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Jeff Nichols is a leader of the Opt Out movement in New York City. He and his wife Anne Stone have opted their children out of state tests, organized other parents, written articles, testified before officials, and raised their voices whenever and wherever possible. Both are professors of music, and they understand how little a standardized test can measure of a child’s talent and potential.
Jeff Nichols and Anne Stone are hereby added to the blog’s honor roll for their fearless advocacy for American children.
Jeff Nichols wrote the following letter to Senator Alexander, who is chair of the Senate committee that intends to rewrite No Child Left Behind:
Dear Senator Alexander,
Your committee stands charged with drawing to a close an episode of national insanity that unfortunately has considerable precedent. As in the 1950s, when fear of the Soviet Union induced an assault on our fundamental rights of free speech and freedom of association during Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunts, so in the past few years fear of the rising economic might of China and of global competition generally has led to another equally violent assault on a basic democratic principle: the right of the American people to determine for themselves the methods and policies that govern how they educate their own children.
In the name of saving those children from economic ruin at the hands of supposedly better-prepared rivals in newly developed nations, we are destroying the educational foundation of our greatness. Throughout the twentieth century, American public education was characterized by diversity and local control. Fifty state systems loosely oversaw thousands of local districts that possessed great authority to determine curriculum, assessment, hiring practices and many other basic functions of running schools. That is to speak only of the public schools; added to that picture of diversity were innumerable private and parochial schools.
The result was the rise of a free, wealthy, powerful and culturally vibrant nation virtually without parallel in the history of the world.
This is not a coincidence. Our pluralistic, decentralized, diverse education system is a primary reason science, business and the arts have been able to produce an unending stream of great discoveries and innovations that have benefited all humanity.
Yet our federal education leaders want to change all that, and they have used the instrument of high-stakes testing to force the change they want on the nation. Arne Duncan regularly sings the praises of China’s test-driven system and predicts dire consequences if we do not match their achievement. Through the Common Core and associated federal testing mandates, he is well on his way to achieving his goal.
Senator Alexander, have you read the writings of Yong Zhao, the great Chinese-American education scholar who has written definitive rebuttals of Mr. Duncan’s claims? I cite only one fact I learned from Professor Zhao’s latest book, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.
Zhao quotes from the 2013 book The Pathology of Chinese Education by Peking University professor Zheng Yefu, who wrote:
No one, after 12 years of Chinese education, has any chance to receive a Nobel prize, even if he or she went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge for college…. Out of the one billion people who have been educated in Mainland China since 1949, there has been no Nobel prize winner…. This forcefully testifies to the power of education in destroying creativity on behalf of Chinese society.
Zhao, who lived under the Chinese system in his early years, points out what anyone should realize after half a moment’s reflection: China’s education system is designed to systematically suppress original, independent thought. That’s the primary task of education systems in ALL authoritarian societies.
Bill Gates, one of the chief forces behind the current drive to shape American education in the image of China’s through relentless high-stakes testing, has decried the uncontrolled diversity of American education. He has called the myriad state standards and associated diversity of educational approaches that prevailed before the Common Core “cacophonous.”
Well, I say this to Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg — some of the members of the “billionaire’s boys club” that Diane Ravtich has accused of mounting a coup in American education:
When everyone has a voice, it gets noisy. You may call that cacophony. I call it democracy. Get used to it. You and the politicians you back may have exploited the recent Great Recession to scare states into trading their sovereign authority over education for money, but the people of those states are rising up. We are going to retake control over the education of our children. Ordinary parents and teachers will reinstate democratic governance of public schools in this nation, asserting the same rights already enjoyed by the elite (including our president) who opt out of unconstitutional federal mandates by sending their children to private schools — schools where the meaning of accountability has not been perverted beyond recognition, schools where teachers and parents are accountable only to each other as they strive, according only to their best understanding, to do what’s best for the children they are jointly raising.
Public school parents and teachers will claim the same right, with or without the help of the U.S. Congress. If necessary we will do so through civil disobedience. My wife and I will submit our two children to no state-mandated standardized tests; we have joined tens of thousands of parents in our state of New York, defying both the federal government and the state authorities who caved to federal pressure, betraying our children to serve the interests of politicians and their corporate backers.
As in the McCarthy era, there is no middle ground here, Senator Alexander. You and your colleagues in Congress will either stop scapegoating teachers for the effects of poverty, and restore to parents, teachers and local communities their rightful control over public education, or you will go down in history as enablers of one of the most destructive series of laws and policies of our time: “No Child Left Behind” and its equally flawed sequel “Race to the Top.”
I call on you to work tirelessly to remove all federal efforts to control curriculum, assessment and teaching methods in our public schools. Leave it to us citizens, who are uniting across the political spectrum to defy illegitimate federal education dictates, and who you can rest assured will not only see to it that our children are “college and career ready,” but also fully prepared to know and assert their inalienable rights in a democratic society.