Sunday, May 11, 2008

Carl Chew: American Hero

A few months ago an excellent LA Times editorial talked about the degradation of the concept of heroes. Rosa Brooks in a piece called Heroism and the Language of Fascism
laments...'s a big mistake to mix up the idea of service -- or the idea of sacrifice and suffering -- with the idea of heroism.

As most dictionaries explain, true heroism involves "extraordinary courage, fortitude or greatness of soul." So firefighters who take unusual risks to save others can legitimately be called heroes -- but just showing up for work and turning on a fire hose when required isn't quite enough. Similarly, suffering doesn't magically turn an ordinary person, however beloved, into a hero. Some of the office workers who died on 9/11 were truly heroic, sacrificing their own chance of escape to help others. But many of those who died never even got a chance to be heroic.

Distinguishing heroism from service and suffering is important for two reasons. First, it's always worth fighting the Lake Wobegon effect because, in a world where "all the children are above average," the truly special child gets no recognition, and genuine acts of exceptional courage are trivialized.

Take Jason Dunham, a 22-year-old Marine corporal who, in 2004, threw his helmet and then his body on top of an Iraqi insurgent's grenade, saving the lives of the Marines around him. Dunham died of his wounds and became one of only two soldiers in the Iraq war to be awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration in the United States. But in a world where every service member is a "hero," how many Americans have heard of Dunham's fatal courage?

There are plenty of other genuine heroes whose names will never be recorded, like the utility workers described by a Cornell University research team: On 9/11, "they went into the flooded Verizon building just north of World Trade Center 6, risking electrocution in chest-deep water and kerosene to shut off the building's massive circuit-breakers by hand." But when each of the thousands of stockbrokers and secretaries in the World Trade Center qualifies for the "everyone's a hero" award, why bother to identify those whose actions were unusually selfless?

But there's a deeper reason to be wary of the "everyone's a hero" rhetoric. Simply put, it fits neatly alongside other terms beloved of the powers that be, such as "warrior" and "the Homeland": It's part of the language of fascism.

For a chilling account of another society in which "the devaluation of the concept of heroism" was "proportional to the frequency of its use and abuse," check out Ilya Zemtsov's "The Encyclopedia of Soviet Life." In 1938, Zemtsov notes, the Soviet Union instituted "the title 'Hero of Socialist Labor'. . . . Thousands of those heroes emerged. . . . The hero was supposed to die in the name of Stalin during wartime [and] give his or her all in labor on communist constructions. . . . [But] a person upon whom the title 'hero' is bestowed has often performed no heroic deed whatsoever, but may receive the title . . . merely in return for displaying loyalty and/or diligence. . . . With time, the awarding of the title came to be used as a token to be disbursed or withheld according to political considerations. . . . "

In other words, comrades, whenever it seems as if they're handing out "hero" medals for free, look out: There's usually a hidden price.
I am a fan of Rosa's observations. Heroes are very special people usually acting on a higher plane of consciousness. In education its a rarity but I found one.

Carl Chew, a Seattle teacher refused to administer federally required standardized tests. His insubordination, an act of true heroism, cost him a nine day, unpaid suspension. ABC NEWS covered the story:
Chew, who is 60, said his act of civil disobedience will cost him about $1,000 over his nine-day absence. He knows it will go on his permanent record and he could ultimately be fired.

"It took me a few moments before I decided to do this," he said. "I did protesting around the Vietnam War and marched for civil rights in the '60s. But this was the first time I did something against a seemingly huge machine."

"I feel so strongly about this -- that it's bad for the kids and I have to do it," he said. "But I know from my own experience, I have to accept the consequences."

Good Lord, I thought everyone with a conscience and the courage to stand up to the government was dead. At Seattle PI Chew explained his reasoning:
"On April 15, I refused to give the Washington Assessment of Student Learning to my sixth-grade students at a Seattle Public Schools middle school. I performed this single act of civil disobedience based on personal moral and ethical grounds, as well as professional duty. I believe that the WASL is destructive to our children, teachers, schools, and parents.

"It is important for me to note that my disobedient action was not directed at any individual. I love being a teacher; my students are fantastic; my fellow teachers collaborate with and help me every day in numerous ways; and my school administration has always shown a willingness to listen to and support the teachers. I understand that my action has caused people pain, and I am truly sorry for that, but I could no longer stand idly by as something as wrong as the WASL is perpetrated on our children year after year.

"Though my act of civil disobedience was individual, I do not stand alone in my strong beliefs. Any Internet search for high-stakes testing will reveal highly regarded educators, distressed parents and sensitive teachers with a wealth of thoughtful writing and case studies supporting my views.

"The WASL is bad for kids.

"To my mind the measure of successful childhood is that each child learns about who she or he is and how the world works, gains an assertive and confident self image and feels safe, well fed, and happy. Schools, along with parents and communities, need to contribute wisely to this goal. Unfortunately, the WASL creates panic, insecurity, low self esteem and sadness for our children.

# It is written in the language of white, middle-and upper-class students, leaving all others behind.

# It is presented to children in a secretive, cold, sterile and inhumane fashion.

# There is no middle ground --children either pass or fail, which leaves them confused, guilty, and frustrated.

# Numerous questions on the test are unclear, misleading or lacking in creativity.

# It tests a very narrow definition of what educators know children need to become well-rounded human beings.

# The WASL is given at a prescribed time regardless of a child's emotional or physical health.

"The WASL is bad for teachers.

"For meager pay, teachers are asked to work in extremely challenging situations, keep absurdly long hours and, when it comes to the WASL, function in an atmosphere of fear.

# A majority of teachers loath the WASL but feel unable to speak out freely against it due to their fears of negative consequences for doing so.

# Because administrators are constantly pushing to meet federal guidelines for yearly score improvements, their relationships with teachers can become strained and unpleasant.

# Administrators and teachers suffer under the knowledge that if they do not achieve improvement goals (measured by WASL passage alone) they can be sent to retraining classes, lose their students to other schools, or have their "failing" school handed over to a private company.

# Before administering the WASL teachers mandatorily sign a "loyalty" oath promising they will not read any of the test questions.

# Teachers feel devalued by the amount of time most of them have to devote to test practice and proctoring --upwards of four weeks for actual testing and many more weeks for WASL prep in many cases.

# Teachers feel used and depressed when, half a year after the test is given, they are presented with dubious WASL results --amateurish and misleading Power Point charts and graphs telling them next to nothing about their students' real knowledge and talents.

# Teachers' relationships with parents are compromised because they cannot talk freely with them about opting their child out or other WASL concerns.

:The WASL is bad for parents and families.

# Parents have been shut out of this costly process.

# Most of them are misled by official statements about what the purpose of the WASL is.

# Many of them do not realize that they have the right to opt their children out of testing with no consequences, though in practice schools have illegally put inappropriate pressure on parents and children who have opted out.

# Many of them do not realize that teachers are, in many cases, not allowed to discuss any reasons why they might want to opt their child out. (Teachers in California went to court to secure the right to inform parents of their right to opt their children out of that state's testing.)

# Like children, parents suffer from the same feelings of guilt and unhappiness when their children fail.

# Parents are not informed that the test is biased, culturally insensitive and irrelevant and not a real measure of anything.

# The WASL graduation requirement has kept thousands of families from knowing whether or not their students will be allowed to take part in graduation ceremonies and celebrations -- the culminating reward for 13 years of public school attendance and achievement -- with friends and families.

"The WASL is bad for schools.

"Even in the best of times purse strings are rarely opened adequately to public education. Where a private school needs to charge $20,000-$30,000 to educate a child well, public schools are given a third or less of that for each student. Simply, schools are strapped for cash, many of them struggling each year to fund their needs with an ever- shrinking pot of money.

# While schools are generally underfunded, Washington will spend a projected $56 million in 2009 to have a private corporation grade WASL tests. These tax dollars are needed right in our schools providing more teachers, smaller classes, tutors, and diverse educational experiences for our students.

# While the federal government requires that school districts use high stakes testing to qualify for federal dollars, tests are not fully funded by the federal government.

# WASL is one of the most difficult tests used to fulfill the federal requirements, with one of the highest failure rates.

# Instead of safe, exciting and meaningful places for our children to spend half of their waking hours, schools have become WASL or test mills bent on churning out students who are trained to answer state-approved questions in a state-approved manner.

The WASL is just bad.

# Most, if not all, teachers will agree that assessment is vital. Wise teachers know that assessments which are also learning experiences for students and teachers are the best. The WASL categorically is not a learning experience.

# I believe that individual students are entitled to their own learning plans, tailored to their own needs, strengths and interests. Teachers know it is definitely possible to do this in the context of a public school. The WASL categorically treats all children alike and requires that they each fit into the same precise mold, and state-mandated learning plans based on WASL scores fail to recognize individual strengths of students.

# Passing the WASL does not guarantee success in college, placement in a job, a living wage or adequate health care.

# WASL will decrease the high school graduation rate. Thousands of students who have completed all other requirements and passed all required classes will be denied diplomas because of WASL failure.

# High-stakes testing has not proven beneficial to students, teachers, schools, or communities.

In the real lives of students, teachers, and parents the WASL is an ongoing disaster.

# When I was a teacher at Graham Hill Elementary in Seattle, a number of my students received their WASL scores to find that they had "failed". When I looked at the notices being sent to their parents I saw that each student had come to within just a few points of actually passing and that their scores were well within the gray area, or "margin of error," for the test. The "test scientists" aren't sure whether the student passed or failed, yet the school tells the student he or she failed. These students cried when they saw the results.

# When I first started teaching, Graham Hill could afford Americorps tutors, numerous classroom aides and had money for field-trip buses and ample supplies. By the time I stopped teaching there, Americorps was gone, there were no classroom aides except for parent volunteers, and everything else was in short supply.

# Teaching and testing during my last year at Graham Hill was challenging. I was on my own in a room with 29 students, 10 percent did not speak English, 50 percent of them spoke another language at home, several of them were homeless, and many of them had severe emotional challenges due to parental pre-natal drug use, violence and abuse.

# No one ever asked me or any of the teachers I know whether high-stakes testing was a good idea. In fact, we teachers are made to jump through seemingly endless hoops to prove our worthiness to be professional, certificated educators. Public school teachers are responsible for the educational lives of over a million students in Washington state, yet, in the end, no one actually wants to listen to what teachers have to say about what is best for the students in our care.

Wow! Professional ethics! Professional Duty to children and parents! Moral introspection!

I want to vote this guy to Head the Department of Education in Washington.

Hat tip: Schools Matter

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