Standardized Testing and Mayor Mike

New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg has just announced that he will place still greater emphasis on the use of standardized testing in his administration of the public schools.

There are people, easily located on the Web, who oppose any and all use of standardized testing in the schools. I am not one of these. There is and there will continue to be an important place for the intelligent and critical use of standardized testing in education. But as I read the recent pronouncements from City Hall and the White House, I fear that the trend is away from intelligence and critical examination of these tests, toward an ever increasing acceptance of them at face value, as completely reliable measures of success in the schools. The about-face by Obama, from pre-election statements that signaled a much more critical approach, is especially worrying.

Much of the political language pushing the primacy of standardized testing borrows from economic notions of “efficiency.” As Henry Ford found, an assembly line, based on interchangeable parts, allows for the building of more and cheaper automobiles. Make sure the line runs smoothly, make sure the right worker tightens the right bolt at the right time, and out it comes: the well-running Model T. Why not use such methods to get Johnny to produce mastery of the Three R’s, efficiently, thoroughly, and without the bothersome interference of teachers’ unions ? (Henry Ford thought of the UAW much as the standardized-test enthusiasts of today think of the UFT.)

Some standardized tests are better than others, some test more, others less, for underlying abilities that are relevant to what we want from education. In any case, each test, and each use of a test, needs to be critically examined: does it do what we want ? To what extent does it do this ?
But beyond the virtues, or otherwise, of specific uses of these tests, there are some inherent limitations to which its critics point. Here are just some of these:

1) Experienced teachers say that it is almost impossible to eliminate widespread cheating on standardized tests, by students, teachers, and even administrators. This does not mean that these tests should be abolished, but it does mean that greater caution needs to shown in their interpretation.

2) It is probably impossible to test, in the context of these standardized measures, for some of the most important results of a humane education:

a. A critical approach to book learning. No, it’s not only Wikipedia that can mislead you — any established source is error-prone, bias-prone. Our children need to learn, as a matter of intellectual habit, to check one source against many others.

b. A realization that appearance is not necessarily reality. A man has degrees, titles, positions; another has none. The two get into an argument. Who is right, and why ? Our children should learn, more and more as they progress through the grades, that not everything that glitters is gold.

3) The more there is an emphasis on standardized tests, the more teachers will be pressured to “teach for The Test.” Here is a teacher, say of American history, who knows that a deeper and better understanding of the Civil War requires generous side-glances at European society, at the American and European literature of the day, at Africa and its cultures. But these things will not be “on The Test.” What is he to do ? Furnish what he knows is the better education, or teach, as Henry Ford would no doubt counsel, to “produce results,” efficiently, i.e. results on The Test ? What do you think he will do ?

Read statement by United Federation of Teachers

Dell Hymes, RIP

Dell Hymes, one of the great American linguists, has died at the age of 82.

Hymes was one of the great influences on me as I did my field work on Gypsies. He was a linguist, an anthropologist, and never wavered from his devotion to empirical research as the foundation of the study of language, that is to say language in the context culture. In this he differed radically from the speculative, armchair “linguists” of today.

Read Margalit Fox’s obit in the New York Times of 11/22/09.

Read the article in Reed Magazine (Hymes was a graduate of Reed) by Rebecca Koffman, Winter 2008.

The Laogai of China

Chongqing (AsiaNews/CHRD)

New Yorkers who understand French can subscribe to the French TV network TV 5 Monde and often get information that American media ignore. So tonight we heard about the ongoing totalitarian repression in China, something that should not have surprised me, but it did, just because we do not hear much about it. It’s not a secret, there is quite a bit of information on the internet, yet for all the American public knows, “Laogai” may as well be a secret. There are millions — perhaps as many as seven million — prisoners in forced labor camps all over China. The Chinese bureaucratic term Laogai, “reform through labor,” has now entered European languages to mean what it in fact is: brutal political and cultural repression There is a Laogai Research Foundation, a Laogai Museum in Washington (whose founder was Harry Wu), and a small band of human rights activists who take an interest. The prisoners are persons suspected of political or cultural or religious incorrectness, or in some cases are people who have committed criminal acts.

Could we perhaps get Ms. Clinton to think about Laogai the next time she hobnobs with Chinese Communist diplomats ? Or perhaps Mr. Obama might keep it mind at some diplomatic cocktail party, while sipping a cocktail with the Chinese ambassador ? He should be warned that a Chinese Communist diplomat in Berlin became furious and abusive after the Bundestag voted to condemn Laogai a couple of years ago.

Update, Nov. 17, 2009. Harry Wu to Obama: remember human rights on your visit !

Moyers, Goldstone, and the Shackled Hands

Some six weeks ago, on Wednesday, September 23, Bill Moyers interviewed Judge Richard Goldstone on the PBS “Journal.” The judge had just released his Report in which he had accused Israel (and, much less urgently, Hamas) of “war crimes” in the conduct of the 2008-9 Gaza war.

(It should be noted parenthetically that while Judge Goldstone has made numerous Recommendations to Israel for improving its behavior, his Report has nothing to recommend to Hamas, at least not to Hamas by name.)

As I listened to these two gentlemen in September, Moyers and Goldstone — each more compassionate than the other, each more exuding compassion and good will than the other — one accusation struck me as the most frightening of them all: it appears that Israel, in Goldstone’s telling, had actually and deliberately shot prisoners to death whose hands were shackled behind them. The image stuck in my mind. No, I didn’t believe that Jewish boys, even in the midst of war, would deliberately shoot captured and “shackled” men to death. And yet … Jews, God knows, are no angels. Some are terribly cruel, not doubt. Could a terrible thing like this have happened ? I decided to look into the matter as much as I could. And I found out, as we shall see, that the best short answer to the question is that this alleged cruelty did not take place.

First of all, my memory played a trick on me. (I would suggest that others must have had the same experience.) I had remembered that, in the interview, Goldstone had actually used the words “shooting people whose hands were shackled behind them.” It turns out that it wasn’t Goldstone but Moyers who used the words, and that Goldstone — shall I say merely ? — that Goldstone assented to this telling of the story. Here (right below the video) is the relevant transcript:

BILL MOYERS: Your report, as you know, basically accuses Israel of waging war on the entire population of Gaza.

RICHARD GOLDSTONE: That’s correct.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, there are allegations in here, some very tough allegations of Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed civilians who pose no threat, of shooting people whose hands were shackled behind them, of shooting two teenagers who’d been ordered off a tractor that they were driving, apparently carrying wounded civilians to a hospital, of homes, hundreds, maybe thousands of homes destroyed, left in rubble, of hospitals bombed. I mean there are some questions about one or two of your examples here, but it’s a damning indictment of Israel’s conduct in Gaza, right?

RICHARD GOLDSTONE: Well, it is outrageous, and there should have been an outrage. You know, the response has not been to deal with the substance of those allegations. I’ve really seen or read no detailed response in respect of the incidents on which we report.

Now, in his Report itself, the accusation by the Judge is very far from what it appears to be in this interview.

First of all, nowhere that I can see does the Report accuse Israeli soldiers of shooting “people” (i.e. plural) whose hands were shackled. I did not read every word of this 575-page report, but I looked at every use of the words “tied,” “shackled,” and “bound.” There was only one instance that I could find in which the Report alleges that an Arab prisoner died while his hands were bound, the case of Iyad al-Samouni, which the Report takes up in paragraphs 739-742. These tell a confused story, completely based on Palestinian sources, about which Goldstone himself, it seems, had some doubts:

741. While the fire directed at Iyad al-Samouni [in shackles] could have been intended to incapacitate rather than to kill, by threatening his family members and friends with lethal fire, the Israeli armed forces ensured that he did not receive lifesaving medical help. They deliberately let him bleed to death.

So, it turns out, there was no cold-blooded deliberate killing of “people,” or even of one person, as far as the Judge’s actual Report goes.

Judge Goldstone’s Report, relying on Palestinian and pro-Palestinian sources, paints the al-Samouni family as totally pacifist and innocent of terrorist activities. Other reports have claimed that this family has been involved in terrorist activities. On the whole, Judge Goldstone relies on biased sources, makes light of Hamas terror, and, overall, falls short of the blind justice that he is sworn to uphold. All that has been documented in the sources that I cite below. But in this case of “shackled hands” he has colluded with Bill Moyers in something that goes far beyond bias: a truly dreadful allegation, made orally on national TV, for which he could find no evidence in his own Report.

UPDATE (Feb. 3, 2010): Israeli Government Reply to Goldstone

Watch the debate at Brandeis University between Judge Goldstone and former Israeli Ambassador Dore Gold

Read more about Goldstone and his Report:
Dershowitz’s detailed case against Goldstone
Update 2/9/10: The Goldstone Report relied heavily on the work of extreme leftist groups in Israel. These groups were largely financed from abroad. Among their most important financial sources was the New York-based New Israel Fund, headed by the American-educated former member of Knesset, Naomi Chazan. Here is a full report of how NIF-financed groups contributed to the Goldstone bias.

Update 3/15/10: A very detailed response to Goldstone — about 350 pages — is now available from the Intelligence and Terrorism Information, an Israel NGO: “Hamas and the Terrorist Threat from Gaza.”

Update 5/7/10: The Israeli press has uncovered sordid details about Goldstone’s past, especially how, as an appellate judge for the apartheid regime, he routinely approved death sentences against Blacks.

The Gory "La Marseillaise" — Why ?

Americans, in their national anthem, seem to worry most of all whether their flag is “yet” to be seen. The English hope that their Queen will be “happy” (and, of course, glorious). But the French, the French, they sing about bloody banners, about throats being slit, and, most dramatically, they hope that the “impure” blood of (unnamed) enemies will fertilize their countryside.

This is what I find puzzling: the French, judged in any other way, have as humane, as liberal, as tolerant a public life as any country on earth. But how did these bloody, anachronistic, sadistic sentiments remain in their official national anthem over the centuries ?

It isn’t that the gore has been unnoticed. More than a hundred years ago, Jean Jaurès, father of the French Left, protested against it. But now in 2009 the text is still with us, an official monument to ancient hatreds and ancient rancor. Why ?

Allons enfants de la Patrie, Come, children of the Fatherland,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé ! The day of glory has arrived!
Contre nous de la tyrannie, Against us, tyranny’s
L’étendard sanglant est levé, (bis) Bloody banner is raised, (repeat)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes Do you hear in the countryside
Mugir ces féroces soldats ? Those ferocious soldiers roaring?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras They come up to your arms
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes ! To slit the throats of your sons and wives!
Aux armes, citoyens, To arms, citizens,
Formez vos bataillons, Form your battalions,
Marchons, marchons ! Let’s march, let’s march!
Qu’un sang impur May an impure blood
Abreuve nos sillons ! Water our furrows!