(Please welcome author Linda Perlstein, author of Tested: One American School Struggles To Make the Grade and her fabulous brother Rick Perlstein to chat with us in the comments today — JH)
I’ve been a proud member of the FDL extended family for a couple of years now. (“Kobe is a big Rick Perlstein fan”, dammit!). Today, I’m proud to introduce you to a member of my immediate family: my little sis, Linda Perlstein.
For years, Linda was at the Washington Post as an education reporter. I used to love visiting her there, where I got to schmooze with the likes of David Broder (I kid you not!), even watch a superannuated Herblock shuffle past to sharpen his pencils (again: I kid you not). But I didn’t really get to see Linda in action. Like all great reporters—and Linda’s a great reporter—she did her most important work in the field. And for Linda, wherever possible, that meant in the classroom. You’d be surprised, or maybe not, at how many people who claim to speak as experts about our educational system spend little or no time in the classroom.
Linda’s deeply unsatisified with that fact. For her first book, Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers, she embedded herself in the classrooms (and after-school gymnastics classes, and student dinner tables, and faculty faculty lounge) of a middle class suburban school to unravel the mysteries of ‘tween culture. Mysteries like the way they answer the IM’ed “Whassup?”: “NMJC”—”not much just chillin.’” Which is, of course “a lie, a front, a shrug as old as adolescent angst.” What Linda did was report what was behind the front, and the results were enormously entertaining—and, to the middle class parents who still flock to her lectures, enormously useful.
I was really thrilled, though, when Linda told me about the next book she wanted to do. There has been a revolution in the American public education system, everyone knows that: thanks to No Child Left Behind, high-stakes testing now rules the roost. Reems upon reems of studies about high-stakes testing have been written, Linda knew. Her frustration, though, was that the “new world of school”—a phrase, if I recall correctly, Linda put in one of the draft subtitles— was a revolution in what happened in the classroom. And no one, it seemed, was systematically looking in on classrooms to see what that revolution looked like.
Characteristically, sis did exactly that. She did it, too, via a brilliant narrative contrivance. She found a school in Annapolis, Maryland full of underprivileged minority kids that scored surprisingly well on Maryland’s annual Maryland Standard Assessment (MSA) tests. Could Tyler Heights Elementary School keep up those scores a year later? What would the consequences for the everyday routines of education be in this very high-stakes quest?
Well, here was one. The principle’s supervisor did a walkthrough inspection to “‘zero in on the posted outcomes’–the daily objectives teachers wrote on the board for each subject. Writing objectives has become a big deal in schools. Teachers actually take classes in this—the more jargon the better, it seems: We will demonstrate the ability to perceive, perform, and respond to music” in music, Develop expressive and receptive vocabulary to begin to classify things in the home environment: in a kindergarten play kitchen.” Linda writes of that walkthrough:
Passing through the gym, where kindergartners wafted a colorful parachute in the air and scampered under it in turns, Leone said of the teacher, “I can’t see his goal.” In pre-kindergarten where Leone saw not only “sight words” like is and and but also the MSA scores displayed on the wall, she said, “I love the way these are all posted.” In fifth grade she was dismayed to find some of Mrs. Williams’s students sitting at their desks reading books while others finished a test. She encouraged McKnight to come up with a school-wide protocol for spending time after completing a test, one that didn’t include free reading.
So has No Child Left Behind turned our schools into a “fascist nightmare”? One of Tested‘s reviewers said exactly that. I know, however, that this review frustrated Linda enormously, because she sees the status quo ante—the world before NCLB—as rife with exactly the flaws the legislation seeks to fix: an indifference to accountability. She’s not anti-standarized testing. She’s struggling to find a middle ground, for more nuanced assessments.
Where that middle ground may be found would be an excellent topic for today’s discussion.