Raising My Voice, Ringing the Warning Bell

Posted on September 4, 2015


For nearly two decades, I taught eleventh-grade American Literature, and we read the play, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. In the play, Henry David Thoreau has a nightmare where he’s shouting, but no sound comes out, and he’s pulling on a rope to ring a warning bell, but the bell doesn’t ring. He’s trying to get out a message about how inhumane and unethical slavery and the war on Mexico are; he wants them STOPPED, but his voice is silenced.

Lately, this scene has played over and over in my mind as I talk with people about education “reform.” Sometimes I am shunned, sometimes I am silenced, but mostly, I am ignored. Like Thoreau, I take to the woods, rivers, and garden to heal, to think, to write, and to feel most alive. Like Thoreau, I need my “Walden” to nourish me so that I can find the strength to get up and speak out for peace and social justice another day.

Another scene in the play that has echoed in my mind lately is a scene where Thoreau is a teacher and the school board president comes into his classroom and demands to know why no books are open. Thoreau and his students have been engaged in a class discussion about a question raised by a student. Thoreau explains it as Huckleberrying. Hunting for ideas like huckleberries in the woods. (I would explain it as student-centered inquiry, and an excellent engagement strategy. I know from years of experience that when students pursue their own questions in research, the quality of the research AND the writing improves dramatically over assigned topics.) But back to the play…After Thoreau explains that he wants to empower his students to be able to question–factual claims, traditions, and authority–he is told that he must administer corporal punishment to students and get back to the books. In the next scene, Thoreau resigns from his job, because he cannot knowingly harm children.

For those of us in public education, the latter scenario has become all too real and all-too familiar. As profit-driven corporate reform has taken hold over schools, through implementation of Common Core standards that are coupled with a ruthless test and punish regimen, public school teachers are put into positions daily where we are told to do things that are harmful to children. No, we’re not hitting children. It’s worse than that. And the worst part of it is the harm that is being done to our most vulnerable–children with disabilities.

Today I’d like to share a report about the effects of corporate reforms and Common Core standards on students who receive Special Education services from an “objective, local clinical community of scientists…at Early Life Child Psychology and Education Center [who] have had no previous interest or involvement in education public policy or in politics. [Their] involvement now stems from observations as professionals, is founded on ethics, and must increase as [they] see that as a consequence of changes in education policy, many children’s lives are being fractured.”

In their September 1, 2015 report, they describe themselves this way:

We are not a special interest group: within the walls of our Education Psychology Clinic are professionals from diverse cultural, political, ethnic and religious backgrounds, united under one cause: the ethical and safe practice of administering psychological assessment, therapy, and educational interventions to “divergent learning” children who reside in our respective communities in Southern California, and Salt Lake City, Utah. We are African Americans, Caucasians, Latinos, Asians, progressives, tea party activists, socialists, LGBT, traditionally married and single parents, agnostics and conservative Christians.     

The diversity of this group is impressive, especially since they describe their work as harmonious; their commitment to ethical treatment of children unites them. It is my hope that many others will join the effort to stand for ethical treatment of children. For me, that means abolishing standardized testing and standardized curricula. Students learn best in classrooms like Thoreau’s where student inquiry drives instruction.

Like Thoreau, I’m raising my voice, ringing my bell. I hope I don’t end up like him, forced out of the classroom for standing up for what’s best for children. I also hope that my words and the words of educators around the country will not be lost on the wind as the education reform machine rolls over us and the nation’s most vulnerable children. I am a teacher researcher, and I want to see decisions about education being made by those most qualified to do it, and those who hold to high ethical standards. The corporate reformers, who have created the Common Core standards and the standardized tests upon which children, teachers, and schools are judged and punished, are neither.  The Early Life Child Psychology and Education Center states:

Under the light and concept of ethics, using ethical application of peer-reviewed science toward the subject matter of testing and mental health, this paper examines the influence of each on education policies. It will be clear to objective readers that Secretary Duncan’s policies do not share the ethical professionals’ commitment to the standards set by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Code of Ethics. The US Department of Education’s interpretation of cited “studies” used to justify policy changes have been dangerously manipulated and are utilized to achieve political goals at the expense of millions of public school children.                

We strongly encourage politicians, policy makers, and state education leaders to examine education policies under the light and scope of ethics, as opposed to catering to the requests of corporate and political special interests. Failure to do so will result in harm to our nation’s vulnerable divergent learning children, including African American, Latino, autistic, dyslexic, gifted, mentally ill, poverty-stricken, and “learning disabled” children.

Their report examines the flawed and irrelevant research that USDOE cites as justification to force children with disabilities to take the same standardized tests as the general student population without accommodation and condemns the USDOE for launching a massive educational experiment on the nation’s children without parental consent. In the report’s conclusion, the authors condemn USDOE and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

It is the ultimate height of hypocrisy for an Education Department Secretary to insist on “evidence” based conformity to unilateral rule changes, and then make massive special education rule changes based on cited references which appear to have been pulled blindly out of the magician’s hat.                 

Under Secretary Arne Duncan’s tenure, public schools and special education teachers are not getting the support they need to meet IDEA requirements anywhere in the country, despite special education ballooning class sizes and despite massive layoffs of teachers and support staff all over the country.

Students with disabilities and their teachers have enough difficulty in their lives without being further harmed by the very institutions they depend on for help. I’m going to continue to speak up for what’s best for children everywhere I go, and if I can’t go, I’m still going to raise my voice, ring that warning bell.

Last night was the public comment session on the Chicago City budget (#ChiBudget2016), where parents are on a hunger strike to save their neighborhood school (#FightForDyett) and Special Education students and teachers begged Mayor Rahm Emanuel to restore the cuts they’ve made to teachers, services, and programs. I took to Twitter to amplify their voices, tweeting quotes to @RahmEmanel as they spoke.

I pray that my words do not fall on deaf ears or blind eyes. It is not easy, it is not comfortable for me to speak out, especially when I am so often silenced or ignored, but I, like Thoreau, am compelled to speak out because I am a teacher, and I care about what’s best for students. And, like Thoreau, my written words can go where I cannot. I invite you to read the full report from The Early Life Child Psychology and Education Center (attached below), and join me in speaking up for children by:

1. contacting USDOE  Secretary Arne Duncan (FB), @arneduncan (TW) and tell him that you want an end to corporate reforms and standardized testing. Tell him that you want educators to assess student progress with appropriate and humane assessments that are developed in the classroom by highly qualified teachers. Tell him that he’s violating the rights of Special Education students and that his testing policies harm children–and that he must stop now.

2) refusing standardized tests. All around the country, parents are taking a stand against the national standardized testing experiment that they did not give consent for their children to take part in. In New York, around 20% of parents refused the tests, and now Governor Cuomo is speaking out about the failure of the Common Core. He said, “We must have standards for New York’s students, but those standards will only work if people — especially parents — have faith in them and in their ability to educate our children…The current Common Core program does not do that. It must.” Information for test refusal for each state is available at United Opt Out.

Will my words make a difference in re-humanizing education or will they be lost in the wind? I don’t know, but like Thoreau, I have to say something. I hope that you, dear reader, will add your voice to the growing chorus of parents and educators who are standing up for what’s right for children in education. One person can’t do everything, but we can all do something. Please do.

PDF Download-Primum Non Nocere – First, Do No Harm: An Ethical & Psychology-Based Analysis of The U.S. Department of Education’s Change In Common Core Testing Policies for Divergent Learning Children In Public School