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Testing Narrative: José Vilson’s Vision of Race, Class and Education in the US
(Book cover courtesy of Haymarket Books).

Testing Narrative: José Vilson’s Vision of Race, Class and Education in the US

(Book cover courtesy of Haymarket Books).

This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative On Race, Class, and Education
José Vilson
Haymarket, 2014, 228 pages

Data – above all its other qualities, connotations and uses – deserves to be the word of the decade. Without new obsessions about data, many things, including Google analytics, the acronym SEO, the celebrity of Nate Silver, Sabermetrics and much of the recent debates on education, would not exist.

Debate over education is ages old, coming to a boil in the United States in the 20th century regarding ideas of race, class and censorship. Historian Carter G. Woodson, author of The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), believed American education acted as a means of programming people’s worldviews. There is a long list of supposedly great things that have produced quietly potent side effects.

In the last 20 years, S. Robson Walton, Bill Gates and their foundations have donated billions of dollars to companies and charities that have become the loudest voices in education reform. Sometimes, these “charities” and sponsored organizations have the word “parent” in their title, but involve no local parents whatsoever. Every day it seems, from Camden, New Jersey to suburban Rhode Island, another group of real students and parents are taking notice of growing injustices – conversations about them that they weren’t invited to. Essential voices are quietly being pushed out of the conversation. Since we live in a country where corporations are people, one can say Facebook, Microsoft and Walmart are defining American education this century.

Here are some absurdities. Facebook’s $100 million donation to Newark is gone, used up mostly on creating experimental charters and paying consultants linked to the New Jersey Department of Education commissioner. Walmart has funded a “Department of Education Reform” at University of Arkansas. The textbook corporation Pearson is now deciding who can become teachers in an increasingly popular accreditation program called edTPA.

Their profit mentality is spreading to all careers, a trickle-down mindset and business model approach now seeping into professions ranging from physician to police officer. The prestigious trade publications of these fields show growing concern with “reforms.” Evaluations, paperwork and accountability are the inevitable in-laws of the word “data” in the 21st century.

Some background. What a teacher will teach on a given day has always been a blend of the student needs, teacher choice, school curriculum goals and government requirements. A new set of standards for K-12 education called the Common Core State Standards was introduced in 2009 and have since been adopted by 90 percent of states. The standards are learning objectives that students should reach at given points in the year. CCSS are controversially and intrinsically linked to formative and summative high-stakes test scores that affect teachers, students and entire school systems.

In his new book, middle-school math teacher, blogger and Center for Quality Teaching board member José Vilson writes, “From the outside, Common Core seems to be good for all involved. In times of austerity, switching from state standards (or, in many cases, no standards) to a set of internationally benchmarked, researched, vetted, and well-funded standards is a no-brainer. All’s well that ends well. Except, that is, for those the Common Core’s proponents neglected to consider: students, teachers, and parents.”

These new standards supposedly add rigor, uniformity and delineation between grade-level expectations, but, Vilson points out, no teachers were invited to create them.

The linked standardized tests are so strangely difficult that when students in North Carolina invited business and industry professionals to take released high-stakes tests, most of the adults failed.

Why are politicians and their billionaire backers making tests?

Vilson adds, “Americans would not expect to a see a military general without experience in the field or a head surgeon who’s never operated on anyone. Yet we trust people with no classroom experience to tell us what and how our students should learn.”

Remember “faculty” means a skill or a skilled collective of professionals, from the Latin, in that a field is facilis or easy – for this chosen few. Perhaps reformers have gotten the etymology mixed up; perhaps they think education is so easy that teachers are only rote facilitators.

The crisis mentality reformers have bought into, as in the United States is not competitive with China, or that 60 percent of employers are saying college graduates are not prepared for employment, has created a blame-game arena of extreme discourse and sweeping actions.

In this craze, some states are quietly passing ludicrous laws. Arizona has passed a “ban on ethnic studies” and “courses or classes that include the discussion of controversial aspects of history.”

What are they so afraid of?

“The standards,” Vilson writes, “are but a symptom of a system that devalues the input of the very people it affects.”

(Not unlike stop and frisk in New York City and drone bombings in Pakistan).

Since No Child Left Behind and its younger, more aggressive brother Race to the Top have been implemented by politicians with no say (at all) from educators, teachers have spent growing hours each month analyzing data: numbers and results from test scores. Many teachers’ jobs rest at least in part on these numbers. Testing consumes 5 to 7 percent of the school year for students. That’s more than 10 school days per academic year, at least 10 days not spent on collaborative work, creative work, research or anything that college, family life or careers really require of humans. All of this time spent to move up, sometimes by as little as a hundredth of a percentage point, on what many consider to be inauthentic assessments.

The high school I work at calls the quarterly essay assignments we give (ironically and uninspiringly) Authentic Assessments. The tautological bridge of these two words suggests it must be possible to assess thousands of students authentically on just a 50-minute reading-based essay. The students call it AA.

Like tightrope walkers, a lot of teachers and students are left looking for their footing. Vilson lives divided. He cleverly illustrates this by sometimes using two narrators to tell his story. Mr. Vilson, the professional, and José, the man behind his unfiltered thoughts.

A student yells, ‘I don’t want to take this test.’

José thinks, Good me neither.

Mr. Vilson says, ‘I understand, but don’t you want to do well?’

‘You do know how important this is, right?’ Not very kid.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Yes you do.’ We don’t either.

In his narrative, Vilson only briefly mentions the additional time needed to prepare for the tests. At a micro level, teachers need to now study standardized tests, plan lessons that meet the objectives of the tests, and learn and teach the testing technology to students. There is only so much time in a school day. Now the percentage of wasted instructional time per year has climbed significantly. At the macro level, district spending is increasing in really only one area: testing technology for English and math. Falling by the wayside in this race for “college and career readiness” are time and funding for research skills, poetry, professional development, the arts, health, physical education, the sciences (including technology!), field trips and extracurricular activities. Meanwhile, students in low-income areas often begin with a large deficit in the basic computer fluency many take for granted.

José Vilson, with his in-class experience and poetic energy, would be the top choice to write A People’s History of American Education. The spirit of Vilson’s argument reaches its crescendo in a poem called “This is Not a Test.”

“This is not a test, Mr. President/Given an answer sheet, these students shaded in L-O-V-E over/A-B-C-D.”

As a whole, its rhythm and anger is reminiscent of the oeuvres of Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg. One can argue that in “This is Not a Test” the “this” can be symbolically replaced by “school.” It’s tempting to say school is about overcoming hurdles and establishing grit and perseverance. School, believe it not, should be a lesson. The lesson. Not the assessment.

Many teachers around the country are looking for reformers to answer: Is teaching an art or a science?

Reformers implicitly claim it’s a science, something to be measured and rated, with quantifiable rights and wrongs, something that is consistent across the board. Let’s consider the following student example, one of a million similar stories nation-wide.

He wakes up with a splitting headache, growling stomach, eyes puffy and black from the lack of sleep and the active tossing and turning the night before. His mom gets home close to midnight from that job at the factory, an added stressor on his already fragile mind. He rushes out of the door without breakfast and meets up with his boys on the corner, the only real family he feels he has.

He naps during first period and when he’s awake, he can’t concentrate because of the thoughts swirling in his mind. He thinks of his absent father, his mom, his younger brother, a cute girl he hasn’t the nerve to ask on a date yet, a gang that keeps giving him a dirty eye. Then he thinks of the nice commercials he keeps seeing, of well-rounded families having breakfast. He thinks of everything except for what is being written on the chalkboard.

What do you do? Does this boy need an art or a science? Teachers have to teach him. Charters can throw him out. As charter schools further divide populations (general ed and special ed, black and white, English language learners and native English speakers) and corporate money drives education reform, what’s needed to make a change is the voices of teachers and parents who have nothing to gain from high-stakes testing. Because students bring unpredictable home struggles into the classroom and into test days, Vilson says parents and teachers need to be more vocal and visible.

Our country has a history of experimenting on the less fortunate. Sometimes it’s under the guise of “Well, things couldn’t get worse for these people, right?” and sometimes it’s under no guise at all, only that of ignorance and acceptance. Think Tuskegee (and its analogs in Guatemala), Agent Orange, MKUltra and elements of the Manhattan Project. Here we see critical theorist Paolo Freire really play into the consciousness and actions of Vilson. The education experiments funded by Bill Gates and S. Robson Walton in places like Newark and Harlem are new examples of the mentality divide between what should be done for the wealthy and what should be done for the poor.

“In a sense,” Vilson writes, “it almost feels like a pyramid scheme: the structure rarely loses form, even as bricks within it shift. We’re not working with bricks, though. We’re working with people, many of whom have great ideas, and the current educational paradigm rests on our collective shoulders.”

This is a story about what happens when you try. Vilson wants teachers to take their lounge voice and pump up the volume to an outside-the-Capitol voice. A growing number of states have voted down corporate-backed, high-stakes testing. Vociferous grassroots advocacy by parents and teachers has led the New York State Board of Regents to postpone its accountability measures until 2020. This Is Not a Test needs to become one in a legion of books of its kind.

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