Books can inform, inspire and unite
Ari Klein and I are the conveners of the Heights Coalition for Public Education, where we have observed that discussing a book can lead to a shared understanding of complex issues, and set the stage for action.
More than 160 parents, teachers and others, mostly from Cleveland Heights and University Heights, read and digested Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Threat to America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch, in 2014. The eye-opening discussion brought out the ways in which public education is under attack. It led the readers to establish the coalition, which exists to resist destructive education policy.
Last month, 60 people met at Heights Middle School to discuss another book, Daniel Koretz’s The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better. It was a diverse gathering of retired, practicing and pre-service teachers from our district and 14 other districts, university faculty, parents, community advocates, all five members of the CH-UH Board of Education and state board of education member Meryl Johnson.
Everyday wisdom might suggest that people are too busy to read a book and leave home to talk about it, and too comfortable using social media to engage in a 90-minute conversation with strangers on uncomfortable stools in a middle school cafeteria. Not so! These motivated readers came for support, catharsis, a chance to be heard, and to search for a way out of a terrible mess.
As people streamed in, they recorded on charts the concerns that brought them to the meeting: worries about our youth and our future, unhappiness about excessive testing and its effects on students and teachers, and interest in fixing the testing problem.
The readers were affected by the book and the personal horror stories shared around each table about the alarming consequences of test-based accountability, including stressed-out and frightened children, disregard for children's individuality, pressure on teachers to compromise, and the loss of recess and art to time spent on raising test scores. Tests have become the meaning and purpose of education. Tests diminish teachers and undermine the dignity of education professionals.
At the end of the evening, representatives of each table reported on how the book and discussion had changed their understanding of high-stakes testing. One group felt validated about their concerns. Another appreciated its new-found vocabulary for explaining why testing is not an accurate measure. “I thought the problem was too much instructional time lost to testing,” said school board president Jodi Sourini. “Now I know it’s so much bigger.”
I approached this project fatigued by the wearying reality that high-stakes testing is causing deep damage. Despite six years of coalition advocacy, the negative effects have only worsened. The discussion renewed my sense of urgency and made me proud of the coalition for its contributions to increasing awareness.
Our book discussions bring together the community and those who are affected by the issues. They provide a venue for meaningful discussion of dangerous policies. The discussions end isolation and promote deeper understanding, and they give participants the courage to act.
Policies are dry on paper and often appear innocuous, but listening to those who live with those policies will drive you out of your comfort zone and, it is hoped, into action.
We have to end high-stakes testing. I hope our dedicated, informed and courageous readers will share their understanding of the “testing charade” with their neighbors, friends and elected officials. This is how we will dislodge this destructive threat to the common good.
Susie Kaeser has been a public school advocate and resident of Cleveland Heights for 40 years. She is co-convener of the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the retired director of Reaching Heights.