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John Thompson, teacher and historian, writes here about two examples of a disturbing trend. In the first one, a teacher writes about her abhorrence of data walls, which publicly shame children. The other is the current flap in Florida, where some districts are punishing children who do not take the state test, even though they are known to be good students whose work in class demonstrates their ability.
Have They No Shame?
Virginia 3rd grade teacher, Launa Hall, exposes a shocking example of how corporate reform has lost its soul. In doing so, she reminds us of the way that bubble-in accountability started the nation’s schools down this abusive road. Hall writes, “Our ostensible goal in third grade was similar to what you’d hear in elementary schools everywhere: to educate the whole child, introduce them to a love of learning … But the hidden agenda was always prepping kids for the state’s tests.” When educators’ jobs shift from the unlocking of children’s whole potential to increasing test scores, some or many educators will stand and fight against destructive pedagogies, but it is amazing how many otherwise caring human beings will agree to inflict so much pain on children.
In Florida, for instance, most schools aren’t punishing 3rd graders for “opting out” of tests. Two districts, however, are warning parents that their children will be retained if they opt out. The Manatee district is “cherry-picking” from the state law in order to hold back a third-grader who “has gotten nothing but rave reviews from teachers.” Another parent opted her son out of the testing because of his test anxiety; “she said her son reads on a fourth-grade level and performs at or above grade level in the classroom.” These school systems are obviously willing to hurt those kids in order to send a message to parents who have the temerity to push back against the testing mania.
A few years ago, I thought I witnessed the ultimate abusive practice designed to shame children into working harder to meet higher quantitative targets. It was bad enough that the New Orleans “No Excuses” charter school I was visiting prohibited talking in the cafeteria during lunch. Even worse, their data wall was prominent in the lunchroom for everyone to see. I had once seen an Oklahoma City data wall, identifying the scores of all students, but it was in a room, inside another room, and it was for faculty eyes only. Teachers and administrators in OKC had long been warned that a NOLA-style breach of confidentially could cost us our teaching licenses, but that had seemed redundant. What sort of human being would publically reveal individual students’ attendance and/or classroom performance data?
And that brings us back to Launa Hall’s story. She notes that posting students’ names in such a way without parental consent may violate privacy laws. But, “At the time, neither I nor my colleagues at the school knew that, and … we were hardly alone.” Hall adds that the U.S. Education Department encourages teachers to not display the numbers for individuals, who are identifiable by name, and that approach would have been more “consistent with the letter, if not the intent, of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. But it would be every bit as dispiriting. My third-graders would have figured out in 30 seconds who was who, coded or not.”
Hall’s focus is not on the legal games adults are playing but on the damage done by this shaming to individual children. She paints us a picture of the pain that was inflicted on “Child X” when she saw her real name followed by “lots of red dots” declaring that she was not meeting official state standards. Of course, Hall “tried to mitigate the shame she felt.” The teacher’s efforts at reconnection may have helped a little, but the student “still had all those red dots for everyone to see.”
Hall then tells us “exactly who is being shamed by data walls.” Janie (her pseudonym for Child X) “is part of an ethnic minority group. She received free breakfast and lunch every school day last year, and some days that’s all she ate. Her family had no fixed address for much of the year, and Janie, age 8, frequently found herself the responsible caretaker of younger siblings.”
The Post story prompted around 400 comments and more discussion on social media. Almost all were opposed to the public posting of children’s data, often decrying the walls as insane and reprehensible. One commented, “Hard to imagine this actually occurring. Why not just put the dots on their foreheads?” Some commenters tried to blame the individual teachers who posted data walls, but others explained how that is often required by under-the-gun school systems.
Even so, the few supporters of such data walls, as well as the venom of some commentators casting blame on individuals, illustrate the tragedy unleashed by corporate reformers appealing to our basest instincts. A few recalled the good old days and complained “today’s little flowers can’t take competition or even comparisons of any kind,” or said that similar things happened 50 years ago, but “if some little snot bragged about getting the highest grade, he/she would get beat up after school.” One personified the market-driven mentality which gave us such brutality, saying that 3rd graders should be separated “into two tracks: one would be the “everyone gets a trophy track,” while “the other track would be the ‘competitive track,’ which would feature these dreaded ‘data walls,’” so we could see who became more successful in life.
Hall is magnanimous in wrapping up this sorry tale of cruel competition and compliance, “when policymakers mandate tests and buy endlessly looping practice exams to go with them, their image of education is from 30,000 feet. They see populations and sweeping strategies. From up there, it seems reasonable …” But, how could they disagree with her admonition? “Teaching the young wasn’t supposed to feel like this.”
I would only add that the ultimate tragedy would be the creation of a new generation of educators and patrons where this sort of shaming feels like teaching.