A N.J. Teacher Makes an Immodest Proposal

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Today Walter Bowne, an A.P. English teacher somewhere in South Jersey, argues in NJ Spotlight that PARCC test results should not be tied to his teaching evaluation because “results only matter to bureaucrats” and his students are unmotivated to do well. “My students,” he explains, “accepted into college, some to the best in the land, can chuckle over their PARCC ‘F.’ “

One hardly knows where to begin.

Let’s start with a basic fact, which Bowne surely must know: high school teachers’ evaluations are not tied to Student Growth Percentiles, or SGPs. His students’ PARCC results have no bearing on his evaluation. From the regulations for AchieveNJ:

For SGP to be part of a teacher’s evaluation, the teacher must be:
Assigned to a 4th-8th-grade Language Arts or 4th-7th grade Math course for 60% or more of the year prior to the date on which the state test was administered.

 More troubling than his disregard for facts is Bowne’s privileged view of teaching high school-level language arts. Here’s his description of his students’ attitude towards different standardized assessments:

The AP exam matters, as well as the SAT and PSAT and the ACT, because students are vested in the exam. They also pay, or parents pay, for the exam. And we tend to value those things that we pay for. As an instructor for AP Language and Composition, I “sell” the importance of the exam. While I may not buy the “timed” aspect of writing, an artificial construct, I do value the types of writing it assesses: synthesis, persuasion, and rhetorical analysis. The instruction is based on classical models, dating as far back as Aristotle — and my students learn the first trivium — grammar, logic, and rhetoric. It’s the foundation of Western “liberal” education — liberal from libre, meaning free, not from Hillary Clinton. 

So when a hundred students sit for the AP exam in May, they are ready for the challenge — three essays and fifty multiple choice questions on 19th century and 20th century prose. Four hours. No mere walk in the PARCC, let’s say. After all, students have deconstructed and scrutinized and analyzed the prose of Winston Churchill, Jonathan Swift, and Thomas Friedman, as well as composed numerous essays and research papers.

Well, bully for them. After learning the first trivium and deconstructing the prose of Churchill and Swift, PARCC tests must seem like just so much detritus, especially since students can substitute their (purchased) SAT and ACT scores for PARCC as graduation requirements. (Ironically, the N.J. D.O.E. decided to delay PARCC as a high school graduation requirement until 2019 in order to protect less privileged students from losing out on high school diplomas.)

But the best response to Bowne’s editorial is  Marianne Lombardo’s reaction to John Oliver’s rant about standardized testing.  Lombardo poses a juxtaposition:

Black people are protesting because their children face institutionalized racism.
White people are protesting because their children have to take a test.

Lombardo continues, “people of privilege can endure a little discomfort and teach their kids that contributing to a greater good is the greatest value. We’re all in this together. Perhaps that, more than anything, is what is missing from the education discourse.”

And that’s what’s missing from Bowne’s discourse. Instead, his message is “my kids don’t need to take annual standardized assessments so screw yours.”

Now, as a former composition teacher myself, I get Bowne’s appreciation for Jonathan Swift and other Western canonical writers. But, Mr. Bowne, you do know that Swift’s pamphlet, “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to their Parents, or the Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick,” was a satire, right?

I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand Children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for Breed, whereof only one fourth part to be Males, which is more than we allow to Sheep, black Cattle, or Swine, and my reason is, that these Children are seldom the Fruits of Marriage, a Circumstance not much regarded by our Savages, therefore, one Male will be sufficient to serve four Females. That the remaining hundred thousand may at a year Old be offered in Sale to the persons of Quality and Fortune, through the Kingdom, always advising the Mother to let them Suck plentifully in the last Month, so as to render them Plump, and Fat for a good Table. A Child will make two Dishes at an Entertainment for Friends, and when the Family dines alone, the fore or hind Quarter will make a reasonable Dish, and seasoned with a little Pepper or Salt will be very good Boiled on the fourth Day, especially in Winter.

I jest. I hyperbolize. But one of the linchpins of the anti-testing argument, which Bowne articulates here, is a flagrant disregard for children who don’t take A.P. tests or don’t even have the opportunity to take A.P. tests. (Camden High School, also in South Jersey, has an A.P. participation rate of 0%.) Bowne  writes,”why should students care [about PARCC tests]? What’s in it for them?,” negating Lombardo’s call for teaching children that they can endure a little discomfort for the greater good. Instead, Bowne says that we should  sacrifice the  educational and informational needs of poor students and their families in order to not inconvenience his students, those “persons of Fortune.”  If Bowne were kidding, we could call him a latter-day Swift.

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