"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Review of Perlstein's Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade

From Daily Kos:

One American School Struggles to Make the Grade
By Linda Perlstein
Henry Holt and Company
New York, 2007

When I set out in 2005 to write a book about how the standards and testing movement had changed the lives of children and teachers, I knew I needed to write about an impoverished elementary school in an affluent district. In five years as an education reporter for the Washington Post, and thousands of hours observing classrooms, I had seen school change a lot in the name of standards and testing, and I felt that people outside the walls—from parents to politicians—had little idea what went on inside them.

Behind all the statistics—percentiles, ethnic groupings, age-sortings—that make up the behemoth of data produced by the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law, are the people who get lost in the dry numbers produced: the children, teachers, administrators and parents responsible for implementing standards that have come to be considered ridiculously ideal in practice.

What the emphasis on testing means in terms of subject matter and stress to those living day in and day out under its edicts has rarely been explored until now. Linda Perlstein’s Tested remedies that, in an excellent account of a year she spent embedded in a struggling elementary school in Annapolis, Maryland, sitting in on classes, interviewing teachers and focusing on the dynamo principal who raises test scores at the beginning of the book—and then lives with constant anxiety to show the improved scores are not just a one-time fluke through the ensuing year.

The author enters the homes of students and teachers, sits in on guidance counseling sessions, attends parent-teacher conferences as an astute observer of how crunching the numbers affects the personal lives and stories of all the players.

The test, to be administered in the spring, rules all strategies of teaching and allocation of funds and attention. Narrowed down to math and reading, the students spend hours each day on mind-numbing drills, consultants are hired, curriculum purchased, constant assessments given, and near-daily strategy sessions called for teachers, administrators and counselors to the point where education appears to have taken on more the flavor of grim battlefield maneuvering instead of a flowering of curiosity and spirit. And through it all is the strain on the professionals charged with churning out test-passers ... without the acknowledgement that what is going on is teaching to the test. The test. The test.

This was something county leaders were saying into microphones with regularity—"It’s not about the scores"—and it made hundreds of teachers in the audience snicker. For they were living in a world where everything was judged by its effect on the scores. Researchers throughout the country were attempting to link any number of factors to quantified improvements in "student learning": The length of a superintendent’s tenure. The time class starts in the morning. The composition of school boards. Character education and recess and music class and afterschool programs. The condition of school buildings—square footage per student, air temperature, natural light, street noise. Seating arrangements. Whether it’s worth it to give students breakfast at school, and whether those breakfasts should include omega-3 fatty acids.

Students are continuously reminded of the importance of the tests, drilled and drilled and drilled in regurgitation skills with little true comprehension—and then led through relaxation exercises to take the stress off. Science, social studies, the arts, field trips and recess are scuttled, and schools—not unsurprisingly given the current administration’s worship of corporatism—are going through a reform upheaval to make sure they turn out "products" that are useful for big business.

School today are expected to behave like businesses .... The more time you spend in school, the more you see the influence of business practices. There are the obvious touches: naming rights for sports fields and building wings, exclusive deals with soda companies, the relabeling of superintendents as Chief Academic Officers.

A parallel to the business philosophy has grown up alongside the insistence on modern CEO practices, Perlstein notes, with educators taking the fall for every ill in society:

This attitude has its genesis in the mid-1980s, when America’s political and business leaders decided that if employees weren’t as productive as their bosses liked, if the gross national product was faltering, if the future of science and industry lay not in this country but in Asia, schoolteachers were to blame.

"It seems like a manageable idea," the author observes wryly, "remaking a hundred thousand public schools, whereas reforming an economy to afford everyone a decent job is far too radical for most to accept."

The demand that schools bear the burden for every ill in society has led to a regimentation that is dismaying to teachers—who are leaving the profession and shuffling through school systems in search of fulfillment in droves—and on students as well, who have little idea these days of the creative side of learning. The most poignant passages in the book come near the end, when the state tests have been taken and field trips are packed into the last weeks of school and science experiments begin. A joy and relaxation takes hold, although even here a paucity is revealed. In one section, the author recounts how one third grade teacher finishes up a lesson and sends her students back to their desks: "When they have free time during the school day, she told them, they should read chapter 3. Then she had to explain what free time was."

What Perlstein has managed to do in this excellent book is the same magical trick Barbara Ehrenreich pulled off so well in Nickled and Dimed: taking public policy and its consequences down to the micro-personal level and making it real to readers. Through the author’s eyes and ears, we hear of the hopes and dreams of the teacher agonizing over her boyfriend’s deployment to Iraq, the principal’s worries about her mother, a student’s worries about his brother, all unfolding against the backdrop of school success defined in very depersonalized statistics. The numbers give way to human stories as Perlstein shuttles between telling the history of NCLB adoption, the layers of bureaucracy, the Bush crony testing industry, the specifics of the law and profiles of those struggling with the standards.

The result is a smooth, captivating, heartbreaking read that’s informative on policy and devastating in depicting the crushing test environment, as it moves like a novel toward the dramatic climax: Will Tyler Heights Elementary achieve a repeat of its astounding scoring success the previous year? Or was it all a fluke? As the chapters wind down, the dramatic interest ramps up, proving that you can write about public policy in way that makes it as engaging in a summer blockbuster.

Note: teacherken provides an excellent review from an educator’s point of view of Tested. Perlstein also will be a participant in the Yearly Kos panel, Spinning Unions—Mainstream Media Has It Wrong about Teachers’Unions.

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