School reform

Virginia third-grade teacher Launa Hall exposed a shocking example of how corporate school reform has lost its soul, and a surprising innovation known as “data walls” has produced the latest scandal. She reminds us how “bubble-in” accountability started the nation’s schools down an abusive road when she writes in the Washington Post:

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.

Hall reluctantly complied with the seemingly illegal mandate prompted by the bubble-in mania. She even went so far as to create a data wall that put each student’s status regarding testable state standards on display for other students to see.

Hall’s mistake focused on the shaming of kids. Her article paints a picture of the pains inflicted on her student, Janie, when she walked into class and saw her name on the chart, followed by “lots of red dots” — warnings that she wasn’t meeting official state standards. Of course, Hall “tried to mitigate the shame she felt.” The teacher’s efforts to reconnect with the student may have helped a little, but Janie “still had all those red dots for everyone to see.”

Hall tells us “exactly who is being shamed by data walls.” Janie 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 eight, frequently found herself the responsible caretaker of younger siblings.

WaPo readers oppose Hall’s methods

The Washington Post story prompted about 400 comments, and more discussion followed 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 school systems.

Even so, the few supporters of such data walls, as well as the venom of some commentators blaming individuals, illustrate the tragedy of corporate reform. 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.”

I agreed with some of the more perplexing comments. A commenter correctly said, “And do you see those neat rows of green dots on the chart? If you haven’t already guessed, they belong to children whose families have the resources for new shoes and fresh fruit and a little left over.”

After describing the humiliation he or she felt at the hands of an abusive teacher, the commenter agreed that data walls are cruel, posting, “Third grade is probably too young to teach a child the sad reality of needing to learn to survive without their parents’ help. But it’s a lesson the disenfranchised kids will learn eventually.” So, maybe they are justified?

That commenter and I agree with the statement that today’s data walls are “a parenting failure,” but, as always, the problem is more complex than that.

Generational differences part of the problem

When I attended elementary school in the 1950s, parents were first-generation working class or lower-middle class, with most of their families having recently left small farms or sharecropping. They had survived the Great Depression and World War II and were dedicated to giving their children opportunities that had not been open to them.

But had my classmates been humiliated through data walls, fathers would have torn those charts down, found the male educator who authorized the information release, and beat the dickens out of him. Back then, it would have been unlikely that a police officer would take action against a parent for defending his family in such a way.

During the era known as “Pax Americana”, baby boomers were taught to become “inner-directed” instead of “outer-directed” people. Our job was to “learn how to learn.” Even in conservative Oklahoma City, I was told that my job was to learn “creative insubordination.” We celebrated American GIs that didn’t just follow orders but who took charge when their officers were killed in combat. Americans were innovators. My generation’s parents would not have used the term “external locus of control” to describe the data walls. They’d have rejected them for trying to turn students into compliant people who were “like the Red River, a mile wide and a foot deep.”

Reduced opportunities another part

The big differences, I bet, are not between parents then and now. Baby boomers were raised during the greatest economic boom in history. We knew that tomorrow would be better than today. We visualized an America where all were treated with dignity and equality. Even with the obvious exceptions in terms of race, gender and other classes that were (and are) discriminated against, families had unprecedented opportunities to fulfill their dreams.

Now, parents know that too many opportunities for their children have been lost. Just as the decline in wages and in the dashed hopes of many for a better life unleashed Trumpism, it’s also spawned the idea that the best way to compete in the global marketplace is to dump extreme competition on our youngest children. Especially in poor schools, the reform ethic is to socialize disadvantaged children into a second-class education that gives them the chance to be the gladiators who must fight to survive in today’s marketplace.

If we want our kids to regain the opportunities that baby boomers took for granted, we adults must learn to control our fears, say no to this shameful competition, and demand schools that allow children to be children.