Book Review: More than a Score

“Non-negotiable.”

From Texas legislators adding new standardized tests to David Coleman defending his Common Core State Standards, that’s how education “reformers” present their changes. After all, they know better than we do. The problem with American education, they argue, is that too many constituencies have been involved in decision-making, from parents to teachers to school administrators and even to students themselves. It’s time for the elite to step in–for our own good.

And they have. We see it in state takeovers of school districts in Michigan, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania (just to name three) and in the dictates of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core (just to name another trio).

Rigid in their beliefs and adamant that they know best, the “reformers” also have faith in measurements and “standards.” There are right answers and wrong, just as on bubble tests, and the “reformers” know which are which. The rest of us should simply accept their superiority and do what we are told.

But many of us don’t think so.

What the “reformers” are promoting is not education, and the American people are waking up to that. “Reformer” goals for schools are consistency, replicability (or portability), and (though this is kept in the background) profitability. Theirs is a factory model that assumes that the raw material (the student) is the same everywhere, even allowing them to claim (outrageously) a fourth goal, equality. They assume that inequality is a function of differences in teaching, a perversion of a belief of John Dewey, who wrote in “My Pedagogic Creed” that “education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.” Unlike Dewey’s, however, theirs is a belief in forced change from the top, a vision of schooling as something done to someone for their own good, not as something done by someone for themselves. And they see it as something “non-negotiable.”

They should know better.

Texas school superintendent John Kuhn recalls the moment he rebelled against the imposition of an increasing standardized-testing regime. A state senator, addressing a group of school administrators, “said that the new test was simply ‘non-negotiable.’… One word. The word that turned me into an activist.” (237)

Kuhn recounts the meeting in More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing edited by Jesse Hagopian (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).

Like Kuhn, Americans react poorly when dictated to. The “reformers,” with the arrogance that comes from wealth and power, have forgotten this.

Over the past two years, in the face of “non-negotiable” high-stakes testing, a movement led by people like Kuhn has grown up in reaction to “reformers,” a real grassroots movement saying, ‘Just a moment. You don’t get to dictate terms.’ Today, this movement is proving that it can be just as intractable in opposition to high-stakes testing as its proponents are in imposing the same tests.

More so, maybe.

This movement is made up of the real stakeholders in American education, Teachers, StudentsParents, and Administrators/Advocates (reflected as the four sections of More Than a Score), groups who can put teeth into their demands, if they are well enough organized, teeth with a stronger bite than those of power and money, for education, no matter its form, cannot happen without them.

In More Than a Score, Hagopian, one of the organizing teacher of the Garfield High School testing boycott of 2013, has created an anthology that details the growth of this movement. He has done it through the words of its participants in more than 25 essays and interviews presenting the growth of resistance to high-stakes testing in its local incarnations and growing networking. It comes at a particularly appropriate time, for the movement, after initial successes and publicity, now needs to consolidate and focus its activities, making sure that its surge does not prove to be temporary and quixotic.

Almost all of the heroes of test resistance are present in the book, from Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis to Hagopian himself to some of the Providence, RI students who organized a zombie march against unnecessary testing–and the foreword is by none other than Diane Ravitch, who has emerged as the grande dame of the anti-high-stakes testing movement.

The book is organized so that readers can see how a real grassroots movement begins. Response to a local situation leads to local organizing. The organizers, seeing that their situation is not unique, begin to reach out to others, offering help and learning, developing a network of groups, some local, some becoming regional and national. Yet More Than a Score does not try to present itself as a ‘how-to’ book. There is, after all, no formula that can work everywhere–other than the reaching out and connecting that is so integral to the anti-testing “uprising” and to any grassroots movement.

The book is an invitation to the “uprising” but it also asks it to take the next step, to consolidate its activities in ways that make them clearly sustainable. The “reformer” opposition is powerful and well-funded, and can marshal arguments that, at first glance, seem rational and inarguable. “Who can be against standards?” “We need evaluation of our students, so why not make it comprehensive?” That these questions beg so many others (“Who gets to decide what the standards are?” “Who will use these evaluations, and to what ends?”) gets left out–unless the “uprising” can match the high profiles of the “reformers” and find ways to get its own concerns before a national audience.

Much of American news media have accepted the arguments of the “reformers” as established truths and see the “uprising” as a discontented fringe made up of a patchwork of home-schoolers, tea-partiers, and leftists longing for bygone activism. More Than a Score attempts to remedy this by presenting voices from American education, showing that they are not those of people driven by ideology or some sort of “outside” agenda but are simply those of people who care enough about “real” education to yell “enough” when they see it mechanized and standardized into such things as undefinable “career readiness.”

Very much a movement book, More Than a Score underscores that, as Barbara Madeloni puts it in her essay, “courage is not an individual attribute” (58) but is a function of community. By structure, purpose, and philosophy, this is a book meant for the community of high-stakes-testing resistors, for a movement that it expects to see grow and succeed, returning American education to the expansive vision of education that Dewey expressed when he wrote that “it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.”

High-stakes standardized testing can only look backwards to what is already known; it cannot prepare students for what may be known in the future. Education, by definition, needs to look forward to lives not yet lived, to possibilities not yet realized. The “reformers,” more interested in training, don’t care. Testing suits their needs.

The teachers, parents, students and others represented by this book do care. They believe their movement to restore education as the real goal of our schools, though young yet, will succeed.

That, for the activists, is non-negotiable.

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