High Stakes Testing: The new child labor

April 5, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Uncategorized 

“Exploited without regard to their tender years, countless youngsters were working under conditions constantly fraught with danger to life and limb…The blight of child labor was widely prevalent, in dust-laden textile mills and pitch-black coal mines, in sweltering glass factories and fetid sweat-shop lofts, in filthy canneries and blazing hot tobacco fields. No industry, no region was without its “tiny hostages to rapacious capitalism.” —- from Child Labor in Textile Mills by M.B. Schnapper

“I walked past my daughter.  She looked up at me, her face red from crying, I could see that tears had been collecting at her collar ‘I just can’t do this,’ she sobbed.  The ill fitting headsets, the hard to hear instructions, the uncooperative mouse, the screen going to command modes, not being able to get clarification when she asked for it…Later on when I picked her up after her long seven-hour day, she whispered into my shoulder ‘I’m just not smart, mom. Not like everyone else. I’m just no good at kindergarten, just no good at all.’”———-Claire Wapole, a Chicago mom who volunteered as a MAP test proctor in a Chicago Public Schools kindergarten

Look how far we’ve have advanced in the use of child labor? Corporate USA doesn’t send US children to choke out their lives in the black dust of the coal mines or the brown dust of the textile mills. After long and intense opposition to that kind of child labor, Corporate USA was forced to allow working class children to attend school.

But in our Brave New World of neoliberal capitalism, Corporate USA, as represented by companies such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill,  have turned schools into testing factories. They generate mega-profits by having kids hunched over their writing desks or their computers for hours and even days at a time. Education is a big business, some estimates I have seen place it at as high as 1.3 trillion dollars.

 photo Leah-AnneThompson-kindergartenTestingFW.jpgPhoto by Leah-Anne Thompson

If the White House and Wall Street have their way, this big business will get even bigger. There’s gold in dem thar’ tests, along with the ancillary material, the training manuals, the test prep guides and the scripted curricula that goes along with the whole package.  Standardized tests have been weaponized and used as an excuse to close schools and privatize education while firing experienced and beloved teachers. Teachers? Who needs teachers? If the trend continues, a computer network technician who can read instructions in a clear voice will be all that is necessary. Think of the cost savings in salaries and benefits.

But the real mother-load will be the data collection that requires monstrous server farms, upgraded multi-state digital networks, endless software and hardware upgrades, technical support and…well you get the picture. And by the way, what do they plan to do with all of this highly personal data?

What do these tests measure BTW?

Just because something happens in a school doesn’t mean that it has anything to do with education. Today’s standardized tests grew out of the racially and class biased  IQ tests popular in the days when eugenics was considered “science.” As Alfie Cohn says about the modern standardized tests:

“The main thing they tell us is how big the students’ houses are. Research has repeatedly found that the amount of poverty in the communities where schools are located, along with other variables having nothing to do with what happens in classrooms, accounts for the great majority of the difference in test scores from one area to the next.”—– Alfie Cohn 

To those who say that students need to prepare for jobs and careers in “real life”, how many people are evaluated on their jobs based upon sweating over often inane and unrelated multiple choice questions?

Protesting standardized testing abuse in the Chicago Public Schools
Chicagoans against testing abuse

High stakes testing proponents seem to forget that schooling is not only about preparing students for careers, careers  that may not even exist when they graduate. It is also about preparing students to be active citizens in a vibrant democracy.

While it’s true that the voting booth is a kind of standardized test, the few minutes we spend there every couple of years are only a small part of our responsibilities as citizens. There is no standardized test that can evaluate the complexity of sustaining and extending democracy.

What high stakes tests cannot measure

High stakes testing cannot measure inspiration, creativity, exploration, curiosity and collaboration. Instead it is banishing these from the schools in favor of “rigor” and “grit”, the latest faddish buzzwords from hi-stakes testing proponents. 

Pardon me while I draw upon my 25 years experience as a secondary school educator and talk a little about the “rigor” that I have observed, none of it the result of high stakes testing.

Rigor is the cast of the high school musical devoting many hours of practice after and before school to make their live performance as flawless as possible. Rigor is the students in a math class exploring advanced calculations because they have been inspired by the sheer beauty of them as well as by how math has been essential to the technology they carry in their pockets. Rigor is students in an English class learning that painstakingly combining exactly the right words together can lead to life-changing insights and perhaps even result in a respectable showing at the next city-wide poetry slam. 

You can’t bubble that kind of “rigor” into a standardized test. It’s amazing how even pre-k’s and kindergartners can focus on tasks that inspire them without the intervention of high stakes testing. That kind of rigorous intensity comes from the human interaction of students and teachers in a collaborative classroom environment. 

Protesting standardized testing abuse in the Chicago Public Schools
Chicagoans against testing abuse

As for “grit”, introduce that into delicate complex machinery and it will destroy it. Grit is what wears things down and in that sense the term is a pretty accurate way of describing what high stakes testing is doing to our schools. They are wearing them out from within.  Katie Osgood is a teacher in a Chicago psychiatric hospital. Here is her take on “grit”:

“What is the value in teaching children to be able to sit for hours, to have the “grit” to finish that tedious task or long test? Why not create curriculum that is so engaging and relevant that children discover a joy in learning? No instruction on “grit” is needed when students are empowered and engaged. “No excuses” pedagogy is rooted in obedience and submission, in breaking children’s spirit, while social justice pedagogy empowers and uplifts using that spirit as an asset.”——-Katie Osgood 

Wasting valuable class time for dubious results

I often hear from frustrated parents and teachers that the endless parade of standardized tests is a “waste of valuable class time”. It’s much worse than that. The old fashioned child labor damaged children’s’ health and deprived them of an education. I fear that the new child labor of high stakes testing and its related classroom activities will be the 21st century equivalent.

How will the chronic stress affect the minds of young children as it is applied year after year? A Great Neck, New York principal named  Sharon Fougner reported visceral reactions to Common Core testing:

“We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, ‘This is too hard,’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ throughout his test booklet.’” —from an open letter signed by over 1500 New York state principals.

Chronic stress can kill.

It’s no secret that American schools have problems with bullying and violence. This manifests itself in different ways, some of which are related to race and social class. Troubled students often turn to favorite teachers when they are in distress. Yet, the goal of the standardized test mania is to remove the caring empathetic  human connection and replace it with a rigid scripted curricula that will literally “teacher-proof” the classroom.

I spent 15 years of my teaching career at a South Side Chicago Catholic women’s high school. My students were a multiracial mix of working class young people, many of them from distressed neighborhoods where labor exploitation, disinvestment, racism and gender discrimination take their toll on a daily basis.

I had students coming to me with serious personal issues exacerbated by the socio-economic realities around them. By working closely with the school counselors, together we were able to offer them at least some of the support they so desperately needed.

Since most of my teaching career was before the high stakes testing madness took hold, I had a lot control over the history curriculum in my classes. I was able to bring in historical examples and current events that addressed what these young people faced. I could show them how social movements had addressed and continue to address the often harsh realities of working class life in the USA. I could ask them to imagine how they would address these issues and how research and creative thought can provide some answers while also raising new questions.

How do you bubble that into a standardized test? 

According to Kathleen M. Cashin and Bruce S. Cooper of Fordham University, financially hard-pressed schools who pay for expensive testing packages:

“…are forced to cut such necessary services to students as social workers, psychologists, counselors, as well as the arts and athletics. These demands and the sacrifices they require will prove harmful to students, in the short run and the long run.”

How will this affect the school to prison pipeline as students drop out or are pushed out? How will this impact the mental health of the next generation? How many lives will be lost to suicide, street violence or domestic abuse who might have been saved with a more rational and caring educational system?

Is corporate profit really worth the loss of such human potential and human life?

Fortunately there is the law of unintended consequences 

One of the consequences of the testing mania is a growing nationwide resistance movement to the new child labor of high stakes testing. Corporate USA is giving parents, teachers and students quite an unintended education in just how far it will go to squeeze profit from even the youngest children. 

Parents are requesting that their children opt out of the tests. Teachers are risking their careers by refusing to give them. Students in Massachusetts organized their own “Be a Hero. Get a Zero” movement for test refusal.

Here in Chicago, in the midst of one of the worst winters in the city’s history, teacher Sarah Chambers stood in front of her grade school early one morning looking out from inside of her heavy parka. She was calmly explaining to the media why teachers at her school were refusing to give the ISAT test and why many parents were not allowing their children to take it. Too many tests. Too little time for learning and human interaction.

When asked what teachers planned to do with the children not taking the test, Chambers smiled and said, “We’re going to teach them.”

Teach the children. What a concept.

“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”——— Mario Savio at the 1964 Berkeley student strike

It’s way past time to shut down the high stakes  testing machine that runs on the labor of children and the growing anguish of adults….and turn our attention to actual education.

 photo Test-Skills-Jobs.jpg

Sources consulted

N.Y. school principals write letter of concern about Common Core tests by Valerie Strauss

Paul Tough Is Way Off-Base. And Stop Saying ‘Grit’ by Katie Osgood

Testing? Testing? by Claire Wapole

Lean Production; Inside the real war on public education by Will Johnson

Childhood Lost: Child Labor During the Industrial Revolution from Teaching with Primary Sources at Eastern Illinois University

How Wall Street Power Brokers Are Designing the Future of Public Education as a Money-Making Machine by Anna Simonton

You Can’t Bounce Off the Walls If There Are No Walls: Outdoor Schools Make Kids Happier—and Smarter by David Sobel

The case against standardized testing: raising the scores, ruining the schools by Alfie Kohn

Sacrificing Psychologists, Counselors, & Social Workers—and Athletics & the Arts—to Test Preparation by Kathleen M. Cashin Bruce S. Cooper

Testing in kindergarten: whatever happened to story time? by Ben Joravsky

They turned our schools into testing factories Socialist Worker editorial

Tests + Stress = Problems For Students by Daniel Edelstein

Stop the abuse of women workers at 
McDonalds and Whole Foods: Fight for 15!

March 11, 2014 by · Comments Off
Filed under: Discrimination, Gender, Society & Economy, Unions, Workplace 

“Unlike nations which have rational labor policies like sick leave, paid parental leave, affordable childcare, vacation time, generous retirement and which protect the right to organize a union, the USA  has chosen the opposite course.  This has led to some of the worst inequality in the developed world, which because of our rampant gender and racial discrimination, falls heaviest on women, particularly women of color.”

International Women’s Day (IWD), March 8, was originally inspired by the historic 1909 “Uprising of the 20,000”, a garment workers strike of women in NYC, many of them immigrants. They demanded better pay, better working conditions and the right to join a union.

So it made sense that the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC), which leads the Fight for $15 campaign in the city, should celebrate International Women’s Day by standing up for the rights of women workers in 2014.

A Chicago McDonald’s worker named Carmen Navarrette had been told that she “should put a bullet through her head,” because she had requested permission to go home after become very ill at work. She is a diabetic and had just been released from the hospital.

As a result, dozens of WOCC members and supporters marched into a North Side McDonald’s on International Women’s Day to demand an end to this kind of discrimination and verbal abuse. 

On the morning of March 8, a smaller group  of WOCC members and allies picketed a North Side Chicago Whole Foods and demanded the reinstatement of Rhiannon Brochat. She was fired after she stayed home with her special needs child when Chicago schools were closed on the worst day of the Polar Vortex. 

McDonald’s and Whole Foods may seem like very different companies, but their attitude toward women workers is remarkably similar.

Chicagoans join together to ice the ISAT standardized test

March 2, 2014 by · Comments Off
Filed under: Uncategorized 

“Standardized testing encourages rigid scripted teach-to-the-test curricula devoid of educational exploration. The human element that makes great teaching and engaged learning is ruthlessly crushed like so much scrap metal in a junkyard compactor. No student was ever motivated to become an eager life-long learner by taking a mind numbing battery of tests. Now they are even being inflicted on Kindergarten and Pre-K children. Have we lost our minds?”

Across the wide 24th Boulevard in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood you could hear the chants:  “Let us teach…Let us teach…Let us teach!”

It was the frigid late afternoon of February 28 and the sounds were coming from the steps of Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy. Parents, teachers, students and community allies had gathered to support Saucedo’s boycott of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT).

Ice the ISAT rally at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy on the near SW Side of Chicago.
Students dismissed from school gather before the rally


Earlier that week Saucedo teachers, with the urging of school parents, had voted unanimously not to give the test. The endless procession of standardized tests that take up valuable instruction time had pushed the Saucedo school community past the limit of its patience. Teachers didn’t want to go to work and follow a regimen they knew was harmful to children. And parents didn’t want that either. A natural alliance came into being.

The late Maria Saucedo was a highly respected bi-lingual educator working in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood who was active in groups like Casa Atzlan and Mujeres Latinas. As an honors student at Northeastern Illinois University, she helped found the Chicano Student Union. She was killed in a fire in 1981.

The Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy community is carrying on her life’s work of social and education justice.

Read more

The Revolution at the End of the Rainbow

February 23, 2014 by · Comments Off
Filed under: Uncategorized 

A talk given at the Third Unitarian Church of Chicago on February 23 2014. I was asked to talk about my involvement in the freedom movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Parts of this story have been told elsewhere. In addition, this is based on imperfect human memory. If you remember any of it differently, please comment.

It was the first week of April 1968. A native of Washington DC, I was living in nearby Silver Spring Maryland. I had a stack of leaflets to deliver to the Students for a Democratic Society (better known as SDS).

Dr. Martin Luther King was scheduled to lead a march to the White House in support of the Poor Peoples Campaign. The leaflets announced the march and I was thrilled. I had never marched with Dr. King before.

By 1968  King had moved in a radical direction. He envisioned a multiracial  encampment of poor people in Washington to wipe out what  he called the “triple interlocking evils of racism, exploitation, and militarism”.  He spoke of an era of revolution that would change the whole structure of American life. He called it the Poor Peoples’ campaign.

Poor Peoples Campaign flyer

Poor Peoples Campaign flyer

I volunteered to help.  My work was nothing glamorous, I would be moving supplies and food to the tent city King was planning. Read more

Of Nightmares and Watersheds

February 21, 2014 by · Comments Off
Filed under: Uncategorized 

“If gold has been prized because it is the most inert element, changeless and incorruptible, water is prized for the opposite reason — its fluidity, mobility, changeability that make it a necessity and a metaphor for life itself. To value gold over water is to value economy over ecology, that which can be locked up over that which connects all things.” Rebecca Solnit

The nightmare always begins the same way. I am standing next to Colesville Road in Silver Spring, Maryland, near where Northwest Branch creek crosses this busy highway. 

But instead of the old filtration station that once served the small dam a couple of hundred yards upstream, there is massive hi-rise development everywhere: uber-modern condos and swanky shops cover the ground where I once pried off samples of translucent mica from the soft sandstone above the creek bed.

In the nightmare, the stream valley, once crowded with ancient trees, has been denuded and the resulting silt has turned the once clear waters a sluggish brown. The boulders and small waterfalls downstream are still there, but bake in the sun instead of being protected by the cool shade of an Eastern forest.

When I to hike down the creekside trail, it never leads to the house I once called home. I become lost amidst unfamiliar boulders and side trails that lead nowhere. When I awake I am filled with a deep and terrible sadness. This is a recurring nightmare of mine. It comes upon me frequently.

In and around the Rachel Carson Greenway
Rachel Carson Greenway

During my teen years I explored that stream valley for miles in both directions, often hiking through the water in an old pair of tennis shoes. I came to know the sucker fish who swam in the shallows, the tadpoles of the vernal pools and the box turtles who would seek relief from the summer heat in the calm areas of small feeder streams.

Fallen logs across the creek provided easy bridges to the old suburb of Woodmoor, high on the other side of the valley, where the branch library kept me furnished with a steady supply of science and science fiction books.

In the winter, the half-frozen waterfalls became an ever-changing sculpture garden of icy surrealism.

Teddy Roosevelt visited Northwest Branch in 1904 and wrote to his son: ” there is a beautiful gorge, deep and narrow, with great boulders and even cliffs. Excepting Great Falls, it is the most beautiful place around here.”

Rachel Carson’s former home where she wrote much of “Silent Spring” is near Northwest Branch, just upstream from the dam. The trail there is now called the Rachel Carson Greenway. Famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed her near the creek for a 1962 Life Magazine article.

Rachel Carson photo Rachel-Carson-008.jpg
Rachel Carson birdwatching along Northwest Branch

Although the stream quality has been adversely affected by storm water runoff from the crowded suburbs that surround it, it is afforded some protection by government agencies of Montgomery and Prince Georges County. The Neighbors of Northwest Branch leads nature walks there and monitors its condition carefully.

So why do I have recurring nightmares about Northwest Branch instead of recurring dreams of its beauty, a beauty that has largely survived since the end of the last Ice Age?

Why? Perhaps because Northwest Branch is a part of the Anacostia watershed.

It empties into the dangerously polluted Anacostia River which flows past Southeast DC, a largely African American working class community.  A short distance away, across the bridges that span the river, are the EPA headquarters and the Congress that passed the Clean Water Act.

Trash in Anacostia RiverTrash in the Anacostia River

According to the National Resources Defense Council: “Toilets in the Capitol regularly flush directly into the Anacostia — our federal government needs to show leadership and contribute its fair share to cleaning up the District’s rivers.”

Apparently Congress really does give a shit about our rivers.  That contrast alone is almost too much to bear, even as citizens groups and official agencies work to slowly repair the river.

But in the face of greed and misplaced priorities, official agencies and well intentioned citizens groups are an easily breached line of defense. Powerful financial interests do it all the time.

Despite its protected status, Northwest Branch remains vulnerable.

But perhaps these nightmares about a favorite creek also stem from other sources. Three women I’ve met are in a Michigan jail for non-violently protesting an Enbridge company pipeline that would carry Canadian tar sands oil across the Midwest. Tar sands oil is one of the dirtiest petro-products ever. 

In 2010 leakage from an Enbridge pipeline caused the largest inland oil disaster in US history when it polluted Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

In both West Virginia and North Carolina energy companies recently leaked toxins into rivers with seeming impunity. In Northern Alberta where oil and gas development has ravaged the traditional lands of the Cree peoples, Melina Laboucan-Massimo said this:

“My community has dealt with three decades of massive oil and gas development. And this has been without the consent of the people or without the recognition of protection of the human rights which should be protected under section 35 of the Canadian constitution, which protects  aboriginal and treaty rights.”

It is the reckless burning of coal, oil and gas that is accelerating climate change, drastically altering the hydrology of the entire biosphere.

Meanwhile, the snowpack of the High Sierras in California shrinks as climate change sweeps across the planet. What will become of those frigid fast flowing mountain streams whose waters I drank and whose rushing sounds lulled me to sleep as I camped near their banks.

And how many Californians depend upon that snow pack for their water supply?

The UN tells us that,” More than 2.7 billion people will face severe shortages of fresh water by 2025 if the world keeps consuming water at today’s rates…”

I can’t be the only person who is having nightmares about fresh water, the lifeblood for all terrestrial beings. My prehistoric Scottish ancestors once designated pools, springs and other water sources as sacred places of worship, as did peoples around the planet. 

But as social critic Karl Marx wrote,”… all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

I believe in neither gods nor goddesses. But the next time I visit Northwest Branch, my own personal shrine to water, I will offer a silent prayer.

May we please make water sacred again?

Northwest Branch 2A s
A small waterfall along Northwest Branch


Sources Consulted

Neighbors of Northwest Branch

Rachel Carson Greenway & Northwest Branch Stream Valley Park Trails

Northwest Branch  Subwatershed  Action Plan

Robert B. Morse Water Filtration Plant

Cleaning Up the Anacostia River by the National Resources Defense Council

Anacostia Riverkeeper

Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands

Report Warns Of Severe Water Shortages By 2025

Next Page »