November 16, 2010

I’ll begin on this note of candor. Having closely followed the education reform process closely for the past 17 years, my strong sense is that the decisions have already been made and that these public hearings are purely pro forma exercises, generally scheduled at times when teachers cannot easily attend or meaningfully participate.

Notwithstanding these facts, I want to say a few words in the 3 minutes that my 35-years as a public school teacher may have entitled me.

First, regarding the position articulated by my colleagues in the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies. I sympathize with their concerns that social studies may presently be undervalued by anxious local school boards obsessed with MCAS scores and that social studies teachers may even be vulnerable to layoffs. However the Council’s public plea that the Board include social studies in the MCAS system betrays not only their own pedagogical ideals, but the educational well-being of their students. In a more profound sense, this desperation to become part of the MCAS regime demonstrates—if further demonstration were required–the extent to which this test-based reform movement has distorted public education. In this surreal Alice-in-Wonderland landscape, academic disciplines become important and earn validation only if bound to high stakes standardized tests and a fill-in-the bubble test/prep approach to education. Perversely, exam validation is naturally followed by curricular and pedagogical devaluation. That’s the price. Let me add that this is precisely the kind of dreary educational experience that members of the Massachusetts Board of Education and other self-described reformers have tended to avoid where the education of their own children is concerned.

Second, and lastly, I wish to speak a word for history, a subject I’ve loved ever since I was a child. No academic discipline is less suited to being reduced to multiple-choice answers or tethered to government-mandated frameworks setting out what’s important and what’s not. History is an argument that can only be pursued by free minds through a warren of clashing interpretations, analyses, and debates. It isn’t about memorization or “five facts and a cloud of dust.” What Walt Whitman called the “dark, unfathom’d retrospect” cannot be sliced, diced, and processed into lifeless frameworks. If you think an MCAS approach to this subject is going to excite and inspire students, I urge you to think again. However, you can bet that the state’s involvement will both politicize and neuter the subject. Take a good sobering look at Texas. Look back even further at the Soviet Union. Yes, its government schools also had required “curricular frameworks” to help guide their students in historical study. Remember when we thought that was a bad thing?

The rote MCAS approach of reducing education to simple numbers rendered by exams of questionable validity is squeezing the life, joy, spontaneity, and sense of wonder out of learning.

To the pleas for yet more tests by the Pioneer Institute, the Boston Globe, the Mass. Council for Social Studies, and the various business lobbying groups, I counterpoise these words: if you insist on measuring everything you value, you’ll end up valuing only what can be measured. This hearing is a vivid demonstration of the truth of these words.

Thank you.

Bill Schechter
History teacher
Lincoln-Sudbury Regional H.S.
1973-2008 (retired)



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