Jeff Nichols and his wife Anne Stone are outspoken critics of standardized testing. They have two children in public school. Here is Jeff’s testimony to the Néw York City Council, in which he eloquently explains why the tide is turning against standardized testing. He speaks on behalf of the values of humane education, creativity, diversity, originality, individuality–now almost forgotten in this new age of uniformity and standardization.

Testimony in support of City Council Resolution 1394-2012
Jeff Nichols
Change the Stakes
November 25, 2013

Thank you Councilman Jackson for this opportunity to testify in favor of Resolution 1394. My wife, Anne Stone and I have two young children, Aaron and Gabriel, in fifth and fourth grades respectively. We belong to Change the Stakes, a group of parents and educators with no budget, no hierarchy, which anyone can join, a group of citizens united by outrage over the astonishing direction education has taken in recent years.

In an era of economic scarcity, we are wasting billions of dollars on the futile search for an illusory accountability system that will finally allow us to quantify the relationship between a teacher and a child. Think about that for a minute. Is there a more complex structure in the universe than the human brain? And we’re talking about interactions between two of them. We want a single score or rating to explain how one affects the other. It is beyond my comprehension, but this search is the driving force in national education policy today, despite the fact that not only teachers and parents in ever-increasing numbers, but testing and assessment experts as well decry this practice – not because any of us thinks our children shouldn’t be challenged by difficult tasks in school, or that the performance of teachers in the classroom should not be judged by the highest standards, but because there is no scientific validity whatsoever to the use of these tests as the primary instrument for evaluating children and teachers. We cannot kid ourselves that just because high-stakes testing has become predominant in our schools, it is moral or even rational. Societies go astray just as individuals do. The greatness of the United States is not that we are immune from committing profound social wrongs, but that our system of government allows us to right them.

The tide is turning against the abuse of standardized testing. Now city education officials say they agree with us that test-driven education is wrong, but their hands are tied by state officials, who in turn say they are compelled by federal law. This passing of the buck has to stop. In the United States, we do not accept “I was just following orders” as an excuse for violations of basic rights, like that of our children to a public education based on best practices of the profession. When the state tries to compel educational malpractice, it is the right of citizens to civilly disobey. My wife and I have boycotted standardized tests since they stole our then-third grader’s love of school from him two years ago. We and our fellow parents and teachers at Change the Stakes ask that our local leaders refuse to follow misguidance from above and fulfill their obligation to meet the educational needs of their constituents’ children. Resolution 1394 is a great step in that direction. But we want more — much more. New York City is universally recognized as a major cultural and economic center. Let us also become known as world leaders in education, not just rejecting wrong policies, but promoting true innovation in the classroom by allowing public school teachers the same intellectual freedom that teachers enjoy in the exclusive private schools most of our political leaders send their children to. As the great education scholar Yong Zhao has argued, if we need everybody to be creative, entrepreneurial, globally competent, we need a new paradigm. It would seek not to reduce human diversity through pervasive testing and standardized curricula, but to expand human diversity through the values of progressive education. As he says, “America cannot afford to catch up to others, we must lead the way, be the first to take on so-called progressive education not as something nice to do, but as an economic necessity.” And the central value of progressive education is the empowerment of the individual mind, be it of teacher or child — its liberation from arbitrary and constrictive external mandates.

Today the best our highest education authorities can do to justify their policies is to drone on endlessly about “college and career readiness.” To them I ask, what about citizenship readiness? How are teachers supposed to convey to their students what it means to be members of a democratic society when they are denied any meaningful say in curricula or teaching methods, when the terms of their employment include the equivalent of loyalty oaths, threats of termination if they fail to promote and prepare kids for the endless testing?

Teachers should instill democratic values in children by participating themselves in the governance of our schools, in which they, along with parents and concerned members of the local community, have real power.

And teachers should instill critical and creative thinking by modeling the same in the projects, assignments, and curricula they design. They cannot do that if their job description is to spew Common Core scripts.

We ask the City Council to exercise its powers to place educators in charge of education again, backing teachers and parents as we retake control of our schools and free them of the destructive influence of those who view public education not as the foundation of our democracy but as an investment opportunity.

And I have a message for our new mayor: the teachers of this city know exactly what our children need. They should not have to compete with anyone for your attention. We voted for you over opponents promoting the so-called education reform agenda because we expect you to restore the authority of teachers over their own classrooms, because they, and only they, are the professionals who know and understand our children’s educational needs. They should have your undivided attention as you craft your education policies; only one other group should be on a par with them: parents.

Jeff Nichols
Associate Professor
Queens College and The Graduate Center, CUNY