Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Crime and Punishment: The Case of Standardized Testing

Aside from the Five Paragraph Essay (which you all now know I hate), I am also opposed to standardized testing. There are many intellectual reasons why I am against this form of assessment (see here for an example), especially for writing, but there are also broader, more critical reasons why I believe they should not be given.

Standardized testing is essentially a ranking system, an educational class system. It put students "in their places." We are made to believe that the smart kids do well on the tests, go to the best colleges, and get the best jobs because they are "the best and the brightest." Those who aren't naturally the best and the brightest can become so by working hard and studying diligently. It has already been shown, however, that students of color, the working class, and women have traditionally done poorer on these exams, and it is not because they are any less intelligent, but because they cater to a white-male-middle/upper class dominant culture. Furthermore, these tests are rarely indicators of true student ability. If Johnny Billionaire can afford to send his kid to prep school, a private tutor, and Princeton Review classes, while Millie Makesnotsomuch can only send her child to a school with a poor track record for academic excellence, then who will more likely be going to college? While there are the few cases where the underdog comes out on top (and Hollywood must make a movie out of it), the general reality is that those who come from better socioeconomic standings, are white, and are not first-generation Americans are more likely to end up on top.

Who's the Real Criminal?

Aside from reinforcing the crooked power structure that dominates American culture, I believe that standardized testing encourages poor ethics for students (I would also argue teachers, administrators, and those on the testing boards are affected, but that is for another post). Most recently, seven students from Great Neck, Long Island, NY were arrested for their participation in a cheating scandal. The students would pay between $1500-2500 for Sam Eshaghoff, a college sophomore and alumni of Great Neck High School, to take the SATs for them. By producing fake IDs, he would successfully impersonate his classmates and take the exam. He was caught when he started scoring high marks for students with low grades.

It is Sir Thomas Moore who writes in Utopia:
“if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them. ” 

And let's be honest here. Our society is driven by capitalist notions of dog-eat-dog competition. We are told from little kids, "you must do well on the SAT." It is burned into our brains that we have to go to a good school if we want to get a good job, and you can't get into a good school if you don't get good SAT scores. Sure, we are encouraged to participate in extra-curricular activities, but I've sat in with the decision makers. If you don't get the score that they are looking for, it's doubtful that they will even begin to review the list of extras that make you a strong candidate. Is it any doubt then that students with the funds to pay their way to the top, would do it? Or that students who had the ability to succeed would cash in on it? Isn't that what America is all about? Finding a free market and seizing the opportunity to build capital?

Even more disturbing is that the problem that the parents, the school, and the SAT board have with this practice doesn't even seem to be about the fact that Eshaghoff was taking the test for other students. The problem seems to be that he took the test for other students who wouldn't have otherwise scored highly. He would have enabled these students passage into a land that should have been forbidden to them. He would not have been caught if he had taken the tests for students who had high marks already.

For going against the big guys, this kid is looking at up to four years in prison,  four years that he would have been in college and just starting his career. At 19 years old, his chance at success if going to be stripped away because he cheated on an exam or rather he helped others cheat. To top it all off, the media is calling this scandal a "cheating ring," as if these kids were drug cartels or members of the mafia to be busted by the Feds.

ETS and the College Board make millions every year by selling kids a chance at seeing their dreams fulfilled. Even worse, there are students who pay out those hundreds of dollars knowing that they will fail and be barred access to a successful future, though they honestly tried and have skills to offer. Who's the real criminal?

Addicted to Success

Cramming is also a result of the standardized testing culture. You try to learn as much as possible in a short period of time so that you can ace the exam. Of course, most of that stuff will be forgotten once the exam is over. I can tell you that of the hundreds of words I memorized to take the GRE, I barely remember 10% of them now. You have to get the good grades, so that you get the good internships and the good jobs. There is so much pressure to do well that students will do almost anything to be able to get the grade, including taking prescription drugs illegally.

Adderall is a hugely popular drug on college campuses across the nation, especially high-ranking ones. The drug, which is typically prescribed for those with ADD, is said to increase students' abilities to focus, especially for long hours. One student in the following video calls it "steroids for your brain." Nicknames for the drug include the "smart drug" or "study buddies."

In this piece a student explains that he didn't know what Adderall was until he got to college. When he asked what it was, he says that the first response he got was that "it helps you get good grades." It's an idea that is echoed throughout the two pieces, the idea that a drug can help you make the cut, to make you a competitor in the education, and later job, market.

For a more in-depth conversation, I would recommend you watch this video:

Failure is a bigger fear than death for many Americans, a fear that the standardized testing market capitalizes on. The pressure to never fail is intense and irrational, especially when "failure" is defined in capitalist terms. It is no wonder, then, that our nation has the biggest drug abuse problem in the world. These kids have decided that ranking high is worth a possible drug addiction, possible depression or suicidal thoughts or a whole slew of other scary side effects. We blame these students for taking drugs, and yes, they are at fault for their own choices, but look at the culture that surrounds them. It says, "you must succeed," with a slight whisper of "no matter what the cost."

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that standardized testing and higher education is about the bottom line. Do the numbers add up? Ranking helps colleges market themselves, helps high schools declare themselves "good school systems," and helps keep those pesky unwanted minorities out of the rich white man's world.

To meet their bottom line, however, we pay a large cost. We sacrifice ethics of all kinds: moral ethics, business ethics, work ethics, academic ethics. They all go out the window when kids learn to keep their "eyes on the prize." When students figure out that school is all a numbers game, learning goes out the window. It becomes about collecting capital, seeing numbers go up, making "investments" in their future, and sadly, intellectual and moral growth don't always add up.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Dangers of Thinking in Five Paragraphs

If your writing strategy is absurdly demonstrated as a
cheeseburger, then it's probably absurd.
The other night, I sat on Twitter talking to colleagues about the Five Paragraph Essay (which, yes, I do hate). The argument was about purpose and whether it was useful. I argued that the Five Paragraph Essay is like playing Hot Cross Buns; sure, you're making music, but it's only three notes, neither deep nor complex. The argument I got back was something along the lines of  "15-year-olds don't have much to say anyway." According to this colleague, their thoughts are simply not deep or complex (I am happy to say that my Twitter colleague eventually rethought this statement).

I think this idea is at the core of some of our very real problems in education. We believe our students, simply because they are novices, have nothing to say. As a result, we fail to challenge them. Even worse, we fail to listen to them.

Expediently Killing a Generation: An Intellectual Holocaust

The goal of the Five Paragraph Essay is to expediently teach students how to write essays and expediently score high marks on standardized tests. The little Marxist in me wants to scream at the word "expedient." If we read the work of Stephen B. Katz, "The Ethic of Expediency: Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust" (in College English), my reasons become immediately obvious.In this particular piece, Katz rhetorically analyses a memo from Nazi leaders that addresses how to more efficiently transport and execute the "undesirables" (Jews and other prisoners). How does this have anything to do with the Five Paragraph Essay you ask? Let's continue.

Katz writes:
let's do a brief rhetorical analysis of this memo from the standpoint of technical communication, argumentation, and style. By any formal criteria in technical communication, it is an almost perfect document. It begins with what, in recent composition theories and technical writing practices, is known as the problem or "purpose statement." 
This Nazi memo sounds like the perfect academic paper. A clear thesis, a solid argument-- every teacher's dream. Katz continues on:
Indeed, in this memo one can find many of the topoi first defined by Aristotle in the Rhetoric II xxiii. 1397a6-xxiv. 1402a29) that are used to investigate any situation or problem and provide the material for enthymemic arguments. For example, in the first section the writer uses the common topic of relationship: cause/effect arguments, in conjunction with the topic of comparison (difference) and the topic of circumstance (the impossible), are used to investigate the problem of maximizing the use of space, to refute the manufacturer's claims that the problem is one of overloading, and to conclude in an enthymeme that a reduction in the load space is necessary. Just further supports his conclusion by cause/effect arguments embedded in the topic of contraries....Finally, Just argues by cause/ effect and contraries to refute the manufacturer's claim that reducing the load space would overload the front axle by arguing from precedent (example)... Thus, in a series of enthymemes that make use of the topoi, Just investigates and proves his case for a reduction in load space.
Great! Just the Nazi has figured out how to persuade his audience, using the tools of our favorite Ancient Western Philosopher, Aristotle!

Katz also writes:
Based on the ethic of expediency, rhetoric for Hitler was pure technique, designed not to encourage debate, but rather to indoctrinate: "all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan"; the reason, Hitler adds, is that "As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided the effect will piddle away, for the crowd can neither digest nor retain, the material offered. In this way the result is weakened and the end entirely cancelled out" (47). Even in these abbreviated quotations we see not only a greater (political'?) distrust of the masses than we find in Aristotle (Rhetoric I. ii 1357a5), but also it greater "technical" preoccupation with the end to be achieved, both of which tend to work against free discussion, true deliberation.
And isn't that the purpose of those darn Five Paragraphs Essays--"pure technique"? We don't ask our students, at least not at the beginning levels, to construct essays that ask them to think deeply. We just want them to learn the technique, learn the form, see how to provide three examples to back up any argument regardless of how ridiculous or unethical it may be. They are supposed to come up with a claim that they can already prove rather than learning about it as they research and write. An evaluator is able to expediently grade these essays, checking off the boxes that make it "good" writing. Even if they deeply disagree with the message being presented, there is no place for debate; it either meets the criteria of the form, or it does not. 

It is thus easy to understand why Katz argues:
In the gruesome light of the holocaust, then, we should question whether expediency should be the primary ethical standard in deliberative discourse, including scientific and technical communication, and whether, based on Cicero's advocacy of a rhetoric grounded in a knowledge of everything and Quintilian's definition of the orator as "a good 'man' skilled in speaking," we can and should teach the whole panoply of ethics in deliberative discourse in our rhetoric and writing courses. 
Hannah Arendt, who also writes about the ways in which the Nazis used rhetoric to accomplish their ends, says,
“To think with an enlarged mentality means that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.” 
Yet, in assigning a Five Paragraph Essay, we barely give the student's imagination a place to search within the self, let alone go visiting other perspectives and ways of thought. Furthermore, it certainly doesn't encourage empathy or creative thinking. I would argue that it barely encourages that money term in education, critical thinking, if it does at all. We kill their quest for deeper knowledge before it even begins.

Keep in mind that these are some of the most emotionally intense and unsettling years of their lives. Being a teenager is not easy, though we nostalgically like to remember it as being so.

So basically, we create a bunch of drones running around who can now effectively "prove" anything in five paragraphs by giving three examples (because it's easier to deal with). Super! Because they are novices, we do not make them more deeply examine their ideas. We do not encourage their curiosities or ask them to use their expertise. We don't push them to make new conclusions, but simply say "restate your introduction." We don't tell them to include examples that contradict your own without trying to undo them for the sake of being correct. We tell them, "show how there are loopholes in the other's argument." Easy, expedient essays-- that is the goal. 

Pick your target. Aim. Fire. Pleasure in writing and desire to think: dead.

Dying to Be Heard (in more than Five Paragraphs)

Intellectual curiosity isn't the only thing suffering. Students are physically suffering because of this arrogant belief that students have nothing important to say. 

A year ago, Tyler Clementi took his life because no one would take his feelings seriously. He was blogging and writing online, as was Phoebe Prince, a 16 year old girl who committed suicide due to bullying. She was also writing essays for class that were about topics such as cutting and suicide. No one consider them to be anything but the twisted fascination of a teenager. Sadly, despite the media uproar and the memorials across campuses nationwide, other young adults continued to take their lives. 

Most recently in the media, Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14 year old from Amherst, NY, took his own life after years of bullying finally took their toll. Jamey had been reaching out all along. He wrote on his Facebook page:
"I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens.... What do I have to do so people will listen to me?
It is clear that Jamey was trying to reach out, to find support, to find someone (other than his parents) who would listen and take him seriously, especially online. In her article for ABC News, Susan Donaldson James writes, 
"Jamey's school counselors had advised him not to go on social media sites to talk about his sexuality, according to the Buffalo News."
In other words, though they meant to shelter him from harm, they basically told him to shut up. They invalidated his claims, made it sound like no one wanted to listen to him whine about his sexuality and the bullying that was being inflicted upon him. It was Jamey's fault for talking and exposing his differences, not those bullies for being ignorant and heartless.

In addition to blogging and using Facebook, Jamey participated in the It Gets Better campaign by making a YouTube video. On one hand, I openly support the campaign. I believe that things do get better. As a victim of childhood bullying myself, I know that, while it took time, I grew into my own skin and became someone of whom I am proud; I could ignore their words.

On the other hand, this seems to reflect part of that "kids don't know what they're talking about" mentality, the same one that says that they only need to write from a formula because that's all they are capable of doing. Maybe it does get better, but at the moment that pain is fresh and real, and having someone tell you to put it off makes you feel just as isolated and alone. Instead, we should be asking these kids to analyze the things that are happening to them, just as we should be asking them to analyze the things they are writing about.

We don't ask them to do that, however. We think reflection and analysis are tasks that are too complicated for mere teenagers. So what do they do? They rebel. They shout. They lash out against us. They lash out against each other. They do anything to get a significant reaction, to feel like what they are saying is important. Or they shut up and write/think what we want, and learn to resent it. Which sounds like a good option to you?

Taking Lives, Saving Lives

My point is this: if we continue to do things for sake expediency, we will see learning fail, and, furthermore, we will see our culture fail. The five paragraph essay, among other "educational" practices, strips students of their voices and their ideas; it marginalizes them. Expedient educations will create more students who feel dejected and unattached, who think school is a burden that is disconnected from real life, who don't know how to interact positively with one another, who feel unable to be themselves. The message is: fit this mold and be rewarded, or fight the current and be held down.

We lose much by applying methods simply because they are easier to evaluate or easier to teach, without giving regard to the quality of that learning process. Instead of teaching students tricks to write, we should be giving them tools to think. Instead of telling them how to prove a point, we should be teaching them to examine their claims and the claims of others. Instead of avoiding technology because it's hard to learn, we should be modeling better uses of it.

Finally, we should stop ignoring our students simply because they are young. We don't know everything either, and we cannot live outside our own realities. We have to stop trivializing their feelings simply because they are not as experienced, and when they are experienced, we must not tell them that they are novices.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Importance of Telling Tales

September 11 -- Never Forget

Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001. "Where were you when you found out?" was a question asked over and over. As a resident of central New Jersey and daughter of a downtown NYC business owner, the events of September 11 were very real and scary for me. I remember exactly where I was when I found out what had happened. It was the end of first period, US History, my sophomore year of high school, less than a week before my 15th birthday. A neighboring teacher told our teacher to turn on CNN. We saw the damage of the first plane crash, and we watched the second plane crash live. It didn't seem real. The gravity of it sunk in as the day went on.

This was the scene I watched when I first learned
about the World Trade Center being hit during class.
Nothing of substance happened in school that day. In every class, we watched the broadcast. A friend and I hugged each other and cried. My cousin found me in the hallway, and we called his house from the guidance office to see if our aunt and my dad made it out of the city. And as this was all happening, my mom was in the hospital with my aunt who had gone in to labor that morning and had my cousin. The doctors and nurses were so glued to the t.v. that as my aunt was seizing in her bed, no one took notice. Luckily, my mom, an RN, was there to call them away from the horrifying scene.

In the end, I was very fortune that I lost no one that day, though I heard many horrific stories from family members who worked downtown: one had body parts fall on his car, which he later abandoned when the buildings started to collapse and ran the rest of the way to Brooklyn; an aunt who worked in the financial center was evacuated (though her car parked under the WTC wasn't as lucky); my dad who came home on the ferry covered in soot and ash; my grandfather, an FDNY retiree, lost many men he once fought fires with. I sat next to kids in class whose parents, aunts, uncles, never made it home.

But my story is nearly second hand. I didn't see the wreckage with my own eyes for a month after it had happened. I didn't lose anyone I knew. Others did, and their stories are far more important.

Dr. Benjamin Luff from SUNY Stonybrook Medical Center was one of the doctors who saw first repsonders after the attacks. Dr. Luff explains that "doctors often reduce patients to their symptoms." The patients become their disease, but as he met with first responder after first responder and heard their stories, he realized that these people had something to share, something that, as a nation, we needed to hear. Their stories are terrible and incredible. Most importantly, though, these oral histories remind us that there were people involved. September 11 has become all about numbers: 911, 343 firefighters dead, 2,819 murdered in the attacks. It reduces the tragedy to a list. The stories of the first responders make real for us the sacrifices that these women and men made that day and the traumas they have had to deal with as a result. They also show us that in the face of intense evil, there is intense good. They remind us that there were real people there that day. They make sure that we will never forget.

Another war, another story

The original diary of Anne Frank
As I was watching the memorials and television specials, I was also reading The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank's diary. Her voice captures adolescence as it takes places in a cloistered annex of an office building during World War II. She talks about the everyday, the typically adolescent, the domestic. She talks about her life as a maturing writer. She also talks about the horrors of being a Jew in occupied territory and the awful feeling of anxiety produced by hiding. Her diary teaches so much more about WWII than one learns in a history book. Again, she makes it real. The power of the narrative is that it creates empathy. She isn't just a statistic, another body in a concentration camp or a mass grave. Her story makes history alive for her readers. It is an especially important one for those of us who are living again in an era of war.

She also reminds us of the importance of stories as an outlet to deal with trauma. She needs to write, to tell her stories, to stay sane. It is her way of being remembered in a world that has forgotten her.

Why we need narratives

What I am getting at is the importance of narratives and how upset it makes me that our society, especially our academic society, places their value at the bottom of the totem pole. Some of the best and most important works of literature are, in fact, nonfiction narratives, yet we discourage our students from producing anything of the sort, unless it's a low stakes assignment or "creative writing" (though, my problems with that division will have to be discussed at a later time). We tell them, "don't use I. Don't tell stories. You can write from experience, but don't talk about that experience. Make sure you cite the authorities." Why can't they be authorities?

Finally (I apologize for the lengthy post), this leads me to think about the potential dangers of narratives, most especially "master narratives." Our master narratives erase the narratives of the marginalized. By throwing out the little guys, we lose so much, and we reinstate the power of those already in power. With master narratives, we enable people like Hitler to take charge because as everyone knew, the Jews were to blame for economic crisis. We allow innocent Muslims to be harassed in the name of the War on Terror because we thought every Muslim was out to kill off all non-Muslims. We think everyone who comes to America gets a fair chance at success. These are the narratives that pervade because time and time again, we wipe out the voices, the narratives, that speak to other perspectives.

I say, let out students tell stories, and listen to them. We need them if we want to change our world for the better.