Wednesday, February 08, 2006

One Tough Stand for Better Schools: Interview with Don Perl

Think that "opting out" of standardized assessment is too controversial? too tall an order for any reasonable person? Think again.

In this interview with Jo Scott-Coe, Don Perl talks about how a coalition of concerned Colorado citizens are standing up and speaking out for better education--gasp!--without testing.

Jo Scott-Coe: How did you come to be concerned about the impact of standardized testing on schools?

Don Perl: 2001 was my last year in the public schools. I taught in an inner city junior high school - which during my last year became a middle school. About half of my students spoke Spanish at home, and although they were fluent in English, since it wasn't their home language, they were at a disadvantage. I was also one of only a few bilingual teachers at our school and was often called to translate conversations between administrators and parents. I saw parents struggling to understand a foreign system. And the more I read about high-stakes standardized testing, the more I saw the injustices at work, and the more I saw a system truly designed to marginalize our society even more. I remembered the phrase "in loco parentis" that I had heard often when I was an aspiring teacher. We don't want any harm to come to our children. This testing mania was harmful to them. Thus, I could not in good conscience administer the test. And so I committed an act of civil disobedience by boycotting the administration of the test. That was February, 2001.

JSC: What consequences did you face professionally?

DP: I was suspended for two weeks without pay - the two weeks that the test was administered then. When I returned to school, the atmosphere was so charged, I thought seriously for the first time that maybe this should be my last year. In early April I composed a letter of resignation of one sentence. It said, "So displeased am I with the direction public education is going that I have decided to make this my last year in District 6." I put a copy in the principal's mailbox and sent one to the superintendent. I saw the principal later that day in the hall, and she gave me a look of something like, "Thank God." We never spoke of it.

JSC: When and how did the Coalition for Better Education (CBE) get started?

DP: CBE really got started in February of 2004. At that time I was working on the language of a proposed ballot initiative. I also was working with some latino students from our Cesar Chavez center, a center for hispanic college students. I would meet with the students from time to time - and we staged two protests of the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) - we gathered on the sidewalk with signs and literature. One of the students, an aspiring teacher, started a website, and when our ballot initative was approved, our coalition was born. Right now we have 450 members on our list serve. I probably hear from 30 or 35 from time to time. We are all parents, grandparents, teachers, and just concerned citizens.

JSC: Describe your latest campaign to raise awareness about "opting out" of the state's standardized testing program. What problems and frustrations have you encountered? What successes?

DP: The latest campaign to raise awareness about "opting out" of CSAP concerns the purchase of signs on bus benches in the Denver metropolitan and Greeley areas. We raised about $1,950 this year to pay for advertisements. With that money we bought 20 signs for bus benches in Denver and 5 in Greeley (60 miles to the north.)

There was quite a bruhaha here in Greeley over the signs because someone ordered the signs be taken down. When we contacted the media and they published the story, someone within the city bureaucracy admitted to having made a mistake, and so our signs will go back up in Greeley. NextMedia, the company we contracted with, promises that those infamous signs should be up in a week or so. They read: “Parents: we can do something about this injustice." Then there is our logo, and then our website -

JSC: What do you see as the currently most pressing problem in K-12 education?

DP: To me the most pressing problem in our public schools has its roots in a lack of faith in the profession. This lack of faith has lead to the furor and insanity of high-stakes standardized testing. Instead of our society addressing the issues of poverty, we turn a blind eye and insist that our teachers get better and that society watch them through the hopelessly inadequate tool of test scores. 22% of our children, in this incredibly wealthy nation, are living in poverty.

JSC: Do you also see consequences, though, even for students who are more economically privileged? These are the kids most likely to be hardwired into the system, most likely to help perpetuate testing as “key” to meaningful measurement--whether they work in schools or in business. How are tests redefining "learning" and "school"?

DP: I see tectonic plates separating, separating more and more. So the privileged, hardwired into the system, as you aptly said, are increasingly marginalized from those who are struggling financially. With this kind of marginalization come frightening spectres such as more misunderstandings, more prejudice, a world increasingly more out of tune. High-stakes testing, by definition, ignores some truly important concepts such as co-operation, curiosity, and sense of community. Our world is such a mess. Not only do we have to think about preparing our children for its insanities, but we also have to work to improve the world for them.

JSC: Connecticut has recently pursued legal action over the No Child Left Behind Act. What legislative or legal measures are brewing in Colorado?

DP: Here in Colorado two legislators are looking to forward a bill which will de-claw CSAP, that is require school districts to inform parents of their exemption rights, and require that no negative consequences flow from such an option. We are hoping that this bill gets a lot of attention. However, the reality is that the governor (Bill Owens) has already announced that he would veto it even if it gets as far as his desk.

JSC: At last year’s National Governers’ Association Summit on national high schools, your governor talked about resolving the “Colorado paradox”--defined as more college degrees per capita than any other state, but a lagging population of students going on to college. What do you make of the “paradox” and his proposed solutions?

DP: His proposed solutions fail to address the socio-economic problems we all face. The true problems are in the dark and around the corner, and they deal with poverty, a minimum wage that hasn't been raised in years, neighborhoods whose water contains dangerous levels of lead, poor nutrition and all the attendant social problems. And I have to say that a university education is not for everyone. We need skilled people who ply a trade and perfect a craft. Politicians put the university education on some sort of pedestal without thinking of the need people have to develop their own individual gifts for the commonweal.

JSC: For a layperson, the idea of "merit pay" in schools may seem like good sense. What are the benefits and drawbacks? What is CBE's position on current "merit pay" proposals pending in Denver?

DP: Merit pay is founded on the notion that teachers seek out mediocrity. We can not force any artificial program of what is titled "merit pay" on our profession. Let us say that you feel called to teach in an inner city school. Your children come to the classroom with a set of experiences and issues planets away from the students who attend more affluent schools. What are the eating habits of our children? How much lead is there in the water? How do they live? Is there violence at home? All this and more impacts education. Would we fault a dentist who plied his trade in a low income neighborhood because his patients had more cavities than the patients of his colleague whose office served an affluent population? Should we fault teachers because their road of life took them to needier neighborhoods?

JSC: How possible or difficult is it to facilitate efforts with activists in other states?

DP: We are just beginning to converse with activists in other states. Thanks to this technology, the roadways are opened, and we are hoping that a national movement does grow.

JSC: What inspires you to keep going? What's most discouraging?

DP: I am inspired by parents and teachers who contact us, who thank us for being a resource for them. I am also inspired by other members of our coalition who share the incredible stories of both courage and abuse which are occurring regularly in education today. What is most discouraging is how so often supposedly thoughtful people, political leaders, so distanced from the real world of our children, become so enamored by the golden calf of unidimensional measurement.

JSC: What changes do your foresee in the next 10-20 years for American classrooms?

DP: I have great hopes that the monster will implode. But we have to make this happen. So often people will tell me, this too will pass. Yes, but only if we make it pass. If we wait for the world to turn, incredible societal damage will have been meted out.

JSC: You work from a university "base" to organize parents, K-12 teachers, academics and others. What has been most challenging about connecting these groups?

DP: The university base has great advantages. This is the community service I offer as part of my professional contribution to this little world here. I frequently make presentations to aspiring teachers and am amazed how little they know about the realities of the classroom in the swath of high stakes standardized testing. However, I am also often treated as a persona non grata from time to time since so many fear change and look to me as the person responsible for those fears.

JSC: Interesting. I sometimes receive blank or quizzical stares from experts who claim to be “deeply concerned” about reading and writing instruction. It can be depressing that practical experience isn’t always welcomed into the academy, especially from anyone straddling the line between K-12 and “higher” education. Hybrids, and any concerns we bring to the table, are sometimes kind of shunned. What's that all about?

DP: Academics often times think in a hierarchical mode. Once one gives in to that kind of addiction, one loses her focus on what truly benefits our children and their teachers. One's thinking narrows, and fear of change dominates.

** Read about the ongoing controversy over CBE's bus-bench campaign from ground zero in Colorado's Greeley Tribune.

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