Schooling in Orange Jumpsuits

The image that flashed into my mind was: schools in orange jumpsuits.

Something
has broken apart in our society - an unspoken agreement about sanity, a
truce between play and order. The authoritarian strain, always present,
of course, has been ratcheting up to ever more absurd levels for a
decade now.

It's as
though, as the American political class has watched its real control
over the course of events slowly ebb, a collusion of desperation has
broken out among them: "The time of fun and waste is over," as the 9/11
terrorists put it. As our problems get increasingly complex, the
solutions we implement get more and more simplistic. Results don't
really matter, just the appearance of holding someone accountable.

In our
foreign policy, this axis-of-evil insanity has been all too obvious. On
the domestic side, in our relationship with ourselves, much of the
up-tempo repressiveness - homeland security overreach, the USA PATRIOT
Act - is driven by an alleged fear of terrorism. That is not true,
however, of No Child Left Behind and the high-stakes, high-stress
testing mania that is running amok in our schools. I have yet to
encounter a teacher who has anything good to say about the phenomenon,
which I now see as hysteria's beachhead on the home front.

"Each
bar-coded booklet must be guarded before the tests and accounted for
afterward so the questions aren't compromised. Schools have to provide
a written statement to explain why even a single booklet is missing."

This is my local paper, the Chicago Tribune, gleefully and uncritically updating me on ISAT testing time across the state of Illinois. This is how we're wasting $45 million:
scraping the brains of the state's third- through eighth-graders in
order to assess whether their schools will stay open, whether their
teachers will keep their jobs. The stakes are so high that security
measures dominate the process. How far away, I wonder, is Blackwater (I
mean Xe) from getting the contract to curb cheating?

"Educators
say they walk a careful line, asking students to take the tests
seriously without making them anxious about grown-up problems, such as
the threat of closing schools that repeatedly fail to meet expectations.

"'You don't
want to scare the kid to death.'" So the assistant superintendent of a
school district west of Chicago told the Trib reporter.

I read
these words as the parent of a grown child, as one who remembers the
struggle of putting a kid through the public schools. One of the worst
things about the school system even before No Child Left Behind was how
my daughter's teachers were forced to teach to the often preposterous
and learning-antithetical requirements of the standardized tests. And
it has only gotten worse, with the force of top-down authority becoming
ever tenser and more demanding.

While
testing and evaluation are reasonable components of the education
process, pretending that evaluation is a hard science, that you can
reduce a child's mental growth to a statistic, is not. Yet the
authority of the standardized tests, such as the Illinois Standards
Achievement Test that is now sending stress waves through the state's
school systems (some schools even allow gum-chewing during testing
weeks to help kids stay relaxed, the Tribune reported) is seldom
challenged by the mainstream media - any more than they challenged the
authority that declared, and continues to declare, war.

As I say, high-stakes testing is all about holding someone accountable. Diane Ravitch,
writing last week on HuffingtonPost about the recent firing of all 93
teachers, administrators and support staff at the "underperforming"
high school in Central Falls, R.I., commented, quoting a blogger called
Mrs. Mimi, that "we fire teachers because 'we can't fire poverty.'"

The
"underperforming," low-testing schools - the ones that get shut down,
emptied out, metaphorically forced to don the orange jumpsuits - are
always in low-income communities, where children struggle against
enormous obstacles, at home and on the streets, that schools cannot
control. Rather than take a holistic approach to the educational
challenges of these communities, rather than mandating smaller class
size, the equitable allocation of resources and other changes that
would do immediate good, test-pushing pols seek to punish convenient
scapegoats, start over and change nothing.

But my most
serious complaint against the mania for standardized testing is the way
it straitjackets education itself, converts classrooms, in the words of
Bill Bigelow,
writing a decade ago for the Rethinking Schools website, "into vast
wading pools of information for students to memorize without critical
reflection."

Education
that joyously encourages creativity and discovery is out of the
question. The exaltation of the standardized test, however flawed, to
the status to supreme authority, breaks the connection between teacher
and student. Suddenly school is just another battleground - us vs. them
- with Blackwater security guys guarding the right answers.

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