05/01/2013 10:17 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

D.C. Schools: Have You No Shame?

The Washington Post contrasts the positive reinforcement used at some Washington D.C. schools in order to motivate students when taking standardized tests, with the negative reinforcement used at another, Wilson Elementary. It describes pep rallies, student-produced rap videos, and a raffle as incentives to encourage students to do well on the district's DC-CAS exam. Obviously, the punishment at Wilson was worse. But, we must step back and ask what frightened adults have done to children.

Students and teachers at Jefferson Academy produced a delightful rap video, "Keep Calm and Rock That CAS." It was full of wit and pearls of wisdom such as an observation that kids who buy "Jordans," or $250 sneakers, are being tricked by business and, "I call that getting hustled and marked up." Those pearls, however, are being cast away on the swine of bubble-in deceit.

The video shows what our kids can do when we build on their strengths, appeal to their moral consciousness, and bring art, music, and creative insubordination into the classroom. Neither am I criticizing any individual (in the school, at least) who helped make that otherwise wonderful video. Obviously those educators are creative and sincere people. I wonder what they will feel, however, when their students realize that they helped sell them such a disgusting bill of goods.

In my experience, young children might be distracted from the humiliation inherent in high-stakes testing, but teenagers cannot. My inner city high school students were unanimous in recoiling from the indignity of being treated like number (that was found wanting) and something to be remediated and punished. When those child video stars are older, they will know that their talents were usurped in order to propagandize for a soul-killing desecration of teaching and learning. I wonder what they will think about their teachers who led them to it. Again, I hope they do not blame their teachers as individuals and I hope they are not disillusioned. (Neither am I criticizing educators facing agonizing dilemmas regarding tests that have high stakes for students.)

The Wilson tactic was simple and reprehensible. They invested $30,000 in prizes for increasing scores. Those who do not complete the test will be banned from sports. Even though the DC-CAS has no stakes for elementary students, they were subject to the Orwellian spin that they must knuckle down because, "Colleges, employers, and other service providers will see this information, and scholars will want to make sure they see a score that best reflects their abilities."

Scholars are not trained like puppies getting treats, pats on the head, and having their nose "rubbed in it" when they do not perform on schedule. Our children are scholars, artists, musicians, and advocates. Students, like the subjects they study, should be celebrated for their own sake.

My generation went to school before the term "brave new world" could be twisted into something that was not horrific. It was the time of David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd. Our adult mentors often had vivid memories of McCarthyism. When we were old enough, we were taught how "group think" could lead to witch hunts.

Now, more than ever, children must be taught the difference between "inner directed people" and "outer directed" persons who just respond to carrots and sticks. Our job as educators is to help kids cultivate their own internal locus of control. Ultimately, our kids will have to decide how to live moral lives in a commercial society that puts a price tag on everything, as it propagandizes them into believing that external forces will ultimately control their destinies. We teachers, however, must model a respect for learning. We should not abet the degradation of the seamless web of knowledge and self-expression into a market-driven metric.

Corporate school "reform" began as a sincere, though a-historical and utilitarian effort. It has degenerated into a war against the professional autonomy of teachers, but it should not assault the personal autonomy of children. It is a fight between adults. Our job is to serve students; we should not turn them into front men protecting either side of the battle.

The teachers at those schools are free to choose which side they are on. They are free to support the chancellor, Kaya Henderson, or even her mentor, Michelle Rhee. They should have second thoughts about following their self-righteous belief that the ends justify the means. It is unethical to inculcate children with an "outer directed" value system so that adults can be rewarded or punished. To borrow from the students' eloquence, to hustle children so that adults don't get marked up is wrong. Turning children into the face of a campaign for marking up others is worse.

Kaya Henderson's appearance at the end of the rap video is despicable, but illustrative. By explicitly politicizing the children's product, she implicitly acknowledges that they are pawns in the testing mania. When she started to dump the bubble-in venom on educators, Henderson did not intend for the poison to flow down onto the students. But, it has. She is squandering the best of her district's students, and teachers, on a struggle that is unworthy of them. Henderson and other market-driven "reformers" should now answer the classic question, "Have you no shame?"

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