Silence of the Lambs

In 1998, San Francisco Unified School District became “The Mouse that Roared.”

Governor Wilson had required all districts to implement standardized testing, even before the state had delineated its curriculum standards and what it should test. Worse, he’d demanded that all students--even those who had just arrived from abroad and spoke not a stitch of English--take the full battery of tests in English.

A cynical person might infer that Wilson, in his zeal to implement vouchers and transfer billions of public dollars to private and religious schools, was setting public schools up to fail; but that’s beside the point.

The point is, only one school district, contemplating the prospect of subjecting so many innocent immigrant kids to a full week of incomprehensible testing, called it what it was--child abuse--and refused. “We won’t do it,” San Francisco announced to an aghast Department of Education and a red-faced governor. Then, to forestall the threatened sanctions, San Francisco Unified sued the Department of Education.

Well, you can imagine how quickly The Department settled that suit out of court, and so buried what might have emerged as a dangerous precedent: educators actually standing up to defend children.

What of the more than a thousand other California districts (including Fremont, Newark and New Haven) that, although similarly recognizing the absurdity and harm of Wilson’s edict, merely shook their collective heads, rolled their collective eyes, and sighed in resignation?


I call it “The Silence of the Lambs” because we educators have allowed ourselves to be led about by politicians with their insidious agendas as if we were lambs. Or lemmings, perhaps. We’ve plunged off various cliffs--forsaking Whole Language for Phonics, eliminating shop, art, and home economics classes, insisting all kids take Algebra in 8th grade--with nary a “Baaaaah!”

Perhaps we’ve been cowards. However, I recall a conversation with one New Haven district office administrator about former New Haven Superintendent Ruth Ann McKenna’s plans to close and raze the continuation high school, to implement disastrous reconfiguration and redistricting, and to convert James Logan High School into an elitist college preparatory academy. Like most of his fellow administrators, he privately acknowledged the insanity of it all, but still remained mute during staff meetings. “Ruth will hang herself on this,” he explained, “but I’ll still be here.” When I inquired about all the unfortunate students Ruth would take with her, he merely shrugged his shoulders and slunk away. Meanwhile, most teachers seemed far more concerned with protecting their health care than saving their students.

You know, as with the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath, there ought to be a Socratic Oath all educators must take: They will not allow harm to come to children.

Now we face No Child Left Behind. Even though research demonstrates that high stakes testing has consistently lead to a decline in actual student achievement (Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond’s is quite conclusive), President Bush has mandated high stakes testing as national policy.

And we educators have acquiesced once again.

“Silence equals death” was true during the onset of the AIDS crisis, and it remains true now in education. Superintendents, school boards, teacher/administrator associations, and teachers themselves should, like San Francisco Unified, finally rise up and dare to speak the truth. We must courageously defend public education and, above all, the children we’ve dedicated our lives to serve.

Or, we can continue to utter a pathetic “Baaaaah!” as we herd with them to the slaughter.