Saturday, October 29, 2005

The S(H)MO Model--Post-Script

The closing keynote address at the ATP "Innovations in Testing" conference was delivered by Wally Amos, of chocolate chip cookie fame. I had seen him standing among the exhibits that morning at breakfast wearing a watermelon-styled, crushed velvet pimp hat with matching shoes. He stepped to the stage tootling on a kazoo which, as he pointed out, was also decorated by watermelon decals--all in the spirit, he said, of reclaiming the watermelon for himself as a black person. He'd made millions, lost millions, made millions again. Anyone can. It's all about attitude.

Strange that we have no tests right now to reward "attitude" as an achievement itself. In fact, according to Professional Learning Community literature published by NES, factors such as "morale" are overestimated in many discussions of school improvement. I had hoped, in light of his humanistic optimism, Amos would present a more holistic view of "test innovation." I thought he'd maybe talk about the need for more library funding, for deeper "print environments" in classrooms and homes. But the thing was, he was addressing for-profit distance managers of education. He could gloss the idea of literacy as a self-evident principle (we're all for kids and adults reading, right?). In this way, he underscored the rhetoric and self-image of ATP, an organization, you remember, dedicated to protecting and defending the interests of testing, in all shapes and forms.

He did present two dolls he's designed, shaped like cookies and named Chip and Cookie, and he talked about how he was using them to promote literacy. But the happy-clappy tenor of the presentation--given what Jonathan Kozol and many other researchers have described as the tragically "unfulfilled promise" of Brown v. Board of Education--ultimately parroted a traditional defense of existing privilege and the status quo, a contemporary enactment of God's in his heaven, / All's right with the world!

The hall was filled with most of the seven hundred ATP attendees, mostly white faces, as Amos sang, read, played with his dolls, and talked. After three days dedicated to seminars about all manner of performance assessment--including panels on "legally defensible" testing, ATP beltway lobbying and test legislation, and the need for standardization from pre-K through college to the workforce as a religiously ultimate destiny--I couldn't help but feel Amos' speech in the back of my throat and the pit of my guts: here was yet another level of "performance" being assessed. I've since learned that the kazoo routine is one of his signatures, whether he's speaking at a graduation or accepting an award for his work promoting literacy.

(You can view actual video footage by clicking this link and downloading from Real Player:

Amos didn't talk about triumphing over childhood under Jim Crow laws, or the amazing fact that literacy tests to preclude voting were banned during his lifetime, in 1965. In fact, the narrative of his success pretty much began and ended in terms of business. A friendly woman next to me nudged my elbow. "What a positive message," she said, shaking her head. "What a positive message."

Here was a sad kind of minstrelsy, conjuring moments from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: a performance not just for whites, but for power.

1 comment:

meinexile said...

Is minstrelsy a word? does it mean whimsical in way?