Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Yellow Brick Road to Nowhere: Teachers and the Tea Party Movement

I’VE BEEN HAVING AN ONLINE DEBATE with a Tea Party supporter, focused on the effect on schools of standardized testing. I think it’s going to be the ruin of American education. He seems like a fair-minded man but doesn’t understand my fear.

On one subject, however, we do agree. We both believe you could close down the U. S. Department of Education and no one directly involved with work in America’s classrooms would notice.

What scares me most is the fear that we’re heading down this path of standardized tests and we’re going to get so deep into the woods that we’ll never be able to find our way back. Secretary Duncan believes in testing—thinks this is the way to go—and likes to imagine he’s leading a “Race to the Top.” According to Mr. Duncan this is the opposite of the “race to the bottom” which resulted when the push for “higher standards” (which begot the era of more and more tests) began under No Child Left Behind.

It’s not the “Race to the Top” at all. It’s more like the “"Yellow Brick Road to Nowhere.”

It is a nearly perfect recipe for disaster.

If you love standardized testing, consider the list below, provided in the State of Ohio’s eighth grade curriculum, which all Ohio social studies teachers were ordered to follow in regard to the American Civil War (at least between 2004 and 2009. These are the sum totals of standards and benchmarks and indicators we were ordered to cover.

This was “learning” in the Era of the Testing Fix:

BENCHMARK G: Analyze the consequences of the American Civil War

INDICATOR 10: Explain the course and consequences of the Civil War with emphasis on:

Contributions of key individuals, including Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant

The Emancipation Proclamation

The Battle of Gettysburg

If you value broad-based knowledge, you might notice that this is a sparse and pathetic offering. But what we discovered as classroom teachers, every year, when the Ohio Achievement Test (OAT) was given, was that unless a person was named or a document noted or a term highlighted in the curriculum it could not be turned into a question on the standardized test.

So, if I'm teaching in Ohio, should I mention William Tecumseh Sherman? Not really. He can’t end up on the test.

His comment: “War is hell?” No longer relevant.

Stonewall Jackson? Nope. Not on the test.

What about insuring that students know what the Confederate flag looked like? They might see this symbol in real life. No, no, no, doesn’t matter.

Not going to be on the test.

THERE WAS A TIME, OF COURSE, WHEN TEACHERS had the flexibility to set their own standards. And then, I would always say it does matter if students recognize the symbol; and I tried to be sure my black students, in particular, knew what that red flag with the blue X and white stars meant, both in 1861, and what it can mean today.

The existential dilemma I faced in my last years in a classroom, and the problem all young teachers face today, is that learning no longer counted unless it could be measured—and this idea of the flag?

It wasn’t going to be measured in any way.

With an increasingly narrow focus on testing, and with merit pay tied to test results thrown in for good measure, I believe we need to understand that true learning must inevitably suffer. When I was still in the classroom, and before bureaucrats gained control, I was able to convince students to read books like Gone With the Wind, Cold Mountain and Killer Angels, all great Civil War novels. Another popular choice was Co. Aytch, a memoir written by Sam Watkins, a Confederate soldier.

Now I knew that nothing in these novels and nothing Sam Watkins could say about warfare could ever end up on the OAT. In other words, time devoted to reading great literature wouldn’t count as learning because it couldn’t be measured.[1]

Frankly, that struck me as nuts.

If you’ve never heard of Watkins, I admit I hadn’t either, till halfway through my teaching career. Sam was a Tennessee infantryman who enlisted with great enthusiasm in 1861 and had to survive four bloody years of war. I had never read the book until Ken Burns quoted heavily from Watkins’ story in his acclaimed Civil War series in 1990.

I picked up a copy soon after, read it with immense pleasure, and knew immediately that if I created a summary of Sam’s tale I could get students interested in this part of our nation’s history. So, in my class we went far beyond “basics” and students read an eight-page selection detailing Watkins’ experiences.

Again, keep this clearly in mind: none of what Watkins says can end up on any standardized test.

WE USED TO DO SKITS IN MY CLASS, like plays without dialogue, with my students at center stage. Whenever it came time to wrap up my Civil War unit, I found it easy to get volunteers to play the roles of soldiers from both sides. You could have two Yankees and two Confederates talk about their experiences, maybe even throw a girlfriend or a wife to get a woman’s perspective. And it was easy to find kids who could keep the discussion going the entire period.

(I don’t know what the bureaucrats would say—but I believe that’s learning of the highest and most important form.)

Like any good teacher, I knew you should never tell a student, “No, I don’t believe you can do it.” And only once did I come close.

Brad was a pleasant young man in my seventh bell. On the surface he was unimpressive, clothes rumpled, hair uncombed, afflicted with a terrible stutter. Despite his handicap he was a pleasure in class. He loved history and could add astute comment to any discussion. If you called on him, though, you had to have time. Words came slowly, painfully, and you had to listen closely in order to follow his logic. Sometimes, if I was in a hurry, I pretended not to see his hand raised in order to wrap up a lesson.

One day, I was sitting at my desk while students started the Watkins reading. I reminded everyone who still had a project to do (each student had multiple options for projects and had to do four every year—damn—again with the non-standardized learning) that this would be a good time to come back and explain their ideas. Brad quietly approached. For obvious reasons he had never volunteered to get up in front of class before. Now he said he would like to do a skit on the life of a Civil War soldier, a subject that clearly intrigued him. I held my doubt in check, asking only, “Who will be working with you?” Stumbling over every syllable, he replied that he would go it alone. “I…I…I wa…wa…wan…wan…want to bu…bu…be a Rebel sol…jer,” he stammered.

It was in my blood and bones to have faith in my kids, to assume that each young man and young woman could do more than either they or I knew. For once, I wanted to say: “No. You can’t.” I could only imagine how awful Brad’s experience might be, exposed in front of an entire class, trying to talk for forty-five minutes. The tip of my tongue touched my palette to form the word “no.” I didn’t want this kind-hearted young man to be cut up by the verbal knives of peers. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell him to lose faith.

I caught myself and gave approval.

A week later Brad stood at the front of the room dressed in gray jacket and battered, gray slouch hat. For all intents and purposes he was naked emotionally, risking at age 14 being stripped of his dignity should he fail.

It was quickly apparent he had studied long and hard. Brad wove details from Watkins’ story and half-a-dozen other sources into a cohesive narrative. What surprised us all was the clarity with which he spoke. Perhaps because he was focused only on what he had to tell, his stuttering was less profound. He still stuttered, but we all realized we were witnessing something different and great. Brad told us about battles in which he played a role—talked sadly of seeing friends die—and mentioned love letters his girl back home sent to him. When asked what his girlfriend looked like he said she was “b..b..beautiful, with d..dark hair and d..dark eyes.” He handled every question we asked, stumbled over syllables, but never faltered in his tale, and held center stage the full period.

When he finished, his class did something I’d never seen before. They rose and gave him a standing ovation.

I almost started to cry.

TODAY, OF COURSE, SINCE NONE OF WHAT BRAD DID COULD BE MEASURED, none of this would count as real education.

Like I said before, that’s nuts.[2]

[1] Technically, if my students read more this might help them on the reading section of the OAT. Sadly, I would be rewarded or penalized only for scores on the social studies section of the same test. (The test was total crap, by the way.)
[2] Call it double nuts when you realize that the State of Ohio dumped its own social studies test in 2009 and—not one iota wiser—started all over, designing a new and improved standardized test.

The owner of this farm, just off I-71, north of Cincinnati, 
used to hold KKK rallies on his property.
Should students know what this symbol sometimes means?
(There's also a burned cross standing in his orchard.)


  1. The story about Brad gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes.
    Teaching each individual student the way each individual needs to be taught also cannot be measured on any standardized test. The more time teachers have to spend on what I refer to as "government work" the less time they have to spend on individuals like Brad.
    I have seen this in my son's kindergarten and first grade class. My son is light years ahead of 1st grade work and needs extra to keep him interested while a little girl named Beth couldn't form the letters to spell her name. Both were "left behind" because the teacher had to spend so much time on the government work that each lost that precious little one on one time.

  2. also I have wondered- I believe standardized tests are NOT the answer. But what is the answer? Schools like Loveland, Sycamore etc are always going to be excellent schools. They were good when I went and they are good today. But what about (some of) the inner city schools? How should they be "reformed" so that the kids can get the same education that I received?

  3. Yes, I am getting quite sick of standardized testing. I remember when you had to go over the information for the tests those were still fun classes because you made them fun but they were not nearly as interesting as a normal class period. What should really be done is have a local person over the schools in his/her district. They could assess teachers and tell them what to improve on. They would have to go through a registration and look at the the teachers syllabus. Also, whether parents, or children like it corporal punishment should be reused in the schools. There should be a witness from both a student as well as another teacher when the punishment is used to keep accountability. Kids have no respect for teachers anymore this is why they don't learn anything.

    1. Mr. D., I am going to write to the White House and push to make you next U. S. Secretary of Education.

      (Then again, maybe you should finish college first.)

    2. Who knows maybe someday, But i'm way to anti-partisan and there is no way the average american would be okay with reinserting spankings in the school; when they won't even do it in their own homes. The main issue isn't the schools its the homes and no government action can fix that. Without taking away personal liberties which is a scary road that I never want to see America go down