Monday, May 6, 2013

Emperor of A, B, C and D.

TO MAKE THE CASE AGAINST STANDARDIZED TESTING let me write as if I were still teaching today.

Imagine that I am in my thirty-third year in the classroom. Lately, all I hear is that my primary purpose is to “teach to the test.”

I am a veteran teacher, however. There is a right way to teach and a wrong way to teach. And I don’t want to be Emperor of A, B, C and D.

I want to teach.

I am a veteran educator. That means I tend to be skeptical because I’ve been around. When I first took a spot at the  front of the classroom there were no standardized tests. Somehow I managed. I set my own very high standards. It was not until the late 80’s that Ohio and other states implemented the first big batteries of these kinds of tests.

State tests produced limited fruit in the 90’s. (Remember: I was there.) In 2002 those tests were replaced with new tests in response to No Child Left Behind. In Ohio one of the tests at the eighth grade level covered social studies, my area of expertise.

My colleagues and I devoted hundreds of hours to preparing to teach to this test. It was phased in slowly and died abruptly. When the social-studies sub-test proved hopelessly flawed the State of Ohio killed off its own child in 2009.

Now, in 2013 (for this example), my principal is harping on the idea that we must focus on a new set of standards tied to the Common Core Curriculum. I am a veteran teacher. I am skeptical. I doubt these “core” standards will make any real difference.


I am also a grumbler, especially when bureaucrats interfere with teachers. I grumble with friends at lunch. “I already know which students are meeting my high standards,” I inform colleagues seated at a table in the lounge.

“You know how I ‘measure?’”

“It’s called ‘grading,’ I think,” replies our resident staff comedian.

We all enjoy a laugh; but inside we are dying. Unfortunately—and I use that word with clear intent—we are dedicated teachers. We want students to learn as much as possible. In an era of standardized learning that can be dangerous to any educator.

I have spent my entire career on the prowl for good material to use in my classes. This is one of my strengths, this willingness to pursue knowledge. I feel it in my bones—that this pursuit never ends—and see it as my primary goal to fire pupils with a love of learning.

My strengths are not standardized.

Twenty-five years ago, at the dawn of The Age of the Testing, I stumbled upon a collection of poems by Langston Hughes. I don’t know if other social studies teachers have read them. I doubt bureaucrats who drew up the new standards bothered.

Yet, I know one poem is especially moving. Each year I use it as part of a unit on the Era of Reconstruction (1865-1877):


Colored child at carnival

Where is the Jim Crow section 
On this merry-go-round, 
Mister, cause I want to ride? 

Down South where I come from
White and colored 
Can’t sit side by side. 

Down South on the train 
There’s a Jim Crow car. 
On the bus we’re put in the back— 

But there ain’t no back 
To a merry-go-round! 

Where’s the horse 
For a kid that’s black? 

The question today is not whether this poem is good nor whether it engages students. The question is:  Will this be on the standardized test?

(It will not.)

I decide to use it anyway. The day we use it I ask 150 teens to answer two questions (see below). I do this because I know my students will fill the classroom with creative comment. I use “Merry-Go-Round” because I know true learning comes in a thousand disguises:

1. Why do you think Hughes chose a child as focus for this poem?

2. What do you think the poet was trying to say about Jim Crow segregation by using a merry-go-round?

EVEN BEFORE WE START THIS NEW UNIT here is something else I know—because I am a veteran teacher—because I have eyes, ears and a nose. I know that adults in this country have no real knowledge of the Reconstruction Era.

To put it plainly, students won’t need to remember much from this era of our nation’s history. If they don’t know why President Andrew Johnson was impeached they’ll survive.

Before we start the unit I study the manual of standards the State of Ohio went to great trouble to develop. For purposes of this example, I refer to the standards from 2008, the year I retired. (Remember, this whole set of standards went into the dumpster.)

First, I know that these standards were drawn up by functionaries in Columbus, Ohio and pushed for by bureaucrats in Washington, D. C.

I know that none of these people have ever tried to engage a room filled with teens. Here is all the guidance they offer:
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.

That’s it for the vaunted state standards. So, what exactly do I teach? What do the bureaucrats want my students to know?

Here’s the problem. We are expected to teach to a test that includes only fifty questions. (The social studies test used in Ohio from 2003 to 2009 covered three years of material in that many questions.) So, there’s no way a standardized test will include more than two items from the Reconstruction period. There’s a fair chance there will be none.

I don’t want to look for the single question in the academic haystack. I don’t have any desire to be Emperor of A, B, C and D.

I don’t believe learning can be boiled down to a few paltry multiple-choice questions.

Now I know that unless a person is named or a document  mentioned or a term highlighted in the standardized curriculum those names and concepts cannot be turned into questions when it’s time for the test.

I look at the crappy standards provided. Langston Hughes isn’t mentioned.

What about John Wilkes Booth? His name is also missing. So, should I really expect students to know who he was? Every time an assassination occurs in this country it leads to comparisons, and people bring up Booth and Abraham Lincoln (or Lee Harvey Oswald and John F. Kennedy).

I notice that the standards also fail to mention the term “Jim Crow.” This concerns be because I read history for a living and almost no one today mentions “black codes.” Instead, those who wish to discuss race use the term “Jim Crow” segregation or speak of the “Jim Crow” era in sports. For this reason, if I am left to follow own judgment I am going to ask my classes to know this term.

The danger is clear. Do I risk asking students to learn useful material if they won’t be tested? If I teach more than required am I ahead when it comes to standards of learning? Or do we only care about what ends up on the test?

I happen to be a decent writer. So, for years I have created my own materials. I have a reading about “Jim Crow” laws to give to students, one that includes more than seventy examples of unfair laws.

I understand, of course, that none of my teens will ever need to know seventy examples. But the cumulative impact of all the limitations makes a deep impression on my classes.

You can’t measure emotional impact in A’s and B’s and C’s. You can use all the letters in the alphabet. You can’t do it.

The day to begin the unit arrives—and I ask my classes to list five ways blacks and whites were legally separated. This sparks quick interest and just about everyone throws up a hand. I know, from spending years in a classroom, that my kids will almost always end up giving the same handful of examples. These are:


My problem is that I want to go deeper. I want to set high standards. I want my students—almost all of whom happen to be white—to grasp the depth and breadth of the racial divide that once existed in this country.

That’s where my handout enters the picture. The title is taken from an article by I. F. Stone, “A Twilight between Liberty and Freedom.”

The story opens:
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 classes. “You’re blind! Isn’t everyone black if you’re blind?” I close my eyes and do a pantomime of a sightless person searching for a Negro.

I always put my hands on some student’s head and ask, “Are you black, because if you are, I don’t like you!”

This always gets a laugh.

“What about cemeteries?” I add. “Do any of you think you might care who ends up buried next to you?” The kids laugh again and I know they are laughing at the idea of segregation. I believe they are seeing inequality as a mockery of what we say we stand for in this country.

The reading continues:
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 shout, “Drop the checkers and come out with your hands up!”

To teens (who tend to be naturally fair-minded) it seems unfathomable anyone ever thought such laws were necessary.

I don’t want to blame the South only. So we turn to examples from the North where my own grandfather insisted on “Jim Crow” seating in his theaters in Akron, Ohio. I take time to relate a story once told me by an elderly black gentleman, about how black folk had to sit in the balcony, and how hard it was to resist the temptation to throw peanuts at the white folks below.

Then we keep reading:
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 bathrooms. 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. I use him as an example. Both of us were born in 1949, I explain. “If Mr. Battle’s family pulled up to the same gas station as the Viall family, the Battles can’t go at the same time. Members have to take turns.”

“Think of how your mother would feel,” I add. You make it personal and every kid understands.

At this point, there are a hundred directions you can take. All involve learning. In 2013, one of the kids is sure to bring up gays when talk turns to discrimination. So we discuss that as long as it holds kids’ interest. Since the topic is controversial, I let students argue out their own ideas, adding very little input. Eventually, we spend part of a day going over the Hughes’ poem. For homework I ask students to draw a picture to show how “Jim Crow” laws made it hard for blacks to live full lives as citizens. An artistic young man in my fifth bell class draws a checkerboard seen from above. A white hand is holding a red piece, ready to jump. A black hand rests idly at the other side of the board.

Every year we discuss the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments as required. In addition, I ask students to do a reading from Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington. I believe his efforts to educate himself and other freed slaves are inspirational, even if you can’t measure inspiration on a test.

(Examples provided in an auxiliary post.)

Normally, I include a few details about discrimination directed towards Japanese-Americans after the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. My students love the story of Daniel Inouye, a Japanese-American war hero. So I tell it every year—because it works.

(See auxiliary post.)

TO BE HONEST, I HAVE NO DESIRE to be Emperor of A, B, C and D.

I want to lead students in a thousand directions. So:  we discuss the U. S. Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia. That’s the 1967 case that put an end to state laws against interracial marriage. You don’t see it in the standards, but I throw out the word “lynching” and expect my kids to know the definition. I show them several harrowing pictures. (See auxiliary post.) One victim is chained to a tree and twisted in death agonies. The poor fellow has been killed when a mob uses a blow torch to heat up the heavy chain. Another victim, neck broken, head twisted sideways, is Leo Frank, a Jew lynched for his “crimes” in Georgia in 1915.

Even in America, students should realize that discrimination based on religion has been common. That means, of course, that the subject of anti-Muslim feelings in the United States after 9/11 may come up if we choose to examine it.

Naturally, we talk about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. And because I once read Crusade for Justice, the autobiography of Ida Wells, I may throw out her story. Wells was tossed from a train in 1883 after adamantly refusing to give up a seat in the “Whites Only” car and retreat to the “Colored” car in timely fashion. She had to be pried out of her place, but put up a hell of a fight before a conductor and two white gentlemen could subdue her. In the end, however, they dragged the African American educator off the car and deposited her by the side of the tracks miles from her destination.

You see. This is how my strengths come into play—through what I bring to the classroom—why  standardized testing is crazy.

In the process of covering this topic I have managed over the years to get hundreds of students to read To Kill a Mockingbird and a significant number to read Native Son by Richard Wright, the story of a confused young black man growing up in 1920s Chicago. I read this last novel in college but I can get some teens to read it in eighth grade.

This is not how one behaves if one is content to be Emperor of A, B, C and D.

According to the State of Ohio I am supposed to focus on the Ku Klux Klan. How, exactly, and how much is the question. I know the Klan was huge, not just down South, but also in Ohio and Indiana. So I throw that out and add details, including the story of the Grand Wizard who lives on a farm not far from Loveland, and his painted barn roof along Interstate 71 (below).

Then I have students complete a reading from The Leopard’s Spots, written in 1902 by Thomas Dixon Jr. The book drips racism from every syllable and shocks modern-day students. In Dixon's world, the KKK are the heroes.

(See auxiliary post.)

Barn visible off Interstate 71, near Morrow, Ohio.
There's also a burned cross visible in the orchard.

My second year in a classroom I had three elderly Loveland women come in as guest speakers and talk about what it was like growing up in the 20s and 30s. One of the trio happened to be black and told us all about a time when she was nine and saw a cross burning high on a hill above her home. She described her terror and explained how her father and friends got shotguns and prepared to defend their families. Her pride in talking about her Dad was obvious. She spoke, too, of the old Loveland school she attended—a separate facility for black students.

You can’t measure the impact of her stories with four letters of the alphabet.

Sometimes my classes might look at the case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young blacks (ages 13-19) who were placed on trial in 1931 after supposedly raping two white Alabama women. Their trial proved to be such a farce that their convictions were appealed all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court and overturned on two separate occasions. I am familiar with this story because I did a paper on the topic in graduate school—proof again that individual teachers add value to any learning process. In fact if I am teaching in 2013, I bring up the case because the State of Alabama admitted its mistakes in the case this past April and pardoned the boys posthumously.

I don’t know.

I might even suggest to interested students that they bring parents along and meet up with me and two or three other teachers at the theater. We could see the movie “42,” the story of Jackie Robinson. It’s not what you do if all you want is to be Emperor of A, B, C and D.

It’s what you would do if you care about learning.

I don't believe in an A, B, C, D education.
I do believe in all kinds of learning.
Standardized testing is a terrible way to try to improve schools.


  1. I have been in education for 24 years. Wow! With tears flowing, thank you for loving your job. You are not alone in your views of A,B, C, D. Some people love to teach and have a passion for relaying information. Others, teach for a living. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post.

    1. Thanks; do me a favor and tell your colleagues to check out my blog. We have got to start fighting back because the "reformers" are ruining what is good in education and not really fixing the problems.

  2. Thanks, John. Your continued commitment to quality education is inspiring! This post really reached out and grabbed my attention today since I've spent the past two mornings watching kids take their state tests. What a great job you've done articulating a huge frustration about this process. Thanks for giving the many educators who care a voice AND motivation to continue doing what we know is right. ~Cheri King