Politics, Greed, and the Welfare of Our Children

Last week, teachers and administrators were given jail terms for fixing test scores. I think this crime pales before the gross lack of human caring, feeling, and worse carried out by politicians, with the support of corporate executives and hedge fund managers, who distort and overemphasize the meaning of standardized test scores while forcing their use in public schools throughout the U. S.. They force teachers, who know the exams cause needless suffering to students, to give them anyway. And to whom have these politicians been giving the power to judge how much students have learned, how well teachers have taught, and even who can become a teacher (and sometimes how a subject can be taught)? Corporations like Pearson Education, which is now being investigated by the FBI for various possible crimes including insider dealings with the Los Angeles Unified School District and Apple.


Diane Ravitch describes in her book Reign of Error how various corporate interests, working with individual politicians, have been leading an effort for years to undermine public schools. They have been working to undermine teachers, teacher unions, and the very concept that a public institution working for the general good, instead of a for-profit corporation, could manage and direct an educational system. The strategy calls for publicizing deceptive information to create a sense of a crisis in education so corporations can step in and save the day. For example, the A Nation At Risk report, produced by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education was responsible for everything from a decline in academic achievement, college graduation rate, to the loss of manufacturing jobs. All later proved untrueAcademic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor was diminishing. In 2001, President Bush pushed the No Child Left Behind legislation. Since NCLB, the number of standardized tests given to our students was increased to the point where the US is now number one in the world in the number of tests we force on our children.


Should the politicians who have pushed this agenda be punished? There is no reliable evidence that standardized testing improves education. In fact, even years ago reliable evidence showed the opposite– students who graduate from schools that rely on such testing for assessment are less creative, less able to apply what they learn than students who go to schools who use more alternative assessments. These tests increase student suffering by teaching through fear. Students do not take these tests because of what they teach. They take them because they are threatened into doing so. The tests support inequity (see Fair Test) and narrow the range of what is taught. They serve no real diagnostic value, since they are in many cases “poorly designed” and the results are long delayed, often until after the school year has ended. By narrowing the range of what is taught they rob students of a well-rounded education. Yet, these tests are still pushed. Why?


What about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo? Cuomo has been pushing to increase how much scores on standardized tests will count in judging which teachers are given tenure. He wants test scores to count as one half of a teacher’s effectiveness score. To get this through the legislature, he proposed: “Pass that evaluation change, and school funding will go up 1.1 billion dollars…in the 2015-16 budget. Leave it out, and there will only be a $377 million increase…” Why do this? If Diane Ravitch is correct, he does it so he can turn schools over to entrepreneurs who can use them for financial gain. According to Hedge Clippers, Governor Cuomo’s campaign received “$4.8 million from hedge fund billionaires.”


The lack of empathy for how these policies affect students, teachers, parents and the communities that most of us live in, is appalling. Just imagine you’re a teacher. To teach well, where must your focus be? On your students, who they are, what they need educationally and as a total person. If you understand who the students are, you can shape educational methods to fit them. If you fear punishment, job or salary loss based on test scores, you will feel pressure to shift your concern to pleasing authorities and focusing on test scores. A student who does poorly on a test, or might do poorly on a test, becomes a threat. Only assessments that are authentic demonstrations of how much an individual’s skills and knowledge, in a particular course, grows in a school year unite the student, teacher and community’s interests together. High stakes tests must be de-emphasized in favor of assessments which come from the individual teacher and school, and must give immediate feedback so effective remediation, when needed, is possible.


Our public school children are being held hostage to the financial and political agendas of the few. Isn’t it about time to shift the focus back to the greater good of students and their communities?

Teaching Compassion With Our Choices: Are We Engaged in a Milgram Obedience Experiment Right Now in Our Schools?

I just realized two startling parallels, one between two psychology experiments, one between these experiments and so-called educational reform in the United States. The realizations started last week, when I introduced in my blog the possibility of discussing, in a secondary school classroom, the question: If humans are (or can be) compassionate, why is there so much human-caused suffering and hurt in the world?


Maybe you have heard of the “obedience experiment” carried out by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s, just after the beginning of the Eichmann trial. In that experiment, a volunteer was tasked to play a teacher to help educate a student learn word pairs. Each time the “student” replied with the wrong word, the “teacher” gave him negative feedback in the form of an electric shock. The voltage of the shock was increased with each wrong answer. The “teacher” sat in one room before an electronic control panel and could see through a window into another room where the “student” sat hooked up to wires. A white coated experimenter stood in the room with the “teacher” encouraging and instructing with comments like, ”Continue using the 450 volt switch for each wrong answer. Continue, please.” The experimenter repeated these instructions even as the “student” began to scream and later dropped over, silent. The “teacher” raised objections; but as the instructions continued, the “teacher” continued with the shocks. The student was an actor; the  shocks to the “student” were not real. However, the effect on the “teacher” was real.


It was initially reported by Milgram that 65% of the “teachers” actually continued to shock their students even to a lethal level. But according to researcher Gina Perry, that statistic was only true with one of the 24 versions of the experiment. There were over 700 people involved in the experiments, and the 65% represents only 26 people. There were some variations of the experiment where no one obeyed the authority.


The philosopher Jacob Needleman studied the visual recordings of the experiment and commented on the facial expression and speech of one of the “teachers.” When questioned just after the experiment was over the “teacher” said, “I don’t like that one bit. I mean, he [the “student”] wanted to get out and we just keep throwing 450 volts…” The teacher was dazed and under further questioning couldn’t let himself comprehend what he had done. He couldn’t comprehend his own feelings or allow himself to feel what the “student” might have felt.


A startling parallel to Milgram was a series of experiments by Daniel Batson who tested whether people would act compassionately to save others from suffering.  In one experiment, volunteer subjects, like Milgram’s teachers, watched people receive shocks when they incorrectly answered a memory task. The volunteer was then told the person they were watching had suffered trauma as a child. The subject was given the choice to leave the experiment or receive the shock intended for the supposed trauma victim. Many subjects who later reported they felt compassion for the other person volunteered to take on their pain.


What is the message of these experiments? The first is often considered a revelation of the potential for evil in all of us. It is argued that the evil arises from our propensity to obey authority despite clear evidence of the wrongness of the act. I question that interpretation to some degree. The psychologist Philip Zimbardo talks about the “fundamental attribution error” which is a failure to recognize just how much other people and the context influence our behavior. He says that we tend to overestimate the role played by people’s disposition or personality and underestimate the power of a situation. It is not just the authority figure that people follow but the whole situation. Our understanding of who we are and what is real and possible is formed in tandem with our understanding of our situation with others. If other people, in this case the experimenter, act as if the only important factor in the situation is whether the “student” answers correctly, not their physical well being, then it is less likely that the “teacher” would act compassionately. The second experiment demonstrates that even one biographical detail can allow us to identify with another person and act compassionately toward them.


I think we all need to consider that we are possibly participating in a form of these experiments right now. We teachers are being asked to give standardized tests to students. (In fact, such tests began last week.) The state and federal government and local school boards are saying to us that these tests serve valuable educational purposes. They supposedly improve education and make it more equitable by revealing poor schools and poor teachers. But these claims are highly questionable. As I documented in an earlier blog, no standardized test has ever helped create equity. There is no research to show that a student from a school who undergoes standardized testing will do better in college or in a job than one who never took a standardized test. Teachers can see in their classrooms the negative shocks administered by the tests. The tests and test preparation take time from valuable instruction and cause anxiety. They undermine the trusting relationship between teachers and students by turning the motivation to learn from a natural joy in learning to a fear of negative judgment.


So, what will any of us do? Will teachers and administrators obey the authority and administer the “shocks”? Or refuse? Parents can “opt out” and not allow their children to be tested. However, if teachers “opt out” they can face the possible loss of their jobs. What else can be done? What will you do?