea of separation, seeing inequality as a mockery of what we say we believe in this country.

The reading continues—seventy examples—not because students need to know seventy examples—but because the weight of it bears down on the way they think, makes the system appear senseless:
After 1915, Oklahoma required “separate phone booths for white and colored patrons [customers].” South Carolina factory workers were paid at different windows, used different stairways and could not use the same “drinking water buckets, cups, dippers or glasses.” In a move of stunning stupidity, Birmingham, Alabama made it “unlawful for a Negro and a white person to play together” at dominoes.
Checkers was also forbidden!

In a police-officer-like voice I say, “Drop the checkers and come out with your hands up!” It seems hard to believe that anyone ever thought such laws were necessary.

I don’t mean to blame the South. So we turn to examples from the north, where my grandfather had Jim Crow sections in his theaters in Akron, Ohio. We keep on plowing with one goal in mind. We want to destroy the idea that any form of inequality is acceptable.
The list of rules was as long as human imagination is twisted…Blood banks kept Negro blood on different shelves. “Public libraries” in the South denied blacks the right to check out books! Southern gas stations had three bath-rooms. One was for “WHITE MEN,” one for “WHITE WOMEN.”
A third was marked “COLORED.”

During most of my career, Loveland, where I taught, had a single black teacher. So I used him (with his approval) as example. Both of us were born in 1949. I explained, “If Mr. Battle’s family pulled up to the same gas station as the Viall family, the Battles couldn’t go at the same time. Members would have to wait their turns.”

“Think of how your mother would feel…” I added. I knew every kid understood that.

I don’t know if kids who sat through my classes can tell you why Andrew Johnson was impeached; but I'm okay with that.

I wanted them to have a hatred for injustice burning in their hearts.

And that's not "standardized" education.

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