Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Helen Keller on the injustice of high-stakes standardized testing in schools

Educator, activist, and author Jesse Hagopian writes recently on his blog:
Twelve national civil rights organizations released a statement today in opposition to parents and students who opt out of high-stakes standardized testing–what has now become a truly mass direct action campaign against the multi-billion dollar testing industry.  I believe that their statement titled, “We Oppose Anti-Testing Efforts,” misses the key role that standardized testing has played throughout American history in reproducing institutional racism and inequality.  I wrote the below statement, with the aid of the board of the Network for Public Education, to outline the racist history of standardized testing and to highlight leadership from people of color in the movement against high-stakes testing. I sincerely hope for a response from the civil rights organizations who authored the statement and I hope that this dialogue leads to deeper discussion about how to make Black Lives Matter in our school system and how to remake American public education on foundation of social justice.
I, too, think it is utterly despicable that these prominent civil rights groups -- including the NAACP, La Raza, National Disability Rights Network, American Association of University Women -- would pen an open letter condemning the growing movement of marginalized students, teachers, and parents against high-stakes testing and corporate education deform. These civil rights groups' ties to the Democratic party establishment and corporate financial donors (who they depend upon to keep their NGO machinery running), means that they side with billionaire "limousine liberal" philanthropists intent on further privatizing and stratifying the education system, rather than with those they purport to represent who are fighting back precisely for genuine education justice and equality. 

Ultimately, it is a question of class and social position. Do these groups use the mantle of civil rights in order to serve the elites who run this racist and oppressive system premised upon capitalist-apartheid education, or do they stand with the truly oppressed and defrauded in order to fight against a vision of education "reform" premised upon the further erosion of the gains of the 1960s mass civil rights movements?

In this vein, I offer the words of the famous Helen Keller on the subject, herself a life-long educator, civil rights activist, and author:

Regularly twice a year the children who come to visit me are disturbed and upset by the Damocles sword of school examinations. These horrid occasions hang over their heads, a threat and a terror, for weeks in advance, and even though I cannot see the little faces of my visitors nor hear their voices, I feel tenseness and perturbation in the very air.
Whenever these times come, I cannot help but recall the attitude of Miss Sullivan towards strictly conventional modes of education when she came to teach the little groping, helpless creature that was the Helen Keller of long ago.
She found me anything but amenable to discipline at first, but she adapted herself to me in many ways, instead of forcing me to adapt myself to her. Shortly after beginning a more lenient regime, she wrote to a friend: 
"Since I have abandoned the idea of regular lessons, I find that Helen learns much faster. I am convinced that the time spent by the teacher in digging out of the child what she has put into him, for the sake of satisfying herself that it has taken root, is so much time thrown away. It's much better, I think, to assume that the child is doing his part, and that the seed you have sown will bear fruit in due time ... "
Of course, I realize that the methods which can be successfully followed with one child offer obstacles when they are large groups of children to be dealt with. I realize that public school education must be standardized for the quantity production of graduates, just as any other process of quantity production must be standardized for the most efficient results. And yet -- it seems to me that the trend of modern education and thought should be all away from the medieval inquisitorial methods of formal twice-a-year examinations. On the nervous, high-strung, sensitive students they work cruelty and injustice. A child may be a splendid student with a real enthusiasm and devotion to learning and yet find himself so paralyzed with nervous apprehension, as examination time draws near, that every thought flees and the work of months comes to naught.
I believe the time will come when teachers will be so attuned to the responsiveness of every individual in class work that that responsiveness, that eagerness to learn, will be made the basis for judgement as to whether or not the child is fit to proceed to the assimilation of more or less work. Informal tests, perhaps, there must be, but the looming, giant bear of the twice-a-year examinations -- surely the youngsters could be spared of that.
Many teachers, I believe, given the opportunity, would say with Miss Sullivan, so wise even in her youthful days of teaching the seven-year-old Helen: "The time spent by the teacher in digging out of the child what she has put into him, for the sake of satisfying herself that it has taken root, is so much time thrown away."    

(Keller, Helen. “EXAMS.” Boston Daily Globe 23 June 1926: A30).

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