This letter to the editor was written on September 29, 2012. It was e-mailed to a number of newspapers across the state. The Muskegon Chronicle, to its credit, ran it, though not until January 27, 2013, and heavily editted. Here it is in its original form.
Why My Children Don’t Take The MEAP
At this moment, tens of thousands of children across the state of Michigan are hunched over desks filling in the bubbles on their MEAP answer sheets in what has become a yearly ritual across the country, whether it be the FCAT in Florida, the TAKS in Texas, or the CST in California.
My children will be spending that time reading a good book instead. My wife and I, both teachers, decided last year that we’ve seen enough. After watching a decade of failed (and expensive) education reform, and the effect it was having on our children’s learning, we exempted them from this yearly debacle.
Most parents aren’t aware they have that option, but in the early days of the MEAP there was a bubble marked “Parent Exempt” on the answer booklet. After a couple of years that bubble disappeared, not because exempting your child was no longer an option, but because somebody didn’t want you to know that it was an option.
The MEAP was a meaningless annoyance until No Child Left Behind became law in 2001. NCLB was an attempt to apply the tenets of Total Quality Management to the realm of education. TQM is a production paradigm meant to create the most efficient manufacturing process for a particular product. It was TQM that led to the early success of the fledgling Japanese automobile industry under the guidance of W. Edwards Deming (and others) shortly after World War II. TQM involves the continuous testing of the product and tweaking of the manufacturing process in what is supposed to result in an endless cycle of constant improvement.
Somewhere along the way, some very wealthy and influential people concluded that the process of educating (other people’s) children is no different than the process of manufacturing a toaster, and thus the application of TQM principles to the education system would result in an improved product (or “human capital” in their terms). Those of us who actually have and/or work with children know educating a child and manufacturing a toaster are nothing alike.
Business has always had a hand in schooling in the United States, even from the earliest days. Their goal has been the same all that time - the production of the perfect employee. Here’s a quote from the Rockefeller General Board in 1906:
“In our dreams, people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions of intellectual and character education fade from their minds, and, unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people, or any of their children, into philosophers, or men of science. We have not to raise up from them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for great artists, painters, musicians nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen – of whom we have an ample supply. The task is simple. We will organize children and teach them in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.”
Unfortunately for corporate America, our schools have had a long history of local control. Democratically elected school boards responded to the voices of community members and parents, most of whom want more for their children than a spot on a minimum wage assembly line. Over time, this protective layer of local control has been gradually stripped away by wave after wave of business-sponsored legislation.
It had to be legislated, because businessmen knew the garbage they were peddling would never get past parents. They tried it before in the early ‘90s with Outcomes Based Education and had the door slammed in their faces. Not to be outdone, they re-tooled, changed the jargon (from “outcomes” to “grade-level content objectives”), and skirted parents by implementing it through legislation. After all, politicians are much easier to dupe and/or buy than parents.
Recently Michigan and 45 other states adopted the Common Core State Standards, enticed by the promise of federal monies. The Common Core Standards are a product of the National Business Roundtable and National Governors Association. No parent or teacher that I know of had any input into their creation. You and I were not asked our opinion. We were simply informed that the Common Core Standards are now the guiding force behind our children’s education.
The results of No Child Left Behind were dismal. Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress rose, but at a much slower rate than they did prior to NCLB. We paid a lot for this lack of progress, especially when you count the hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of dollars that have been funneled from schools to companies like Pearson Educational Measurement and McGraw-Hill, two of the many companies that write the tests, score the tests, provide the study guides, and shill the latest test-prep quackery. Now the Common Core Standards have arrived to provide yet another opportunity to profit from the testing treadmill our children suffer daily. The thought here seems to be that children are nothing more than empty file cabinets. Just fill the child with the perfect curriculum and “voila,” another well-rounded citizen of the United States drops off the assembly line. It is literally inhuman.
The Common Core Standards do nothing to address the major cause of poor student achievement – poverty. Jobs that provide a living wage certainly would help, but those were shipped overseas by the same corporate elite who have now taken over our schools.
Speaking of overseas, why are we trying to emulate the Chinese educational system with its standardized curriculum and national test? Do we admire their toxic products? Their violation of basic human rights? Their disregard for intellectual property rights? Their unfair monetary practices? More likely, some powerful people admire the massive pool of cheap, obedient labor their schools produce.
Have you noticed any conservative pundits or legislators coming out against Race to the Top? In a campaign season in which President Obama has been blamed for everything from global warming to the shopping cart ding you got in the parking lot at Sam’s Club, there has been a remarkable lack of reaction to the federal government’s intrusion into our classrooms. Isn’t this the kind of chum that should have led to a conservative feeding frenzy?
Instead, silence. That’s because these legislators and pundits know who really is behind Race to the Top. It’s the National Business Roundtable, Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, Eli Broad, Dick DeVos, Philip Anschutz, the Walton family - the same billionaires’ boys’ club that has been putting hundreds of millions of dollars into conservative campaign coffers. Don’t expect the Republican Party to ride to the rescue on this one.
It is up to us – parents and teachers. Well, some teachers - maybe. Most are too afraid of losing their jobs to do anything but attempt to comply with the avalanche of new regulations, professional development, and just plain busy work demanded to support the new standards. See, as part of the business-funded attack on public schools and teachers’ unions, the language in Michigan’s tenure law was changed. Previously, you couldn’t fire a teacher without “just cause.” Now a teacher may be discharged or demoted for any reason “that is not arbitrary or capricious." Nobody is quite sure what that actually means, and rather than be the first to find out, most teachers are simply hunkering down and hoping the stupid goes away on its own. So parents, we teachers will support you, but most of us are going to do it very quietly and from a very safe distance.
In any attempt to bring down Goliath, it is best to know your enemy. NCLB and Race to the Top survive on three seemingly unlimited resources:
Our ignorance - I’ve just given you a very brief glimpse into what has transpired in our classrooms during the past decade. For a more complete overview of the whole steaming mess, it would be hard to beat Diane Ravitch’s Death and Life of the Great American School System. Ravitch was an early proponent of No Child Left Behind, and the first to have the courage and integrity to admit that it had failed.
Money - We are beaten hands down here. The people behind the takeover of our schools are one percent of the one percent. They own virtually everything – the media, the politicians, and the banks. No amount of bake sales is going to allow us to come close to matching their resources.
Data - Here is the Achilles’ heel of the colossus. Viewed from a distance, it looks daunting, but on closer inspection, the whole thing is made of eggshells. It thrives on the data we feed it when we present our children to be tested year after year like some kind of annual pagan sacrifice. Starve the thing of data and watch it fall.
Let’s simply walk away from the test en masse. Not just in Michigan, but across the country. Exempt your child. Refuse the test. Both state and federal law acknowledge the right of parents to guide the education of their children. Reclaim that right and take back our schools. You won’t be alone in doing this. Organizations across the country – United Opt Out, Save Our Schools, the Bartleby Project, and Parents Across America, are successfully encouraging parents to join them in exempting their children from these tests, making their voices heard, and taking back public education.
Government does not mess with angry parents. They will threaten the schools, but our public schools are supposed to serve us, not the government. Let’s refuse the tests and then see which legislators step up to defend the rights of business over the natural and legal rights of parents. Knowing who they really support will make choosing a candidate much easier come the November elections.
I’ll be at school this week, administering a test I despise to other people’s children. I’ll do what I can to make it as painless as possible, but as a teacher I’m relatively powerless. As a parent however, I can at least protect my own children. I hope you will consider doing the same for yours.
Scott W. Baker
September 29, 2012