A Dead End Lane

Τhere is a “dead end” sign where I don’t remember there being one before. The road just ended. In practice, that is. Officially, the dead end is where the maintained road turns into a long-since overgrown class-4 road still drawn old maps.

Returning to the rural hilltop where I grew up always makes me think. The sodden smell of decaying leaves is comforting, even when accompanied by the dull whine and sharp bite of hundreds of insects. But for all the familiarity of the dirt roads turned into tunnels by fifty shades of green, there are subtle changes. There are more signs, for one thing. The roads have names and the turnaround for the school bus is labelled with a warning to anyone who would think to park there. There are also more houses. Big houses, brought visibly close to the road, in place of the small, frequently ramshackle habitats sitting in clearings carved from the forest.

Below the hills, other parts of town are the same way. The elementary school is still there, its doors open with just under fifty students, but so is the old general store building that has simply decayed since it was shuttered close to twenty years ago. The radar traps are new, flashing a warning to drivers who ignore the speed limit through a village that seems more than a little irritated at being ignored, but unable to do much about it.

People ask me about where I come from whenever I return from these trips. Vermont is a curiosity to them, an edenic wilderness that defies the modern world or a bastion of progressive politics epitomized by a frazzled-looking white man with a thick Brooklyn accent. (When Sanders first moved to Vermont in the 1960s it was to Stannard, a nearby town where several of my high school friends lived.) It is, after all, the birthplace of Phish and home to Bread and Puppet.

Vermont has certainly earned these reputation in recent decades, with a left-leaning congressional delegation and the early recognition of homosexual partnerships. My general read on these things is that politics in Vermont that there is a strong libertarian streak and that the intimate nature of politics in such a small state helped get the delegation repeatedly re-elected more so than their voting record, with the state historically having been a bastion of Republican politics. (Between Civil War and 1988, Vermont’s electoral votes went to a Democrat once, in 1964.) Its reputation, moreover, ignores the virulent backlash against the civil union law that went into effect in 2000, the so-called “Take Back Vermont” movement—not to mention an ugly history of bigotry that includes a small but virulent anti-Catholic strain of the KKK in the 1920s. More recently, when students proposed that Vermont adopt a Latin motto there was outcry from people who believed that “Latin” meant “Latin American”. Their mistake speaks volumes both about the makeup of the population and some of the limits to the education system, despite generally positive rankings.

These are young forests. The foundations of farmhouses and lines of stone walls are common sights when walking in the woods, serving as a reminder that the state was largely deforested in the 1800s. In some ways things haven’t changed much. From the right vantage point, the granite quarries still stick out as scars against the wooded hills and agriculture remains a significant part of the economy, even as forests have reclaimed the fields.

In truth, these things work hand in hand. Vermont’s isolation and economic challenges, particularly in the corner where I grew up, lead to poverty, but also make it an attractive destination for artists and back-to-the-earth types. The result is a population that is in flux, with a percentage of the population having been born in-state below the national average.

I haven’t lived in Vermont for more than a few months in a year since starting college in 2004 and haven’t lived there at all in a decade. I can’t remember the last time I talked to an elementary school classmate, but receive periodic updates. Some are doing well, but I more frequently hear about the ones who have struggled with drugs and the law. One died earlier this year. (I do better with people who weren’t in my specific class, as well as people from high school.) Time passes, places and people change as variations on a theme. I would like to move back to Vermont, should the opportunity present itself, but that seems like a remote possibility right now. At the same time, growing up in a rural town that had its largest population in the 1840 census informs what I do as a historian and teacher.

Writing this from my couch in Columbia, Missouri, I fear that I lost my thread. I wrote the opening sentences of this post on my phone from that wooded hilltop where I had no cell reception. All I had were a few lines, a couple of observations about the dead-end dirt road I grew up on, then and now, and a sense of omen that I couldn’t quite put my finger on about a sign. I still don’t know the conclusion, except that a launch pad is a dead end of another form.

Standardized Tests and Exit Exams

Early in the ’03-’04 school year I was a senior in high school, class president and somewhere along the line I heard that I was supposed to attend student council meetings among my ‘duties’. I recall going to just one meeting: I sat on a table at the rear of the room as we were joined by members of the school board. The topic that day was standardized tests as Hazen Union had performed unacceptably and was close to losing funding under No Child Left Behind. We talked about the testing and ways to improve the scores, though I mostly railed against standardized tests at all, citing their ludicrous nature and how abysmally set up they were, especially in teaching to the test rather than teaching how to learn. In retrospect, I was really not helpful that afternoon.

The verdict was that students had no conception of why they were taking the tests, just that they were. Since early in elementary school the teachers had emphasized that the tests did not matter, which is not the same thing as not receiving a grade.1 Long story short, a group from the council was to have a discussion with each class about trying hard on the test, and I was volunteered to lead it.2 Thankfully it never actually happened, and now the high school is on some list of best high schools in the country, so ‘crisis’ averted. Now I am sure there are great teachers there, but considering the number of great teachers who have since retired or left for other reasons, I find it hard to fathom that the school went from the chopping block to highly esteemed in so few years.3

It seems odd to reminisce about this episode six years down the line and half a continent away, but today I read an article on the New York Times website about the continued proliferation of high school exit exams in the face of criticism–and more to come. Find the article here.

While I do not believe that decisions are made arbitrarily or maliciously on a large scale, they may still be misguided. Really three issues emerge: first the value of standardized tests, second the value of standardized exit exams, third the purpose of schools.

1) Standardized tests are made to ensure that every student is learning a certain amount, which is an enviable goal, but ultimately restricts teachers from teaching. Instead there is a situation where the powers that be decide what needs to be learned. In the humanities this is even more exaggerated since it often falls to rote memorization or simple narrative to make sure that the kids know what they need to know to perform on demand. Naturally funding is tied to these tests.

Of course the most gain to be had in those fields where testing names, dates, etc, is taking place is inherently in their flexibility. The chance for teachers to deviate from merely a time-line and engage students, or go beyond the novels deemed useful, but not too controversial, to engage the students, expose them to something new and teach them to think–rather the opposite from brainwashing, or nap-time.

This is just the current gripe, and while they are also a waste of time, the list could keep going on and on.

2) As bad as standardized tests are, exit exams are worse, and this is the focus of the article. A common effect of these exams is that dropout rates increase as students are held back by the district. Now at some level it may be good, and any system of grades that includes an ‘F’ equivalent and yet forces the students to be there until a certain age will hold some back, but exit exams increase that percentage as a second filter beyond the classes grades appears. The first problem here is that it inherently assumes that the teachers are unable to deal with students who do not keep up. The assumption adds to that of other standardized tests, only is an across the board assessment of those teachers, every year, soon to be kindergarten through high school.4

The more pressing issue in all of this is that exit exams are being simplified to make sure that most students can pass the tests. This defeats the purpose of the tests.

If, as claimed, these tests will ensure that high schoolers are ready for college, and that the powers that be decided that kids need to know a certain amount of information before graduating, then that is what they need to know. Reducing the standards because the education system did not rise to the expectations makes the test a waste of time and money, while keeping the standards and holding more students back admits failure of the education. In either situation the tests make no sense at all.

Either there needs to be continued evaluation of coursework, participation, and the rest of the traditional barometers of grading in each individual subject, or a single test at the end. Doubling them up makes the traditional grades moot, unless the students must first jump through those hoops to even take the exit examination.

3) In their work Who Killed Homer?, classicist John Heath and historian Victor Davis Hanson suggested that modern education pounds people into one broad mold, which continually restricts as people fall away until a select few academic masochists with no perceivable teaching skills emerge with PhD’s, everyone else choosing a point of this road to stop. Their suggestion, much in line with vocational schools and some college programs is that schools must teach skills, not just books. Traditional education usually consisted of skill training for most of the population, while only a select group even did academic work up through high school.

A re-division of society along those lines is too extreme and entirely infeasible, but merits thought. The goal of public high school education is college preparation, a rounded course of education that will enable students to succeed in college. Yet not all of those students will go to college, so the school must also teach this rounded skill set to those students, averaging out what curriculum is expected.

Everyone should know basic history, be able to read, write and do arithmetic, but academics is not for everyone. Once beyond the capacity to perform those functions, the more important task is to engage the students,5 push creativity and interest, which is only inhibited by making these students jump through ever increasing hoops.

As a quick aside, standardized tests basically ensure that schools cannot reasonably teach history to its fullest. A good teacher can still get students excited by the topic, but the beauty of it is how versatile history is towards promoting thinking. Anyone who knows how to research can learn that the Declaration of Independence was July 4, 1776, or that Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BCE, but without reading too much into the situations, both mark times and situations when people stood up and threw down tyranny and government overreach.

If only it were that easy for school reform.

1 Though I have heard some stories from my mother about my early schooling that make this oversight look quite good in comparison.
2 Yes, someone else volunteered me.
3 Those distinctions were based somewhat on different criteria, but not wholly.
4 Please, can someone tell me what exactly we are testing kindergartners on to let them move to first grade? I remember playing with blocks and going to time-out for throwing clay…I am not seeing much of an exit exam in all of that.
5 Incidents in middle and high school where I know I was not engaged (all during class): taping a friend to a door, napping outside in the sun, witnessing someone stapling his pants to his leg, reading kosher dietary regulations…to the class, singing little bunny foo-foo as a class to the freshmen in the next classroom, and ditching group projects to calculate how many dimples there were on a basketball (somewhere around 23,000, if I recall correctly).