Executive Perspective

Burning Thoughts on a Snowy Day

by Paul D. Houston

Last winter I was sitting in my office feeling kind of cozy. While the cold bitter wind whipped flurries outside my window, I looked around my comfortable office at my art on the walls, my books lining the shelves and at plaques, diplomas and mementos I had earned. I was looking around because I was “thinking” — at least that is what I claim it is if someone catches me looking around instead of working.

As I continued to “think,” I looked out the window across the street where a massive building is being constructed. I have closely followed the progress of the demolition of the old building, the clearing of the debris and the steady rise of the new building. It has given me many hours of thinking pleasure.

On this day I noticed the dozens of workers crawling around the open steel beams and concrete floors, struggling with the discomforts and dangers of a blustery, snowy winter day. They didn’t have the advantages of my nice office. They didn’t even have a safety net to catch them if they fell. Most of these workers are immigrants from Central and South America. Their office is open, dangerous and uncomfortable. They work in the cold and live with the danger. How is it that I am lucky enough to be safe and warm here, and they are over there working much harder, under horrible conditions for less money?

The Right Place
One explanation is what rags to riches investor, philanthropist and writer Chris Gardner calls “place-ism.” Gardner, author of the best-selling biography The Pursuit of Happyness upon which the Academy Award-nominated film is based, told the audience of the AASA National Conference in March that he ended up homeless on the streets because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time — hence, place-ism. It is something that can happen to anyone. I am in this warm office because of it. I was born on the right side of the border in every respect.

I was given the gift of education. I had teachers who saw more in me than I saw in myself and who would accept nothing less than my best. They believed in me and would not allow me to doubt myself. While I didn’t have the advantages of the best schools, in our culture even less than the best is more than enough.

Education is such a personal interaction between the learner and the opportunity that the possibility of learning can be all that is needed if the student is willing. The difference in our culture between those with all the advantages and those with fewer is that the margin of error is greater for the “haves” than the “have-nots.” They can afford more mistakes and to overlook possibilities. Those with less have to grab the brass ring when it appears because there may not be a second chance. So I sit in this office because I took advantage of what has been offered to me.

But I also sit here because I was not only in the right place but of the “right” race. I didn’t have to overcome the stigma of skin color. Sadly, race still plays a major role in our society. If you don’t think so, look out my window at the brown faces working in the danger and the bitter cold while most of the people in the warm comfortable offices have a lighter skin tone. We have made great progress on this front in overcoming our history, but the task is far from finished.

Racism is an interesting pathology, for it is based on the judgments one person makes of another built from external and superficial observations. In making the judgment, the one being judged is being thought of as somehow less than the one judging.

Racism is an incredibly impersonal phenomenon because it makes no attempt to look past the outside to examine what is inside the heart and soul of another. It is also destructive because it minimizes and marginalizes the victim. Historically, it has been used as a means of controlling and keeping others down.

A New Pathology
All this led me to think about a new pathology facing our children. It too is a judgment made out of superficial and simplistic assessments of who they are and what they know, and these assessments can cause them to be seen as “less than.” Let’s call this pathology “testism.”

Testism uses the blunt instrument of a multiple-choice questionnaire to determine what a person knows and doesn’t know. It is used to determine their place and in doing so to determine their future. When we use an instrument that is overly simplistic and merely external to judge another person, we are not being fair. If we go further to use that instrument to keep a person in a lesser place, we are being destructive and inhuman. And if that person is also the victim of place-ism or racism as is the case with so many of our children, then the judgment is devastating.

The concept of high-stakes tests that will determine a child’s future in terms of promotion and graduation is simply one more example of a superficial and external judgment being made that lessens the other person. The goal of education should be to liberate children from the places they have been assigned by life and to allow them to pursue their dreams. Tests will not do that. Norm-referenced tests that depersonalize the educational process can lead our next generation to the same victimization that we have worked so hard to move away from in past generations.

Will we have another generation that must face the cold and the danger of working in jobs that are less than our own because we have made judgments about them based upon superficial and limited information? Is this what we want for our own children? It’s something to think about.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.