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Education Letter to the Editor

On One Nongraduate’s Protest

July 13, 2005 3 min read
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To the Editor:

Bravo to John Wood for his public stance on high-stakes graduation tests (“Why I Didn’t Graduate,” Commentary, June 22, 2005).

It cost him a wonderful memory of graduating with his class, but he has gained a great deal of knowledge about the political system. I encourage him to continue his exploration of that system and to take action for change.

The fact that the principal of John Wood’s school is his father certainly adds another layer to the story. It reminds me of one from my own high school days over 30 years ago. This incident involved the son of the social studies department’s chair. As a senior in high school, the young man wanted to participate in a citywide action in support of the United Farm Workers of America. He sought permission to miss a day of school in order to pass out leaflets at grocery stores, and offered to do extra coursework that would relate to this experience. The school administration flatly refused and threatened punishment for skipping school.

Since I worked in the social studies department’s office, I was aware of what the student’s father went through during that time. The administration blamed the father for the “trouble” the son was causing, and did everything possible to urge the man to “talk some sense” into his son. I will never forget the father’s statement: “What kind of educator would I be if I discouraged my son from exercising his civic responsibility? He knows the price and is willing to pay it. What kind of father would I be to keep him from this learning experience?”

I can only assume that John Wood’s father, too, has met some criticism because of his son’s actions. I hope that both father and son believe the learning experience has been worth the flak.

And to James and Kirby Dick, wherever you are, thank you for giving me a lesson in courage.

Jill (Carson) Goldesberry

Conesville, Iowa

To the Editor:

In response to John Wood’s Commentary “Why I Didn’t Graduate”:

Mr. Wood, you are right about all but one thing. You say that one voice is not enough. I must humbly differ with you—one voice certainly is enough.

Your action in refusing on principle to take your state’s proficiency exam required for graduation has established that, in Ohio, there is at least one brave voice contesting social injustice. It says that in this country there is still someone who, in spite of the political seizure of our public schools, can recognize when an emperor has no clothes. Your stand shames all of us educators who complacently accept our federal funding and, in return, give up our autonomy, experience, and knowledge, to be led by noneducators.

Last year, on a study trip with Baylor University, I met with the director of secondary schools for China’s Ministry of Education. He said that many Chinese believe their traditional reliance on high-stakes testing has made them a nation of wonderful test-takers but less-wonderful innovators. “If they gave a test for the Nobel Prize, it would always be won by Chinese,” he said, but the prize committee has honored Chinese researchers only a couple of times.

The ministry official attributed this failure to the fact that their education system kills creativity by relying too heavily on memorization. China now has implemented a multiyear program to reform its public education system to emulate what they call the “American system”: one that is focused on the individual and values personal expression and growth, not one based on national standards and high-stakes testing.

When I told him America was rushing headlong into what we might call the “Chinese system,” and that we might be like two ships passing in the night, he laughed. “We have talked about such ships around this table before,” the director said.

The world is watching as we allow our politicians to throw away our heritage. Only through courageous acts such as yours, Mr. Wood, will we educators come to understand we must take up arms against this sea of trouble and resist.

High-stakes testing has utility for politicians and fits the “get tough” attitude exemplified by the current administration. But it has no place in educating children. At best, it is a distraction. At worst, it represents a cruel and inequitable treatment of our most at-risk children.

Good luck in college, Mr. Wood, and thank you for the lesson.

Fred M. Niell Jr.

Headmaster

Vanguard College Preparatory School

Waco, Texas

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