The Degeneration of American Education

Some people play the No Child Left Behind game cynically, doing whatever it takes to get children close to the passing score and into the magic kingdom of "proficient."
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The high-stakes testing mania in general and No Child Left Behind in particular have reduced too much of public education to a system to be games. Some people play the game sincerely and seriously. The teachers and principal in Linda Perlstein's Tested are such players. They have doubts about the value of the state test, but they strive mightily to get their impoverished students over that barrier. After the test is given in late spring, they start acting like real teachers in a real school -- they take the kids to museums and aquariums and to watch the Blue Angels perform. They make art and write poetry. But only in the short time between the state test and the end of the school year.

Some people play it cynically, doing whatever it takes to get children close to the passing score -- the bubble kids -- off the bubble and into the magic kingdom of "proficient." The "sure things" and "hopeless cases" are ignored. Or emphasizing the increasing passing rates on a required test as students enter their senior year, not taking into account the massive dropouts that have occurred along the way. Or establishing "leaver codes" in sufficient number that a school can have over 1000 9th-graders, fewer than 300 12th-graders and zero dropouts.

Some play it as if they have lost all sense of proportion and common sense. The Texas Education Agency refused to grant a waiver from the state test for a young woman hospitalized after a serious automobile accident that killed her brother and left her memory impaired. Her school dispatched an assistant principal to administer the test in the hospital. Fortunately, one of the girl's teachers overheard what was up, got to the hospital first and told her to refuse to take it. In Colorado, a father, a teacher himself, sought to opt his daughter out of the state fifth grade test. Fine, said the superintendent, but she won't be promoted to sixth grade.

In Washington, a willing testee who simply couldn't think of how to respond to a writing prompt was harangued by his teacher, then by his principal and then by his mother. Unable to respond, he was forbidden to attend a post-test party at which pancakes were served and the movie Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events shown. He was told he had ruined everything for everyone else at the school and suspended for a week.

And some play it desperately. On March, 27, 2008, the Houston Chronicle reported that a middle school principal told a group of teachers that he would kill them and kill himself if the school's science scores did not improve. He was not, the teachers said, joking. "You don't know how ruthless I can be," he is alleged to have said. The incident is being investigated as a "terroristic threat."

At this point we should be asking HAVE WE GONE COLLECTIVELY MAD?

"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities," said Voltaire. In a world that contains Clear Skies, Clean Waters, Healthy Forests, an Axis of Evil, Iraqi Freedom, Family Values, Patriot Act, and No Child Left Behind, it is a good reminder for our time.

If readers have other examples of absurdities, I would love to hear about them. You can write to the blog or to me directly at gbracey1[at]

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