Home Education Magazine
January-February 2005 - Articles and Columns
Perspectives - Peggy Daly Masternak
Interview with Susan Ohanian
Freelance writer Susan Ohanian, interviewed for HEM by Ohio homeschooling leader Peggy Daly Masternak, has authored over twenty books on education, including such classics as What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten?, One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards, and her latest title, co-authored with Kathy Emery, Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? She maintains an award-winning web site showcasing her strong stand against high stakes testing and her resistance to standards-based curricula. For further biographical information see the sidebar at the end of this interview.
What led you to the classroom?
The day after I received my MA in medieval literature, I boarded a plane for New York City, hoping to find a journalism job. I ended up working in the television department of the world's largest advertising agency. In less than three weeks, I realized that I needed something more worthwhile for my life's work than creating Listerine and Ford commercials. So I signed up for night school education courses--as a back-up plan.
A year later, I answered a New York Times ad announcing that New York City's Board of Education was issuing emergency credentials to people willing to teach high school English. They sent me to a school larger than my hometown. Feeling completely inadequate to the job, I went home and cried every night. But by year's end, the department chairman's evaluation stated that I had a good heart and would learn the technical skills necessary to good teaching. I was very impressed to hear that New York City put such stock in a good heart.
You've coined the word "Standardista." Who are they and when did they first materialize?
I've always refused to define it as I think the term itself is sufficient. With his Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (followed by What Your Kindergartner, First Grader(etc.). . . Needs to Know) E. D. Hirsch popularized the notion of making knowledge lists. Mr. Hirsch's avowed mission is to save public education by testing students at three stages during their school careers to ensure that they do not leave high school without the ability to recognize such terms as: covalent bonds, the Edict of Nantes, non compos mentis, Planck's constant, the Slough of Despond, and scrotum.
Every bureaucrat and her Aunt Mabel grabbed the idea. Multitudes of necessary knowledge lists followed from almost every state education department in the land. They called these standards. This isn't to say that standards didn't exist before. But in the late 1980s, they got very, very serious. And loony.
What was the classroom like before Standardistas arrived?
Classrooms were as varied as a teacher's imagination and her willingness to take risks. Some were rigid little rows of all children working on the same page in skill drill workbooks. Others were places where a kid named Jack could play Scrabble for six months.
At the time, I was teaching disaffected high schoolers in an alternative school. My job was to make sure these "obnoxious" kids didn't set foot on the regular campus. When I showed Jack an article in Harper's about Scrabble hustlers in New York City, he noted that serious players like the Funk and Wagnall's Dictionary because it has lots of extra word lists, words beginning with the same prefix, and so on. I insisted that for launching his Scrabble career, our American Heritage Dictionary would surely be adequate, but Jack pestered until I ordered Funk and Wagnall's.
Jack moved to the classroom's back corner, taking both Scrabble board and dictionary with him. He stayed there for six months. As the most obnoxious of the obnoxious, Jack probably started playing himself in Scrabble because nobody else would go near him. But then a passion for the quest took over. Jack sat there muttering, cursing, leafing through the dictionary. He spent long hours reading the dictionary. During this Scrabble marathon Jack worked on no school assignments.
I won't pretend that I wasn't nervous about this. But I remembered Frank Smith's advice that when a student persists at the same irregular activity, doing it over and over, he isn't wasting time, isn't trying to get out of real work. He persists at that activity because he's getting something important out of it.
Finally Jack decided he was ready, and he challenged me to a game of Scrabble. He trounced me badly. It was an electric moment, more wonderful than words can express. The immediate results were that other students wanted to play Jack. And Jack started working on the school curriculum.
I knew at the time that Jack's Scrabble work was important, but years later I'm still learning what it meant. In Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, Stefan Fatsis shows the reader that Scrabble at this level is about weirdness, extreme weirdness. It's also about linguistics, psychology, mathematics, memory, competition, doggedness. Scrabble at the national competitive level, and with one out-of-kilter kid in a classroom set up for misfits, is about mastering the rules; it's about failure and it's about hope.
When Standardistas don't allow students and teachers to negotiate curricula together, we risk losing students. And as a society we cannot turn our backs on students like Jack. If we fail to help them rebuild their lives, the results will be disastrous--for them and for us.
Was there a proverbial "straw" that motivated you to leave the classroom to become a full-time activist for children through education advocacy?
I was frustrated that the national conversation about schools was missing the teacher voice, and I was finding it impossible to write and teach at the same time. A teacher magazine asked me for a big article. I said, "School starts in a week. It will take six months to write any kind of article." They phoned back the next day, offering me a job as staff writer.
What is your view of compulsory attendance? Has that view changed since the Standardista-movement took hold?
Throughout my career, I was a teacher who sought out every student listed on my rolls. Since I always taught 'difficult' students, there were always several who didn't show up. I pestered truant officers into tracking them down, because I wanted to prove to kids that school could be a positive place. I like to think I did prove this.
The current abusive curriculum mandates have caused me to make a 180-degree turn. Philadelphia psychiatrist Robert Kay, who is opposed to compulsory attendance, and I have reached a compromise position: compel kids to come to the schoolyard. Then it's up to the teachers to offer an enticing enough experience that will get the kids through the door. I am a staunch supporter of public schools and the good they do; but with aching heart, there's no way I would compel kids to subject themselves to the test prep mania and the standards driven curricula that currently infect our schools.
Are we moving from "compulsory attendance" to a "compulsory education" paradigm? Are we there already? How dangerous is that shift?
We're there already. Schools receiving Title I funds under No Child justify Behind- funds earmarked for children of poverty-are forced to choose a scripted curriculum. The teacher reads a script; children parrot required responses.
In other little noticed federal legislation, school libraries receiving federal funds are limited in the books they may choose. Teachers have written to my activist website about having their book order requests for high interest young adult novels denied because they did not meet the government's required "scientific" criteria.
Homeschoolers often say that natural learning does not stop unless interrupted. Even then, most continue to learn, although much-desired skills, when interrupted or forced too soon-such as literacy and numeracy-become struggles. Can humans-highly motivated to self-learn the complex skills of walking, talking and feeding themselves-suddenly need compulsory attendance to continue the learning process?
Oh my! Now we have federal intervention to push academic skills down on three-year-olds. I support good, subsidized childcare for financially struggling families who are unfortunate enough not to be able to stay home with their children. And of course we want these childcare experiences to be wonderfully rich. But more and more, we see that these programs come with state-imposed curriculum goals, and we know that these goals will become markers for success and failure.
Here are a few markers for pre-k programs in Washington:
* identify three-dimensional shapes
* follow written text on a page while reading or being read to
* listen to stories for more than 15 minutes.
Standardistas intone that such skills are needed to "get children reading for kindergarten." This is necessary because kindergarten has become a high-pressure skill zone, getting five-year-olds ready for the rigors of first grade--and the Ivy League. In a get-'em-ready curriculum, there's no time to notice and nourish the child's present needs.
If we were to turn things around, could you envision a time of schools as a community resource, such as libraries or community centers-resources which are non-compulsory but heavily used in many communities?
Public schools are-or should be-public. Happily, at this very moment, second grade public schoolers in my hometown are walking to the nursing home where my 96-year-old father resides to show off their Halloween costumes. Even better will be when some of the seniors go visit the schools to share their expertise.
I once taught in an alternative high school, part of the public school system but located in a central city. We declared ourselves a "Learning Center" on a big sign out front, and lots of citizens took us at our word, dropping in for advice. This was a great thing, making our disaffected students know they were part of a larger community--and letting the community know we were there for whatever help we could give.
What is your view of homeschooling?
Homeschooling is wonderful for those who can do it. Having the ability to watch for--and respond to--a child's interests, is the best of all worlds. I pay homage to parents willing and able to make this commitment.
Knowing this is a larger and deeper societal question, with many dilemmas to solve, have you ever contemplated a method where the strengths of homeschooling could somehow be brought to the children for whom you so strongly advocate?
Small class size is a start. Individualized instruction--without some template of standards and high-stakes testing--is a must. Schools seem to require winners and losers. Do any homeschoolers intuitively grade their kids? Or say they failed a grade? Too many people have bought into the mandate to compare every American school with every other school. Once this comparison happens, bad things happen to children. The truth every parent of more than one child knows is how different those children are and how insidious it is to compare them with one another. Public schools desperately need to honor this truth.
Homeschoolers know something about "push-outs." We have heard their personal stories for years in homeschooling forums. Happily some have found their way to a commitment to homeschool. Many more, we know, have not. What do you see happening to children who are now being pushed-out to boost school district's test scores?
I'm a board member of the World of Opportunity (WOO) in Birmingham, AL, the starkest example I know of push-outs. In 2000, an adult ed teacher, Steve Orel, noticed a high number of teenagers seeking to enter his GED preparation program. Steve began to question why three different high schools were using the same forms and language--"Lack of interest"--to withdraw students. He investigated, discovering that 522 African-American students had been involuntarily removed from the Birmingham schools right before the spring administration of a high stakes state test. The schools were under threat of state takeover if they didn't improve their scores. Anyone familiar with testing can tell you: The easiest way to raise test scores is to get rid of probable low scorers.
Fired for whistle-blowing, Steve opened the WOO to rescue pushed-out youth. One homeless student and WOO enrollee quickly scored 100% on the GED's language arts portion. Now in a second year honors program at the University of Alabama, she signs her e-mails, "future supreme court justice."
Many WOO students have serious housing, financial and health problems, as well as learning difficulties. The WOO offers a social justice program as well as GED prep and job skills. Some students disappear for a time. When they return, Steve welcomes them, pulling their folder and pointing out where they left off. This is very significant. Often public schools and public agencies offering alternative programs insist on timelines that students can't meet. We need more education institutions capable of acting like the WOO and treating students as family: Welcome students whenever they walk through the door. Even when they disappoint you, welcome them back.
With a teacher's foresight, now working tirelessly to expose the Standardista dangers-to-all, what warnings would you give to homeschoolers to help preserve true freedom in education? As critical as I am of public schools, I would ask homeschoolers to join me in supporting those same public schools. There are many people there committed to doing a good job. And an assault on teachers' freedom to do their job should be seen as an assault that can easily come next to homeschooling parents. The same mindset that imposes uniform public school standards is moving to insist that homeschooling families meet some uniform criteria. Without sounding too paranoid, I'd say there are forces at work to make us all toe a Standardista line. They've gotten our numbers in their data sweeps, and now they want our souls.
What is your view of the profiting-from-education rage in the cyber schools? These are heavily marketed to homeschoolers. Many even call themselves "homeschooling" when, in fact, they require enrollment in a publicly funded school with all the traps brought by standards reforms.
I am very critical of the level of curriculum offered by those schools. Too many rely on workbook-type activities. Computerizing skill drill worksheets and adding whistles and bells doesn't make them pedagogically sound. I have seen no evidence that this canned curricula has any ability to make accommodations for individual student needs. For example, if a student does not score well on an assessment at the end of a lesson, he is told to repeat it. Another poor score? Repeat it again. And again. This is abusive as well as wrong-headed. Blind repetition of a lesson is not teaching and will not produce learning.
Let the buyer beware.
You've reviewed and reported on the curriculum of William Bennett's K12, Inc. What did you find?
I examined the history curriculum in grades K-2. I found a shocking disregard for age-appropriate curriculum and a total misuse of computers. Here, computers deliver worksheets (in the form of tedious PDF files that parents must download and print out). It would be much easier to buy a workbook than printing out this material.
The curriculum offers blind devotion to a chronological approach to ancient history, which means very young children are reading--and doing coloring sheets--about the horrors of Hannibal and Attila the
Hun. I wrote to K-12, objecting to the relentless militarism but did not receive the courtesy of a reply.1
Do you believe these programs threaten homeschooling? Is there a comparable situation in public education where you have seen ground lost because someone marketed to teachers and parents a "wonderful, new way of education?"
I am appalled and fearful of anybody -- public school or homeschool -- who sells out principles for the lure of gimcracks--free computers, whoop-de-doo classroom supplies, whatever. Canned curriculums make a mockery of the homeschooling tenet of basing learning experiences on children's interests, abilities and needs. K-12 sales pitches brag about families receiving 90 pounds worth of material. It sounds like 30 pieces of silver to me.
What one thing do you feel public school educators misunderstand the most about homeschooling?
Most public school educators shrug off homeschooling as a personal choice, something that doesn't affect them. I've met very few educators who view homeschoolers as a threat. There are those who see it this way, worrying that homeschoolers are anti-public school.
What one thing do you feel homeschoolers misunderstand most about public school educators?
My access to homeschoolers is limited. The ones I know have a very good understanding of--as well as an appreciation of--public school. Their educational choices for their children are entirely positive. They do it as a personal conviction of the kind of experiences they want for their children, not as some sort of universal call for the demolition of public schools. On the other hand, after I wrote the report criticizing William Bennett's virtual curriculum, I received a lot of nasty letters from people claiming to be homeschoolers. They were so negative that there was no point for discussion.
1 Read Susan's report at: http://www.asu.edu/educ/epsl/EPRU/documents/EPSL-0404-117-EPRU.doc She notes: Unfortunately, this site dropped an appendix showing the amazing/distressing curriculum sequence for kindergartners through second graders. You can see this sequence at: susanohanian.org/show_research.html?id=55 )
© 2005 Peggy Daly Masternak
January-February 2005 - Articles and Columns
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