THE IMPACT OF STANDARDIZATION, CORPORATIZATION, AND HIGH STAKES TESTING ON STUDENTS, TEACHERS, COMMUNITIES, SCHOOLS, AND DEMOCRACY
by T. Poetter and J. Googins (Eds)
A book review
I need to begin with full disclosure: I have known and been friends with the co-author Tom Poetter for fifteen years. I am a huge fan of his other work including The Education Sam Sanders and Teacher Leadership for the 21st Century , for which I was invited to write the Forward in the first edition. Poetter is one of the finest education scholars of our time; a curriculum scholar who embraces the idea of public pedagogy (outside the comfy walls of the ivory tower), and who possesses a rich critical understanding of how education policies look and feel in the k12 arenas in which they are implemented.
Like the books that have preceded this one, Was Someone Mean to You Today does not disappoint its readers. Poetter and co-editor Jody Googins perform a feat of magic, in which they eloquently weave together scholarly theories (so often left lifeless on the graduate school floor) and examine how these theories are manifest in the real world lived experiences of educators, students and parents. As someone fairly well versed in curriculum theorizing and the idea of currere (a curricular concept created by William F Pinar circa 1975), I was impressed with how Poetter and Googins are able to “translate” currere into the central guiding framework for the book. It is intelligible, practical and relevant in ways I could have never imagined prior to reading this book. Currere becomes a powerful tool for those of us wishing to reclaim public education from the destructive grip of “mean” policies. Citing William F. Pinar, Poetter and Googins define currere as a “four step process that involves viewing life experience and our interpretations of reality as a venture into curriculum theorizing that is ‘the scholarly effort to understand the curriculum, conceived … as a complicated conversation’ (Pinar, 2012, p.1).”
The reader of this book need not be intimidated by dense and impenetrable theorizing, something which too often alienates non-curriculum scholars (aka “normal people”). Rather than spending too much time talking about it, Poetter and Googins show their readers HOW currere looks in action, and by example, make the case for its power in dismantling dominant discourses.
The question, “Was Someone Mean to You Today” is one we usually associate with children confronting bullies in the school hallways, except in this case, as the title implies, the bullies are the corporate-style reformers intimidating and terrorizing teachers and students with “bully” policies. The book demonstrates how currere becomes a tool for standing up to the bullies.
As Poetter explains in the Introduction:
“These ‘treatments’ (papers) would be four-page, scholarly essays with an autobiographical perspective, ‘synthesizing’ the course readings, course writing by other students, discussions in class, the news, societal trends, recent movements in the reform universe etc (currere’s synthesis step) … What I wanted them to begin seeing were the complex connections among our stories, the emergent themes that became resonant, and the power the larger story, told by all of us, about the problems that current ‘reform’ movement has created for American public schools ..” (p. 8).
And the multiple authors do not shy away from strong language, for example entitling Chapter One “NCLB: Educational Genocide.” They call ‘em as they see ’em. I respect writing like that.
Through the process of currere, these graduate students (now turned authors) transform their own self-reflective journeys into a cohesive book that tackles the more painful and challenging issues in education including equity, racism, classism, accountability, technology, power, dominance and democracy. The students in this project reflect on their own stories of public schooling and interactions with education policies. The voices of each student, reflecting on their own journey expose the grotesque underbelly of the testing and accountability narratives. Their first -person accounts layer with, across and upon one another, forming a symphony of powerful anti-reform stories that truly speak “truth to power.” For example, on p. 19, Googens, Shoen, and Smith demand that, “Data, statistics, and test scores cannot tell our story.”
And the book is undeniably relevant. The New York Times this past week examined how Texas is re-writing its social studies curriculum to soften the narrative of American slavery. And this news echoes the words of currere-author Kim Jenkins in her section entitled “Framing the Issue: Race and the Rhetoric of Disguise” where she says, “”Never let them dilute your history because if you let them, they will take control of your story and lessen the horror…” p, 84.
In between these individual personal narratives the editors and authors “zoom out” so as to guide the reader through a meta-analysis of the stories, drawing from various scholars such as Dewey, Kumashiro, or Heidegger, within the context of the bigger themes which the stories address. For example in Chapter Three the authors “frame” the story of “Peggy” (one of the many currere-authors), stating:
“In the following piece by Peggy Larrick, she speaks about the hidden curriculum in schools set forth by social norms for student behavior in terms of appearance and respect for authority figures. Peggy reflects on her naïve mission to help children in her district achieve social justice, but comes to realize that imposing her middle-class ways on students is not the answer to their success” (p. 91).
The stories are honest, difficult, heart-wrenching and inspirational. Through these stories we can relate, and consider the possibility of reflecting on our own stories, and changing ourselves. The story-tellers do not tell readers what they ought to do, they do not lecture, they do not preach; but they relate to us through their personal experiences.
Before I was even through the Introduction I was thinking to myself, “I need to get my colleagues to read this.” Before I was through Chapter One I was thinking, “I need to get my students to read this book.” I found myself highlighting nearly every line on every page. My final recommendation is that anyone who cares about the future of public education read this book. Rare is it find a text that is powerful, honest, informed, and accessible to all possible (real) stakeholders: teachers, parents, students, and community activists.
Poetter and Googins successfully elevate currere from the pages of graduate syllabi and textbooks, giving the currere process life and power through their own self -reflective narratives, and in doing so having given those of us fighting for democracy and equity in public education an invaluable resource.