Ch*ckenshit Education

When I was 8 years old, my morning chores including collecting the eggs of the 30-40 chickens on our farm. I’d bring them to the kitchen, wash my hands, and walk to school with my older sister.   It was a simple 4-step process: collect the eggs, deliver them to the kitchen, wash up, and head off to school.

Unfortunately, I sometimes forgot Step 3, washing my hands, meaning that I might have had some ch*ckenshit in my fingernails when I entered my 3rd grade classroom. Unfortunately for me, my 3rd grade teacher was a hygiene fanatic who required each of us line up and approach her desk, breathe into her face (had we brushed?) and show her our hands (had we washed?).  I always brushed my teeth after breakfast, so I never failed the halitosis test, but she got me on the “clean hands” exam quite a few times.

Each time the punishment was a BLACK STAR next to my name on the wall chart that was prominently displayed near the classroom door.  She started the chart on Day One, and I got quite a few of those unforgettable BLACK STARS during the year. It was humiliating, but I still made the mistake of not washing up quite a few times.  I was only 8, or we were running late, or whatever….

What brings this to mind is the practice in some benighted school systems of posting students’ scores on state exams on a so-called “data wall” in each classroom, so that every kid can see how he or she did…and how everyone else did.  That’s supposed to make kids work harder….

Teacher Launa Hall has written a thoughtful essay about this trend, which I urge you to read.  She writes that she resisted the requirement at first but eventually gave in and created her own “data wall,” a decision she regretted as soon as she saw her students looking at the scores.

“My third-graders tumbled into the classroom, and one child I’d especially been watching for — I need to protect her privacy, so I’ll call her Janie — immediately noticed the two poster-size charts I’d hung low on the wall. Still wearing her jacket, she let her backpack drop to the floor and raised one finger to touch her name on the math achievement chart. Slowly, she traced the row of dots representing her scores for each state standard on the latest practice test. Red, red, yellow, red, green, red, red. Janie is a child capable of much drama, but that morning she just lowered her gaze to the floor and shuffled to her chair.    ……

I regretted those data walls immediately. Even an adult faced with a row of red dots after her name for all her peers to see would have to dig deep into her hard-won sense of self to put into context what those red dots meant in her life and what she would do about them. An 8-year-old just feels shame.”

Like her students, I was 8, and I felt ashamed whenever I received BLACK STARS and whenever I looked at the wall chart. I got teased, of course, and my dominant memory of 3rd grade is that morning exam, not projects I may have worked on or books we read.  I survived my literal “ch*ckenshit education,” probably because only one misguided teacher who just wanted to teach hygiene was embarrassing me, not official policy across a school district.

(Some districts use numbers in place of names on their mandatory “Data Walls,” but of course it doesn’t take long for kids to figure out who is who.)

For entire school systems to endorse public shaming of its students is a disgrace. This excess, the offspring of our misguided obsession with test scores, rarely if ever works.  It’s a ch*ckenshit policy that will further turn people against public education, at least the 50% who are below average.  Will pleasant memories of school overshadow their shame at being publicly humiliated?  How supportive are they likely to be as adults, when asked to vote for school funding or to defend teachers against unwarranted attacks?

As Launa Hall writes, “When policymakers mandate tests and buy endlessly looping practice exams to go with them, their image of education is from 30,000 feet. They see populations and sweeping strategies. From up there, it seems reasonable enough to write a list of 32 discrete standards and mandate that every 8-year-old in the state meet them. How else will we know for sure that teaching and learning are happening down there?

Our antiquated school model is used to sort children. Essentially, it asks of each child “How Intelligent Are You?” and then posts standardized test scores for all to see.  We need to demand and help build schools that ask of each child “How Are You Intelligent?” and figure out ways to build on their strengths and interests.

Anything else is pure Ch*ckenshit……





9 thoughts on “Ch*ckenshit Education

  1. There really is no evidence that shaming students makes them perform better academically.

    But there is evidence that shaming students raises school test scores because the schools that have the worst shaming policies and highest test scores also have the highest attrition rates.

    Since we live in an era where so-called “scholars” dismiss attrition as worthy of notice and are paid very nicely to do academic studies that “prove” (disregarding attrition) that no-excuses schools get high test scores, their proponents keep arguing for more no-excuses because “they work!”

    We all know who gets shamed, and it isn’t the student performing at or above grade level. If shaming worked to increase academic performance, no parent would ever pull their child from a school they had desperately wanted unless they moved to a different city. And yet, there is an extremely high correlation between no-excuses schools with high test scores for at-risk kids AND high attrition rates for at-risk kids. No billionaires have opened think tanks that hire scholars to research that.

    But they do support scholars who keep telling us that we shouldn’t question why an inordinate number of low-income parents who desperately wanted top performing no-excuses schools have pulled their children out of those schools before testing grades. Imagine a “miracle drug” that claimed great results for patients with advanced cancer based on studies where large cohorts of patients with the advanced cancers dropped out and few patients with stage 1 cancers did. No legit scientific journal would publish a study with those unscientific conclusions without a very close look at why so many patients dropped out. It’s like testing aspirin as a 3-day cure for strep throat in a study in which any patients whose symptoms weren’t improving after day 2 using aspirin (or were getting worse) were drummed out of the study before day 3. Voila! 100% cure rate. Guaranteed. As long as you only count the patients who stayed in the study.

    No excuses works that way too. The secret is picking the ‘right’ kids to be humiliated, and the proponents of “no excuses” use lots of data to find the ones who “no excuses” works best on. And by “works best”, I don’t mean “works best to teach those kids”. I mean “works best to get rid of those kids”. I can only imagine the “no excuses” aspirin study run in the same sleazy way. Not improving after day 2? Get out of here so we can trumpet our new miracle drug with the confidence that no one will ask where you went.


  2. John:

    Great story and great conclusion. A one-size-fits-all school system has never worked and it will never work. Time for a system change. In fact, it is way past time.


    Donald P. Nielsen Senior Fellow Author: “Every School” 206-915-0451 [cid:5406FAD8-038A-48CC-8D68-D89DC59FFB04]

    From: The Merrow Report <> Reply-To: The Merrow Report <> Date: Monday, July 25, 2016 at 8:57 AM To: Don Nielsen <> Subject: [New post] Ch*ckenshit Education

    John Merrow posted: “When I was 8 years old, my morning chores including collecting the eggs of the 30-40 chickens on our farm. I’d bring them to the kitchen, wash my hands, and walk to school with my older sister. It was a simple 4-step process: collect the eggs, deliver t”


  3. Shaming is terrible policy. I was humiliated by my 7th grade teacher in front of my class when I didn’t answer quickly or correctly. Because I was tall I was in the back of the room in 7th grade math, I used to read for pleasure, hiding my book behind a propped-up math book. I had a hearing problem because of childhood illness, but the teacher apparently took everything personally. Shaming made me hate school.
    Years later (in the same well-to-do suburban school system!) my kids told me it was against the rules to prop up the book on your desk. I know where that came from! Schools and teachers can do so much damage.


  4. Thanks, John. We had a city-wide meeting in St. Paul yesterday to discuss ways to reduce violence in schools. Students, parents, educators, community members were present.

    One of the key things that was discuss was the importance of increasing positive relationships between and among educators and students. Another was improved training for prospective teachers.

    I wish every current and prospective teacher could read what you wrote.


  5. Yeah, that’s what we have become. On one level, you understand why that strategy would be suggested, but all it takes is to see that one student and realize this isn’t worth it. I have talked with many who truly believe that people on the lower rungs of either economic or academic ladders (often the same) need to “pull themselves up with their bootstraps.” But shaming them to do it is a completely different thing.

    I’ve read, of course, about Finnish education through Pasi Sahlberg’s work, but I don’t know if it would work here. I also don’t know that it wouldn’t. I would much rather have at least an elementary system that is inquisitive and fun and relaxing and entertaining. Fun, perhaps, is the best operative. School should be fun.

    In middle and high school, learning should be more demanding because, even with all the bitching, people like to be challenged. But it needs to remain fun. And it isn’t. I’ve had three kids go through public school, and I don’t think any of them had “fun” in school. They enjoyed their friends; liked some of their teachers. But they didn’t have fun.

    That’s a shame. You make school fun, people learn. People want to show up. People want to be challenged.

    We don’t do that through black stars… we just make kids feel like chickensh@t.


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