Scenes From Out-of-Balance Schooling

The author recounts too many painful scenarios illustrating the Hopi concept of koyaanisqati, or craziness by David C. Berliner

Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word meaning one of five things: “crazy life, life in turmoil, life disintegrating, life out of balance, or a state of life that calls for another way of living.” It was the title of a film many years ago that had no dialogue, only music and painful visual representations of all five definitions of the word.

A recent incident made me think that life as an educator is terribly out of balance and demands that we find another way of living. Starting with that incident, and in what follows, I will substitute narrative for the visuals of the movie I have in mind as my model. Imagine each account as a scene illustrating koyaanisqatsi.

Scene 1
Title: “Kill the Teachers”
Location: Police station, New Braunfels, Texas

A complaint was filed with the New Braunfels Police Department. A teacher with 18 years at the local middle school reported that her principal was angry because scores on the tests they use to assess students regularly during the school year were not better. The principal worried that poor performance on those tests were predictors of low scores on the upcoming Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. The police report states at the end of a faculty meeting the principal told his teachers that if the TAKS scores were not as good as expected, he would kill the teachers. According to an account in the San Antonio Express-News, he is quoted as saying: “I will kill you all and kill myself.” After threatening to murder the teachers and commit suicide, he added, “You don’t know how ruthless I can be.” Koyaanisqatsi.

Scene 2
Title: “God’s Special Interest in Testing”
Location 1: Orange County, Fla.

When Evans High School students looked down to take the 2008 Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, dozens of community members bowed their heads, too. They prayed. A group of about 40 churchgoers believed the power of God would do something more than what studying and test preparation had done for the struggling school in the past. The power of God was expected to raise the school’s state-issued letter grade above the F the school had received the previous two years. The Rev. Michael Kimbrough, pastor of the nearby Rising Sun Baptist Church, organized the prayer chain through which God’s intercession was sought in the FCAT writing assessment this past February.

In March, while students took the reading, math and science portions of the test, church members expected to be walking, kneeling and joining hands in prayer outside the high school. The church’s vigil was to be continued throughout the week of test-taking. A special FCAT prayer service was called so that the faithful could pray for good grades at the school.

An eyewitness to the events was Marian Raftis, who reported the following in the church’s newsletter: “The FCAT event was an awesome experience! We began by attending a Sun. service ... with about 200 Evans students and faculty as well as some parents. The service was about 3 hrs long with lots of praise and short talks of encouragement from Pastor Kimbrough and the football coach. 12 students accepted Christ that day. The service ended with everyone in a circle at the alter. Some were kneeling and some standing but all holding hands and praying for positive results for the FCAT test. Monday we had 8 from our church praying and 3 others from the community. We walked around the campus of the High School and could feel the presence of The Holy Spirit.”

The Orlando Sentinel account of these events in mid-February indicated “prayer is among the increasingly creative ways that schools and the community are encouraging Central Florida students to excel on the annual FCAT.” Koyaanisqatsi.

Location 2: Hernando County, Fla.

It apparently was a hard Friday at Brooksville Elementary School with lots of misbehavior. FCAT testing was due to start the following week and the school’s problems seemed to be overwhelming. So, according to the St. Petersburg Times, the principal and a few staff members made the decision to appeal to a higher power. Principal Mary LeDoux said staff members wanted to say some prayers for the students on the Friday night before the FCAT began. She went into all the classrooms with four or five colleagues and they prayed. They also blessed all the children’s desks by anointing them with prayer oil. Koyaanisqatsi.

Scene 3
Title: “Test ’Em All!”
Location: Various states

A 14-year-old Florida child who lost her brother to a shooting and was still mourning was forced to take the FCATs, as was a 15-year-old who had recently discovered his father hanged in their home and who was suffering anxiety attacks from that tragedy.

In Louisiana, a student involved in a car accident that claimed the lives of her brother and sister was left paralyzed from the chest down owing to a brain injury. She was forced to relearn basic math and such basic skills as how to hold a pencil. But she too was forced to take the regular state exam at the regular time it was administered.

In California, Philip Cacho, a 17-year-old with cerebral palsy who cannot talk and is nearly blind, worked diligently to graduate from Berkeley High School on time with his classmates. But he found the state exit exam from high school a bit beyond his abilities. Philip quit school in October of his senior year.

In 2005, California required 20,000 special education students to take the regular California accountability tests, embarrassing many of them while lowering the achievement scores of their schools. Memphis, Tenn., required more than 15,000 special-needs students to take the state’s high-stakes achievement tests with the same sad outcomes. (All of these incidents are reported in greater detail in Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools by Sharon Nichols and David Berliner.) Koyaanisqatsi.

Scene 4
Title: “America Loves All Its Children!”
Location: Urban and rural areas in various states

Maryland and New Hampshire must love their children. They have the lowest rates of childhood poverty among the 50 states. Each has about 11 percent of their children in poverty, rates that nevertheless are about twice that of some other industrialized nations. Contrast this with children in northern European countries, notably Denmark, which provides free health care, free college and equitable income distributions for families.

Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico must not love their children as much. They are the states with the highest rates of childhood poverty. In those states, 26-30 percent of the children are poor. Their childhood poverty rates are about 180 percent higher than Maryland and New Hampshire, and they have about six times the childhood poverty rates of some other industrialized nations.

So some states love their children much more than others, but no states seem to love their children as well as some other developed nations, according to reports from the Innocenti Foundation for UNICEF and the Every Child Matters Education Fund. New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana have more than 200 percent more teen pregnancies every year than does New Hampshire. Furthermore, when comparing New Mexico and Arizona to some other states, we find there are 400 percent more who never see a doctor during pregnancy or see one only late in pregnancy and 400 percent more children are medically uninsured in Texas than in Rhode Island. Obviously some states care for their children much better than do some others.

If you measure infant deaths per 1,000 live births in the United States, the lowest rates are found in Montana and Vermont, where 4.5 deaths per 1,000 live births are recorded. Although they love their mothers and children more than other Americans, the rate in those two states remains about double that of some other nations. Louisiana seems not to love its children and parents as the state’s infant mortality rate is 10.5 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, 133 percent higher than in Montana and Vermont. This rate of tragedy in Louisiana is about four times greater than some other nations. Among African-American citizens in Louisiana, the rate of tragedy is much worse.

After surviving the first year, the death rate is 11 per 100,000 for youth who are between 1 and 14 years old in Rhode Island, but in South Dakota it is 39 per 100,000. Thus America’s youngest learners are 2 times more likely to die in one state than in another. And when youngsters make it through to adolescence, the death rate in Alaska among 15- to 19- year olds is 177 percent higher than in Hawaii. Studies of inequality in child welfare across America show the youth incarceration rate in one state is more than seven times higher than in another, and fatalities from childhood abuse and neglect are more than 1,000 percent higher in some states than in others, according to the “Every Child Matters” report. Koyaanisqatsi.

Strange Signs
I know of a hundred more strange happenings that could be woven into scenes for the educational version of the movie illustrating koyaanisqatsi as a characteristic of contemporary education.

Scene: Our president is talking about Title I programs at an elementary school in Landover, Md., on July 7, 2003. He says: “I fully understand a 4-year-old child is not going to take a standardized test. That would be absurd.” Then we fade away to a scene a few months later as the Bush administration rolls out a standardized test for infants that has proven to be a waste of money, time and a cause of great anxiety before it was recently declared invalid. Koyaanisqatsi.

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Scene: Dozens of video clips of politicians all declaring how we must pay teachers a good salary, while dozens of other clips show them saying how we need the best and the brightest in the teaching force. Then we discover a report from the Economic Policy Institute showing weekly teacher salaries have fallen 15 percent below the pay earned by others with the same academic credentials. Koyaanisqatsi.

Scene: A dozen business leaders contending public schools cost too much. Then we reveal the report from the Economic Policy Institute showing starting salaries for beginning teachers in the United States dipping well under the share of gross domestic product that member countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development are willing to spend on beginning pay for teachers. Koyaanisqatsi.

Scene: Bill Gates and others arguing we need more science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors to graduate from college. Then we reveal more credible data developed by Paul Barton of the Educational Testing Service and B. Lindsay Lowell and Harold Salzman of the Urban Institute. Their work points out that about one-third of all new engineers do not find work as engineers, that engineering doesn’t pay all that well for the effort required to obtain the degree and that tenure at an engineering firm is often short. We discover the majority of astrophysicists who graduate each year cannot find jobs in their field. We find the largest employment needs in the immediate future are in-person jobs requiring much less than a college degree: hair stylists, home health care workers, custodial workers and so forth. We reveal the greatest off-shoring of jobs will be in computer programming. Koyaanisqatsi.

The picture is clear: Koyaanisqatsi, in all its meanings, describes life as an educator. Too many people are doing and saying extremely odd and untruthful things, and some of those people are our elected officials, our secretaries of education and luminaries in the business world. K-12 education under NCLB is out of control. Too many teachers and administrators are forced to lead lives out of balance. Another way of living is called for.

David Berliner is the Regents’ professor of education at Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz. E-mail: berliner@asu.edu