Assessment Opinion

Jim Owens: School Is Out: Let Your Education Begin!

By Anthony Cody — June 12, 2011 10 min read

Teacher Jim Owens was chosen by the 435 graduating seniors at Gainesville High School to address them and their families, and delivered this speech to an audience of 5,000 on June 5, 2011.

Testing. Testing 1,2. Just like school, no? Always testing. Can you hear me in the cheap seats? Look at you! You’re radiant. You look brighter than ever today. You look like you’ve learned something. It must be the cap. What do you think, should we make it and the gown the SCHOOL UNIFORM for next year? Think of the photo ops. That would show the rest of the world what education looks like in America.

I am deeply, deeply honored to be speaking to you today, to have been invited BY YOU, the students, on this very special occasion. There is no honor that this humble profession of mine offers that I would ever, or could ever, value more ...not even ... Merit Pay!

My name is Owens. Not Mister Owens. Not Jim. Just PLAIN Owens. That’s what the kids call me and have for years. I must confess, it felt a little brisk at first, like an enthusiastic slap on the back. Until I realized it was a gesture of cordiality, whereupon I embraced it with affection. Should you too, in the future, feel inclined to call me Owens, by all means, do so.

I teach thinking skills. I do not teach to the test. I’m the guy who teaches your children to think outside-of-the-box. I do not teach your children how to think. Would that not be indocrination? Would that not be brainwashing? I provoke thought, at least I try to. I rather suspect that’s why your children invited me to speak today: to provoke you. I shall do my utmost not ... to disappoint them.

Thinking skills. What’s that? Well, that depends on whom you ask. If you ask the people who WRITE the tests, thinking skills might look something like this: If Chinese workers can produce and ship a television for $50, what would it cost to import a million televisions from China. A. $50,000 B. $500,000 C. $5,000,000 D. $50,000,000 or E. Insufficient factors to compute. For instance: how many American jobs will be lost? How will those lost jobs affect the middle class? How will rising unemployment affect the sale of televisions? The ONLY thing I can guarantee you, for sure, is that option E will NOT be on the test.

A more interesting question, I think, might be: If we’ve been testing for the past decade or two and our children, in world competition, are supposedly falling further and further behind, could it be that testing isn’t helping? We are currently testing every grade from third to eleventh, and I understand we’ll soon be testing the second grade too. Did you ever wonder what all this testing must cost?

According to education expert Diane Ravitch, “the CEO of Kaplan (a major supplier of tests and test prep materials) said on a PBS program that his business had grown from annual revenues of $70 million in 1991 to $2 billion in 2007 ‘on the back of testing growth of all kinds.’ The other major testing companies - McGraw-Hill’s CTB division, Pearson’s Harcourt Assessment, and Houghton Mifflin’s Riverside unit - would not disclose their revenues.” I wonder why? THINKING SKILLS.

In the midst of FCAT testing this past March, WESH 2 news in Orlando reported that Pearson had earnings from FCAT over the past four years of $250 million dollars. That’s just here in Florida, folks. I wonder if the testing companies lobby our legislators? I wonder what names they lobby under? I wonder if their contributions finance campaigns to “improve education” through more testing? THINKING SKILLS.

The tests themselves are just the tip of the iceberg. That $250 million doesn’t include all the money our schools pour into test-prep materials, testing coaches, and computers. YES, computers. NOW we’re required to administer the test on computers. That should make grading a good deal cheaper. I wonder if the savings will be passed on to the taxpayers, or if they’ll simply go into the company’s profits? THINKING SKILLS.

It would take a team of accountants from Goldman Sachs to figure out what testing is costing us here in Florida, alone. Now THAT would make an interesting research project for seniors, don’t you think? I understand that we’re soon to have an End of Course civics test. I wonder if there will be any questions on that test about accessing public documents? THINKING SKILLS.

Did you ever wonder what your children DO WITHOUT at school, on a daily basis, thanks to all this testing? For starters, they eat frozen food that gets warmed up by a severely reduced staff of cafeteria workers, and they eat it out of STYROFOAM trays with plastic SPORKS. I’m embarrassed when exchange students from other countries contrast their cafeteria food with ours. One of my students asked an exchange student from Germany this year if, at his school, students could go off-campus for lunch. The question baffled the German student. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to. He said that the cafeteria food at HIS school, in Germany, was really good and a whole lot cheaper than restaurant food. Compared with other first world nations, our children are notoriously unhealthy, largely DUE TO DIET. I wonder if there’s any correlation between poor diet and low-test scores. I guess that would depend on who’s paying for the research. THINKING SKILLS.

Did you ever lift your child’s book bag? I don’t think you ever did? I believe IF you HAD, you would’ve emailed or called your school board to complain that most of your child’s textbooks are too large to fit in the tiny lockers available at school. Do you R-E-A-L-L-Y think a textbook that’s as large as a phone book and as heavy as a brick needs to be so lavishly produced that it costs a hundred dollars and more? Have you any idea how many of your tax dollars go for textbooks? Did you know that the companies that publish the tests publish the textbooks too? Do you think the illustrations and the glossy pages INSPIRE students to read? The test scores certainly wouldn’t bear that out! THINKING SKILLS.

Did you know that your children have nowhere to clean up after phys. ed. and go to class sweaty afterwards? With lockers too small for their books, they have nowhere to hang a coat either. When winter days warm up in the afternoon, students fold up their coats and lay them on the floor next to their desks, floors we can’t afford to mop, much less wax, more than ONCE a year. We have fewer custodians today at GHS than we had when the school was 30% smaller.

Does your child stand slump shouldered? Does he lean forward as if he were carrying a sack of bricks? Is he eating greasy breadsticks for lunch because they’re the most filling and the least expensive choice available?

What could POSSIBLY be more important than providing our children with an environment that’s clean, comfortable and attractive and a lunch that’s nutritious and tasty? What’s more important than that?

Getting into college? Did you know that according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 1992, more than 60% of college graduates are unemployed or working jobs that do NOT require a college degree? 60%! Did you know that students in the United States who graduated from college a few weeks ago owe an average of $24,000? Did you know that the 100% Bright Futures Scholarship at University of Florida now ONLY covers 75% of tuition costs? And that’s tuition alone. That’s not books or board or anything else. Proposed tuition increases will reduce that 100% scholarship to 60% this fall. The 75% scholarship will only cover about 35%. Did you know that of the students who remediate more than one course at Santa Fe only 2% of them eventually get a 4-year degree? Did you know that only 4% of them ever get a 2-year degree?

If you’re ready for college, if you’re anxious to get there, if you know what you want to study, by all means, go and go immediately. College can be a life-changing experience. It was for me, and I could never, never, ever imagine not having gone. But times were different, very, very different then. I changed my major every semester for two years. I’m not sure I could justify that expense in today’s economy.

If you’re uncertain, if you’re tired of school, if you’re only going because you can’t think of anything else to do, RECONSIDER. Work for a while. Discover what it takes to be independent. Pay your own bills, all of them. You’ll learn more from that experience than you will in your first year of college, far more, given your present state of mind. You’ll learn what it takes to get a job and keep one. You’ll learn what you DON’T want to do. You’ll learn what you MIGHT want to do. And, if and when you go to college, you’ll go with a PURPOSE and a DETERMINATION you don’t presently have. Mature students, students with real life experiences, are ALWAYS among the most serious students on campus.

Holy smokes, Owens, don’t you have any GOOD news? I was saving it for last. Let me tell you a story, a short one. Thirty-three years ago Marco graduated from high school. He DIDN’T go to college. He took a job with a tree trimmer as a helper. He applied for a lineman’s position with Clay Electric, and when a position opened up, he jumped on it. He trimmed trees, on his own, on the side, after work and on the weekends. He saved his money and bought ten acres in the woods. He set up a sawmill on it. Nothing fancy, just a big saw and a shelter to keep it out of the weather. ALL those tree trunks his clients DIDN’T want, he cut into lumber. He got an architect to draw him the plans for a house. On a tree-trimming job he met a contractor who was building a barn for the same client. Marco showed the plans to the contractor. The contractor redlined the structures that were problematic. Marco offered the contractor $20 an hour to help him on the weekends. After work, Marco worked on the house by himself or with his wife. He used the BEST lumber; he had LOTS to choose from. He spared no expense on labor; it was primarily his own. Within two years, he and his wife had a two-story, five-bedroom, 2700-square-foot house. They’ve raised four kids in it. A couple of months ago he showed me an album, two of them actually, that his wife had put together of photos she had taken of every stage of the construction. The house is a beauty, the workmanship only a Wall Street banker could afford, and the albums are a HISTORY of their ADVENTURE. They NEVER had a mortgage. They NEVER paid interest. Their investment was NEVER in jeopardy. Their home has appreciated several hundred percent over the years, and it’s worth far, far more than that to them, because they built it with their own hands, TOGETHER.

Primarily through testing, we have spent the last thirteen years undermining your confidence and stifling your ingenuity. I’m pleased to report that we have not been entirely successful. I have seen signs of intellectual life, more than I’ve seen in several years, among several of you. There are lots of ways to learn, and testing suits a very small percentage of you, actually. I don’t know how Marco would’ve fared on an AP physics test or the FCAT science test, for that matter. All I know is that right off the top of his head he can think of a dozen ways to load a tree trunk of several tons onto a trailer ALL BY HIMSELF; and if the situation is unique and none of those twelve ways work, I’m willing to wager he’ll come up with a thirteenth way that does. I said, “Marco, how did you learn all this?” He looked at me like I was crazy. He’s not what you’d call a METACOGNITIVE thinker. He doesn’t spend much time thinking about his thinking. In fact, he doesn’t spend any time on that at all. He said, “I don’t know. I just watch somebody do it, and I try it myself.” I said, “But what if it doesn’t work?” He said, “I keep tryin’ until it does.”

What MORE do you need to know? THINK about it. Draw your OWN conclusions. You will NOT be tested on this material. School is OUT, my friends. Let your education BEGIN.

Jim Owens: I’m 61 years old. I have a Master’s Degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago. At Gainesville High School, I teach seniors thinking skills (in the Cambridge Program) and humanities, two academic electives that meet jointly.

I’ve been teaching for twenty-one years. Before that, I knocked about to see a little of the world. I worked as a trackman and a brakeman on the railroad, as a deckhand on the Great Lakes and the Inland Waterways, and Deep Sea as an able-bodied seaman. I waited tables at Antoine’s in New Orleans. I was a pitchman in fairs and carnivals, selling magic. My wife and I traveled and lived in South America for three years selling balloon animals in the street.

My teaching style, pedagogically speaking, is highly unorthodox, which is why, I suspect, students enjoy my classes.

What do you think about the lessons Jim Owen left with his graduating students?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.