Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Standardized testing's 'shame machine'

    The amazing thing is that John Kuhn is what he is — a public school superintendent. Doubly amazing: His school board apparently has his back.

    Otherwise, what Kuhn is doing would be like dousing his career in kerosene and flicking his Bic.

    Kuhn, superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District in North Texas, is assuming the status of Patrick Henry on the abomination known as "school accountability."

   He's become a firebrand on behalf of an increasing number of Texas school districts —  more than 100 — that have signed on to a resolution saying standardized testing is "strangling" their schools.

    "The government has allowed state testing to become a perversion, growing like Johnson grass through the garden of learning and choking to death all knowledge that isn't on the test," writes Kuhn.

   This fixation, he said last month at a "Save Our Schools" rally in Austin, "is killing ancient wisdom like debate, logic and ethics — deep human learning that once provided this state a renewable crop of leaders who knew courage instead of expedience, truth instead of spin, and personal risk for the public good instead of personal enrichment and re-election at all cost."

    I never saw a causal link between "school accountability" and the venal state of today's politics. However, now upon reflection, having observed roughly a quarter century of both from Texas, the bosom of the "accountability" cult:

    Guilty as charged.

    As Kuhn noted, Texas, which last year cut $5 billion from public schools, is spending $500 million on a new generation of tests to further strangle them.

    Kuhn isn't the only one using "perversion" to describe the testing overemphasis bleeding public education of its vitality. So did Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott recently:

    He called testing a "perversion of its original intent," one that had led states to increasingly control every wink and nod of every educator in every state.

    "What we've done over the past decade," said Scott, "is we've doubled down on the test every couple of years and used it for more and more things to make it the be-all, end-all" of K-12 education. "You've reached a point now where you've got this one thing that the entire system is dependent upon. It is the heart of the vampire, so to speak."

    I have to say, what Scott and Kuhn have said takes guts. Then again, if one pays any attention at all to public education as now practiced, one could not possibly come to any other conclusion.

    One problem is that unlike educational leaders who speak Kuhn's poetry, too often districts want robots who speak in numbers, rubrics, algorithms. They seek data-driven humanoids bearing the latest scripted methods for teaching, often costing an arm and an elementary school. They guarantee higher test scores. Often, they deliver. 

    What they don't deliver, and aren't even sure they can identify, is real education.

    Said Kuhn, the testing system "has sought to make our children quantifiable shells of people, their guiding light of curiosity snuffed out by an idiot's opinion of what constitutes a human education."

      Worst of all, designed and reinforced by elected types who don't really buy into the whole concept of public schools — dreaded means of lifting the rabble they serve — "accountability" isn't meant to help these schools thrive but to punish and shame them, all the better to advance the agenda of vouchers and for-profit charters.

    Kuhn calls this the "engine of shame."

   "No matter what, the only crime of the public school teacher in 2012 is his or her willingness to embrace and teach broken children. If that's a crime, then find us guilty. If caring for the least of them makes us unacceptable, then bring on your label gun. We're not afraid."

     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com


Anonymous said...


Thanks for the kind words in this article. (Although the kerosene thing has me kind of nervous.) I appreciate your support and your encouragement as many of us try to do what's right for kids and for the future of education in Texas.

I just want to note one thing: all I have done is give a speech or two. The folks most worthy of recognition in Texas are brave and hard-working superintendents like Jeff Turner, guys and gals who got together several years ago and formed the Visioning Institute. They released a comprehensive vision for Texas schools that is inspirational and aspirational. Instead of standing at a podium and condemning what's wrong, they put in countless painstaking hours around work tables and came up with what's right. They labored for years developing an amazing shared vision (nicely summarized at http://www.pisd.edu/documents/VisioningInstitute.pdf), as well as communicating that vision to legislators, fellow school districts, and their communities, authoring the testing resolution that has spread like wildfire around Texas, and developing and ultimately passing a bill that creates a pilot program for a new and better way of holding schools accountable in Texas.

Speeches are nice, but the men and women of the Visioning Institute are the ones getting things done in the Lone Star State. Kudos to them.

John Kuhn

Anonymous said...

How I wish this gentleman would come work in Massachusetts. We need leaders like John Kuhn to educate the masses and motivate the teaching force. As I grow weary of fighting a losing battle, I gain some hope from this superintendent's actions. Perhaps our leaders will eventually do what is right for our students, our families and our school communities.

Anonymous said...

As an educator for 30 years, I pray the tide is shifting. Kudos to all of us who are speaking out to parents, legislators, and the rest of our communities to stop this madness!!

John Young said...

Words are our only weapons at the moment, but that applied as well for those seeking freedom in the Soviet Union, in Egypt, in Libya, and in Yemen — not to mention those who think Sandra Fluke makes valid points and that advertisers should not support an ass like Rush Limbaugh.

So, let us use our words.