A former welfare mom speaks out

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Hi all – I’m sorry, I know I’ve been remiss in pestering you. Our conference on our doorstep reminds me I can’t shirk this fun..  Below is an editorial from the New York Times from a woman who was one of the now famous 47% – just like my officemate and so many of the students we have at GGC. There really are people who have to choose between a book for school or food for their kid.

Enjoy.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/opinion/sunday/taking-responsibility-on-welfare.html?emc=eta1&_r=0

I had trouble using this as a point and click, but it should work if you copy/paste. Text below just in case.

September 21, 2012

I Was a Welfare Mother

By LARKIN WARREN

Bethel, Conn.

I WAS a welfare mother, “dependent upon government,” as Mitt Romney so bluntly put it in a video that has gone viral. “My job is not to worry about those people,” he said. “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” But for me, applying for government benefits was exactly that — a way of taking responsibility for myself and my son during a difficult time in our lives. Those resources kept us going for four years. Anyone waiting for me to apologize shouldn’t hold his breath.

Almost 40 years ago, working two jobs, with an ex-husband who was doing little to help, I came home late one night to my parents’ house, where I was living at the time. My mother was sitting at the card table, furiously filling out forms. It was my application for readmission to college, and she’d done nearly everything. She said she’d write the essay, too, if I wouldn’t. You have to get back on track, she told me. I sat down with her and began writing.

And so, eight years after I’d flunked out, gotten pregnant, eloped, had a child, divorced and then fumbled my first few do-overs of jobs and relationships, I was readmitted to the University of New Hampshire as a full-time undergraduate. I received a Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, a work-study grant and the first in a series of college loans. I found an apartment — subsidized, Section 8 — about two miles from campus. Within days, I met other single-mom students. We’d each arrived there by a different route, some falling out of the middle class, others fighting to get up into it, but we shared the same goal: to make a better future.

By the end of the first semester, I knew that my savings and work-study earnings wouldn’t be enough. My parents could help a little, but at that point they had big life problems of their own. If I dropped to a part-time schedule, I’d lose my work-study job and grants; if I dropped out, I’d be back to zero, with student-loan debt. That’s when a friend suggested food stamps and A.F.D.C. — Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

Me, a welfare mother? I’d been earning paychecks since the seventh grade. My parents were Great Depression children, both ex-Marines. They’d always taught self-reliance. And I had grown up hearing that anyone “on the dole” was scum. But my friend pointed out I was below the poverty line and sliding. I had a small child. Tuition was due.

So I went to my dad. He listened, did the calculations with me, and finally said: “I never used the G.I. Bill. I wish I had. Go ahead, do this.” My mother had already voted. “Do not quit. Do. Not.”

My initial allotment (which edged up slightly over the next three years) was a little more than $250 a month. Rent was around $150. We qualified for $75 in food stamps, which couldn’t be used for toilet paper, bathroom cleanser, Band-Aids, tampons, soap, shampoo, aspirin, toothpaste or, of course, the phone bill, or gas, insurance or snow tires for the car.

At the end of the day, my son and I came home to my homework, his homework, leftover spaghetti, generic food in dusty white boxes. The mac-and-cheese in particular looked like nuclear waste and tasted like feet. “Let’s have scrambled eggs again!” chirped my game kid. We always ran out of food and supplies before we ran out of month. There were nights I was so blind from books and deadlines and worry that I put my head on my desk and wept while my boy slept his boy dreams. I hoped he didn’t hear me, but of course he did.

The college-loan folks knew about the work-study grants, the welfare office knew about the college loans, and each application form was a sworn form, my signature attesting to the truth of the numbers. Still, I constantly worried that I’d lose our benefits. More than once, the state sent “inspectors” — a knock at the door, someone insisting he had a right to inspect the premises. One inspector, fixating on my closet, fingered a navy blue Brooks Brothers blazer that I wore to work. “I’d be interested to know how you can afford this,” she said.

It was from a yard sale. “Take your hands off my clothing,” I said. My benefits were promptly suspended pending status clarification. I had to borrow from friends for food and rent, not to mention toilet paper.

That’s not to say we didn’t have angels: work-study supervisors, academic advisers and a social worker assigned to “nontraditional” students, which, in addition to women like me, increasingly included military veterans and older people coming in to retrofit their careers. Faculty members were used to panicked students whose kids had the flu during finals. Every semester, I had at least one incomplete course, with petitions for extensions. One literature professor, seeing my desperation, gave me a copy of “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin to read and critique for extra credit. “But it’s not a primer,” he cautioned. (Spoiler: she walks into the ocean and dies.)

With help, I graduated. That day, over the heads of the crowd, my 11-year-old’s voice rang out like an All Clear: “Yay, Mom!” Two weeks later, I was off welfare and in an administrative job in the English department. Part of my work included advising other nontraditional students, guiding them through the same maze I’d just completed, one course, one semester, at a time.

In the years since, the programs that helped me have changed. In the ’80s, the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant became the Pell Grant (which Paul D. Ryan’s budget would cut). In the ’90s, A.F.D.C. was replaced by block grants to the states, a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. States can and do divert that money for other programs, and to plug holes in the state budget. And a single mother applying for aid today would face time limits and eligibility requirements that I did not. Thanks to budget cuts, she would also have a smaller base of the invaluable human resources — social workers, faculty members, university facilities — that were so important to me.

Since then, I’ve remarried, co-written books, worked as a magazine editor and finally paid off my college loans. My husband and I have paid big taxes and raised a hard-working son who pays a chunk of change as well. We pay for sidewalks, streetlights, sanitation trucks, the military (we have three nephews in uniform, two deployed), police and fire departments, open emergency rooms, teachers, bus drivers, museums, libraries and campuses where people’s lives are saved, enriched and raised up every day. My country gave me the chance to rebuild my life — paying my tax tab is the only thing it’s asked of me in return.

I was not an exception in that little Section 8 neighborhood. Among those welfare moms were future teachers, nurses, scientists, business owners, health and safety advocates. We never believed we were “victims” or felt “entitled”; if anything, we felt determined. Wouldn’t any decent person throw a rope to a drowning person? Wouldn’t any drowning person take it?

Judge-and-punish-the-poor is not a demonstration of American values. It is, simply, mean. My parents saved me and then — on the dole, in the classroom or crying deep in the night, in love with a little boy who needed everything I could give him — I learned to save myself. I do not apologize. I was not ashamed then; I am not ashamed now. I was, and will always be, profoundly grateful.

A writer who was the co-author of Carissa Phelps’s “Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time,” and is at work on her own memoir.

The Opportunity Gap

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David Brooks is a true conservative as I learned what that is in my so long ago philosophy undergrad minor. He shares few of the abject insanities of the current political climate, and is one of the few of such ilk I can count on one hand I always read with anticipation. What he writes here is especially petrifying to me as it further lends fuel to my own paltry interpretations of the data.  Cheers. On the bright side, WE are a small cog in the wheel of the positive side.

It’s at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/10/opinion/brooks-the-opportunity-gap.html?_r=1&emc=eta1.

J

p-Ed Columnist

The Opportunity Gap

By DAVID BROOKS
Published: July 9, 2012 575 Comments

Over the past few months, writers from Charles Murray to Timothy Noah have produced alarming work on the growing bifurcation of American society. Now the eminent Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his team are coming out with research that’s more horrifying.

While most studies look at inequality of outcomes among adults and help us understand how America is coming apart, Putnam’s group looked at inequality of opportunities among children. They help us understand what the country will look like in the decades ahead. The quick answer? More divided than ever.

Putnam’s data verifies what many of us have seen anecdotally, that the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities. Decades ago, college-graduate parents and high-school-graduate parents invested similarly in their children. Recently, more affluent parents have invested much more in their children’s futures while less affluent parents have not.

They’ve invested more time. Over the past decades, college-educated parents have quadrupled the amount of time they spend reading “Goodnight Moon,” talking to their kids about their day and cheering them on from the sidelines. High-school-educated parents have increased child-care time, but only slightly.

A generation ago, working-class parents spent slightly more time with their kids than college-educated parents. Now college-educated parents spend an hour more every day. This attention gap is largest in the first three years of life when it is most important.

Affluent parents also invest more money in their children. Over the last 40 years upper-income parents have increased the amount they spend on their kids’ enrichment activities, like tutoring and extra curriculars, by $5,300 a year. The financially stressed lower classes have only been able to increase their investment by $480, adjusted for inflation.

As a result, behavior gaps are opening up. In 1972, kids from the bottom quartile of earners participated in roughly the same number of activities as kids from the top quartile. Today, it’s a chasm.

Richer kids are roughly twice as likely to play after-school sports. They are more than twice as likely to be the captains of their sports teams. They are much more likely to do nonsporting activities, like theater, yearbook and scouting. They are much more likely to attend religious services.

It’s not only that richer kids have become more active. Poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached. Social trust has fallen among all income groups, but, between 1975 and 1995, it plummeted among the poorest third of young Americans and has remained low ever since. As Putnam writes in notes prepared for the Aspen Ideas Festival: “It’s perfectly understandable that kids from working-class backgrounds have become cynical and even paranoid, for virtually all our major social institutions have failed them — family, friends, church, school and community.” As a result, poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited.

A long series of cultural, economic and social trends have merged to create this sad state of affairs. Traditional social norms were abandoned, meaning more children are born out of wedlock. Their single parents simply have less time and resources to prepare them for a more competitive world. Working-class jobs were decimated, meaning that many parents are too stressed to have the energy, time or money to devote to their children.

Affluent, intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people. They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettoes where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings.

The political system directs more money to health care for the elderly while spending on child welfare slides.

Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern. If America really wants to change that, if the country wants to take advantage of all its human capital rather than just the most privileged two-thirds of it, then people are going to have to make some pretty uncomfortable decisions.

Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.

Political candidates will have to spend less time trying to exploit class divisions and more time trying to remedy them — less time calling their opponents out of touch elitists, and more time coming up with agendas that comprehensively address the problem. It’s politically tough to do that, but the alternative is national suicide.

Pop Quiz on Testing

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‘Nuff said.

Jer

Published Online @ Edweek.org: June 11, 2012

Published in Print: June 13, 2012, as Pop Quiz on Testing: What’s the Answer?

Commentary

Pop Quiz on Testing

By Lisa Guisbond

Premium article access courtesy of Edweek.org.

You can practically hear the collective relief as school testing season winds down across America. It’s not just the sighs of millions of overtested and stressed-out children. Joining them are state officials, school administrators, teachers, and parents. All, for varying reasons, are no doubt happy to close the door on a particularly disastrous season that included public uproar over a confusing reading test question and a scoring fiasco on the Florida writing exam.

Before we put away the No. 2 pencils, though, how about sharpening them for one last exam? Why should our kids be the only ones to suffer the acute anxiety that comes from opening the test booklet to Page 1? Let’s share their pain and take a test to see how well we’ve been paying attention and learning from our obsession with tests.

1. Why did Florida’s state board of education call an emergency meeting to lower the passing score on its writing exam?

A) The percentage of 4th grade students with passing scores plunged                         from 81 percent last year to 27 percent this year, making it look as if most students went from good to horrible writers in one year.

B) The board realized student writing wasn’t really any worse, but the new test-scoring guide was too harsh and penalized students for minor mistakes.

C) The sudden drop in scores called the state’s entire testing system into question.

D) All of the above.

2. Why did New York eliminate the “Hare and the Pineapple” item when scoring the 8th grade reading test?

A) A student came home and told his mother about extremely confusing and incomprehensible questions regarding an absurd reading passage.

B) The author of the story adapted for the test item expressed his contempt for the way his writing was used to confuse and distress young test-takers. “This was done by somebody who was barely literate,” Daniel Pinkwater said of the adapter.

C) Media attention to the item embarrassed both test-maker Pearson and state education officials.

D) The “Pineapple” item was only one of more than 20 mistakes on the tests.

E) All of the above.

3. Why have 525 Texas school boards, more than 1,400 New York principals, and more than 8,000 individuals across the nation endorsed anti-high-stakes-testing resolutions and statements?

A) The Texas board members believe “the overreliance on standardized, high-stakes testing … is strangling our public schools.”

B) The New York principals said: “Our students are more than the sum of their test scores. … According to a nine-year study by the National Research Council, the past decade’s emphasis on testing has yielded little learning progress, especially considering the cost to taxpayers.”

C) School board members, principals, and many parents across the country recognize that testing mandates compel them to do things that undermine teaching and learning.

D) All of the above.

4. Who pays for and who profits from the testing explosion resulting from the No Child Left Behind Act and similar misguided education policies?

A) Taxpayers spend billions of dollars for ever more testing, money that could be used to improve school facilities, hire and train teachers, and staff school libraries.

B) Pearson, the company behind the twin fiascos in Florida and New York as well as years of other costly testing errors, saw its profits increase by 72 percent in 2011.

C) Veteran teachers with years of positive reviews by knowledgeable evaluators are being labeled ineffective and denied tenure or fired based on inaccurate and incomprehensible formulas using student test scores.

D) All of the above.

5. What can parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members do to change the costly and destructive path we are on?

A) Sign the National Resolution on High Stakes Testing and tell all your friends and relatives to do the same.

B) Get engaged with your local school system to review and reconsider the amount and uses of testing.

C) Write your members of Congress and tell them federal education policy needs to fundamentally change course and regain a sane and reasonable approach to assessment and accountability.

D) All of the above.

[The correct answer to all of the questions is “All of the above.”]

Lisa Guisbond is a policy analyst with FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, in Jamaica Plain, Mass.

Quote of the day

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Found this in the Edweek newsletter.

It’s like we’re trying to put out a bunch of fires and, rather than look at the causes of the fires or improving the resources available to firefighters, we’re merely trying to switch out a few current firefighters for hypothetically ‘better’ ones.
David Cohen

I have been TERRIBLY remiss in hounding everyone with stuff here – I guess I can blame it on the end of semester rush, except we’re already well into summer minis. I’ll try to do better, all!  Hope you’re having a wonderful summer.

Education is personal.

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Kevin comes up to the plate. On the chance that you haven’t seen the AJC op ed today. VERY pretty.

Jer

Opinion 8:05 p.m. Friday, May 4, 2012, print Sunday 5/6/12.

Education’s personal to me

http://www.ajc.com/opinion/educations-personal-to-me-1431768.html

By Kevin Riley, Editor, Atlanta Journal Constitution

As you read this, I’ll be at my daughter’s college graduation ceremony in Ohio.

As with any family, it will be a proud moment as the eldest of our three children receives her college degree. My mother will be there, too, to see the first of her 18 grandchildren graduate.

My daughter has been very much on my mind lately, not only because of graduation day, but also because she’ll be awarded a teaching degree.

You don’t have to be a very close reader of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to recognize how often we publish stories about education. Schools and teachers are in the news almost every day.

It would be hard to argue that any profession finds itself impacted more often by societal trends, politics, the economy and the media than teaching.

During a visit with some of our editors and reporters last week, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis noted that education is the only profession he’s aware of in which failures are blamed on the workers (teachers) and not leaders. And he knows a little about the difficulties today’s educators face.

Yet, Davis remains an optimist.

“It’s a noble profession,” he said. “It’s a noble calling.”

While we’ve published stories about challenges in local school systems, changes in educational philosophy, examinations of teacher quality and questions about the integrity of school test scores, I’ve always wondered privately how all of this would affect my daughter.

(I’ve already suggested that she might avoid highlighting what her father does for a living when she interviews for jobs.)

She’s never wanted to be anything but a teacher; there was no talking her out of it, even though I thought about it.

So, as she makes her first steps into the front lines of education — looking for a job and having her own classroom — I want to offer advice on navigating the difficult world a young educator will face.

It’s a world where almost everyone, from politicians to average citizens, has an opinion and a say in how things ought to be done.

With the demands placed on today’s teachers, it’s reasonable to wonder if they can be successful.

So, I can’t help but be concerned about her leaving the shelter of college and entering that environment.

I believe, however, that no matter the circumstances, she’ll always find her own, effective way to reach and help the children for whom and to whom she’ll be responsible.

My best advice to you, Anne, is this:

I’ve never met a successful person who doesn’t have a story about encountering a special teacher along the way. A teacher who set them on the right course. A teacher who saw something in them that no one else had seen. A teacher who got them to try something for the first time that became a lifelong passion.

I don’t think I ever told you, but when I was named editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the congratulatory note from my high school journalism teacher was among the ones that most touched me.

As you walk up that aisle today, think of that teacher you had along the way who inspired you to want to be like them.

Be that kind of teacher.

Economic and political winds inevitably will push you around, and, as a young teacher, you’ll have to find your way.

I hope you’ll find a good school with a great principal. I hope the parents care about their kids as much as we cared about you.

Every school district struggles with funding, how to measure its progress and how to reward its teachers.

But nothing can stop you from caring and helping a child.

The kids you’ll be in front of won’t know much about funding arguments or about the theories of how to teach math or reading. They won’t understand implications of class sizes or student-teacher ratios.

And they probably won’t understand that the standardized tests they take may have huge implications for your job security.

But they may have had a bad ride on the bus to school. They might be sad about something at home. They might be frustrated as they learn to read.

They might need a calm, safe classroom to come to each day. They’ll need someone to help them see the immense possibilities their life holds.

And they might need a hug from you at times.

Give them as needed.

Your mother and I are proud to have a daughter who’s a teacher.

Discuss this column and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage of other areas at editor Kevin Riley’s Facebook page. Visit http://www.facebook.com/ajceditor.

The Creative Monopoly

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Brooks published this in the NYT a week ago; you saw it if you read the op ed page of the AJC. There are many ways to worry about what canned curricula (and factoid recognition testing) are doing to America. Enjoy.

J

The Creative Monopoly

By DAVID BROOKS

April 23, 2012

The New York Times

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/24/opinion/brooks-the-creative-monopoly.html?_r=1&ref=davidbrooks

As a young man, Peter Thiel competed to get into Stanford. Then he competed to get into Stanford Law School. Then he competed to become a clerk for a federal judge. Thiel won all those competitions. But then he competed to get a Supreme Court clerkship.

Thiel lost that one. So instead of being a clerk, he went out and founded PayPal. Then he became an early investor in Facebook and many other celebrated technology firms. Somebody later asked him. “So, aren’t you glad you didn’t get that Supreme Court clerkship?”

The question got Thiel thinking. His thoughts are now incorporated into a course he is teaching in the Stanford Computer Science Department. (A student named Blake Masters posted outstanding notes online, and Thiel has confirmed their accuracy.)

One of his core points is that we tend to confuse capitalism with competition. We tend to think that whoever competes best comes out ahead. In the race to be more competitive, we sometimes confuse what is hard with what is valuable. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value.

In fact, Thiel argues, we often shouldn’t seek to be really good competitors. We should seek to be really good monopolists. Instead of being slightly better than everybody else in a crowded and established field, it’s often more valuable to create a new market and totally dominate it. The profit margins are much bigger, and the value to society is often bigger, too.

Now to be clear: When Thiel is talking about a “monopoly,” he isn’t talking about the illegal eliminate-your-rivals kind. He’s talking about doing something so creative that you establish a distinct market, niche and identity. You’ve established a creative monopoly and everybody has to come to you if they want that service, at least for a time.

His lecture points to a provocative possibility: that the competitive spirit capitalism engenders can sometimes inhibit the creativity it requires.

Think about the traits that creative people possess. Creative people don’t follow the crowds; they seek out the blank spots on the map. Creative people wander through faraway and forgotten traditions and then integrate marginal perspectives back to the mainstream. Instead of being fastest around the tracks everybody knows, creative people move adaptively through wildernesses nobody knows.

Now think about the competitive environment that confronts the most fortunate people today and how it undermines those mind-sets.

First, students have to jump through ever-more demanding, preassigned academic hoops. Instead of developing a passion for one subject, they’re rewarded for becoming professional students, getting great grades across all subjects, regardless of their intrinsic interests. Instead of wandering across strange domains, they have to prudentially apportion their time, making productive use of each hour.

Then they move into a ranking system in which the most competitive college, program and employment opportunity is deemed to be the best. There is a status funnel pointing to the most competitive colleges and banks and companies, regardless of their appropriateness.

Then they move into businesses in which the main point is to beat the competition, in which the competitive juices take control and gradually obliterate other goals. I see this in politics all the time. Candidates enter politics wanting to be authentic and change things. But once the candidates enter the campaign, they stop focusing on how to be change-agents. They and their staff spend all their time focusing on beating the other guy. They hone the skills of one-upsmanship. They get engulfed in a tit-for-tat competition to win the news cycle. Instead of being new and authentic, they become artificial mirror opposites of their opponents. Instead of providing the value voters want — change — they become canned tacticians, hoping to eke out a slight win over the other side.

Competition has trumped value-creation. In this and other ways, the competitive arena undermines innovation.

You know somebody has been sucked into the competitive myopia when they start using sports or war metaphors. Sports and war are competitive enterprises. If somebody hits three home runs against you in the top of the inning, your job is to go hit four home runs in the bottom of the inning.

But business, politics, intellectual life and most other realms are not like that. In most realms, if somebody hits three home runs against you in one inning, you have the option of picking up your equipment and inventing a different game. You don’t have to compete; you can invent.

We live in a culture that nurtures competitive skills. And they are necessary: discipline, rigor and reliability. But it’s probably a good idea to try to supplement them with the skills of the creative monopolist: alertness, independence and the ability to reclaim forgotten traditions.

Everybody worries about American competitiveness. That may be the wrong problem. The future of the country will probably be determined by how well Americans can succeed at being monopolists.

Teach the Books, Touch the Heart

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In case anyone needed a reason to cry today at what we’re doing to public schooling.

J

New York Times

April 20, 2012

Teach the Books, Touch the Heart

By CLAIRE NEEDELL HOLLANDER

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/taking-emotions-out-of-our-schools.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&ref=general&src=me&pagewanted=print

FRANZ KAFKA wrote that “a book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” I once shared this quotation with a class of seventh graders, and it didn’t seem to require any explanation.

We’d just finished John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” When we read the end together out loud in class, my toughest boy, a star basketball player, wept a little, and so did I. “Are you crying?” one girl asked, as she crept out of her chair to get a closer look. “I am,” I told her, “and the funny thing is I’ve read it many times.”

But they understood. When George shoots Lennie, the tragedy is that we realize it was always going to happen. In my 14 years of teaching in a New York City public middle school, I’ve taught kids with incarcerated parents, abusive parents, neglectful parents; kids who are parents themselves; kids who are homeless or who live in crowded apartments in violent neighborhoods; kids who grew up in developing countries. They understand, more than I ever will, the novel’s terrible logic — the giving way of dreams to fate.

For the last seven years, I have worked as a reading enrichment teacher, reading classic works of literature with small groups of students from grades six to eight. I originally proposed this idea to my principal after learning that a former stellar student of mine had transferred out of a selective high school — one that often attracts the literary-minded offspring of Manhattan’s elite — into a less competitive setting. The daughter of immigrants, with a father in jail, she perhaps felt uncomfortable with her new classmates. I thought additional “cultural capital” could help students like her fare better in high school, where they would inevitably encounter, perhaps for the first time, peers who came from homes lined with bookshelves, whose parents had earned not G.E.D.’s but Ph.D.’s.

Along with “Of Mice and Men,” my groups read: “Sounder,” “The Red Pony,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth.” The students didn’t always read from the expected perspective. Holden Caulfield was a punk, unfairly dismissive of parents who had given him every advantage. About “The Red Pony,” one student said, “it’s about being a dude, it’s about dudeness.” I had never before seen the parallels between Scarface and Macbeth, nor had I heard Lady Macbeth’s soliloquies read as raps, but both made sense; the interpretations were playful, but serious. Once introduced to Steinbeck’s writing, one boy went on to read “The Grapes of Wrath” and told me repeatedly how amazing it was that “all these people hate each other, and they’re all white.” His historical perspective was broadening, his sense of his own country deepening. Year after year, ex-students visited and told me how prepared they had felt in their freshman year as a result of the classes.

And yet I do not know how to measure those results. As student test scores have become the dominant means of evaluating schools, I have been asked to calculate my reading enrichment program’s impact on those scores. I found that some students made gains of over 100 points on the statewide English Language Arts test, while other students in the same group had flat or negative results. In other words, my students’ test scores did not reliably indicate that reading classic literature added value.

Until recently, given the students’ enthusiasm for the reading groups, I was able to play down that data. But last year, for the first time since I can remember, our test scores declined in relation to comparable schools in the city. Because I play a leadership role in the English department, I felt increased pressure to bring this year’s scores up. All the teachers are increasing their number of test-preparation sessions and practice tests, so I have done the same, cutting two of my three classic book groups and replacing them with a test-preparation tutorial program. Only the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes.

Since beginning this new program in September, I have answered over 600 multiple-choice questions. In doing so, I encountered exactly one piece of literature: Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” The rest of the reading-comprehension materials included passages from watered-down news articles or biographies, bastardized novels, memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.

I MAY not be able to prove that my literature class makes a difference in my students’ test results, but there is a positive correlation between how much time students spend reading and higher scores. The problem is that low-income students, who begin school with a less-developed vocabulary and are less able to comprehend complex sentences than their more privileged peers, are also less likely to read at home. Many will read only during class time, with a teacher supporting their effort. But those are the same students who are more likely to lose out on literary reading in class in favor of extra test prep. By “using data to inform instruction,” as the Department of Education insists we do, we are sorting lower-achieving students into classes that provide less cultural capital than their already more successful peers receive in their more literary classes and depriving students who viscerally understand the violence and despair in Steinbeck’s novels of the opportunity to read them.

It is ironic, then, that English Language Arts exams are designed for “cultural neutrality.” This is supposed to give students a level playing field on the exams, but what it does is bleed our English classes dry. We are trying to teach students to read increasingly complex texts, but they are complex only on the sentence level — not because the ideas they present are complex, not because they are symbolic, allusive or ambiguous. These are literary qualities, and they are more or less absent from testing materials.

Of course no teacher disputes the necessity of being able to read for information. But if literature has no place in these tests, and if preparation for the tests becomes the sole goal of education, then the reading of literature will go out of fashion in our schools. I don’t have any illusions that adding literary passages to multiple-choice tests would instill a love of reading among students by itself. But it would keep those books on the syllabus, in the classrooms and in the hands of young readers — which is what really matters.

Better yet, we should abandon altogether the multiple-choice tests, which are in vogue not because they are an effective tool for judging teachers or students but because they are an efficient means of producing data. Instead, we should move toward extensive written exams, in which students could grapple with literary passages and books they have read in class, along with assessments of students’ reports and projects from throughout the year. This kind of system would be less objective and probably more time-consuming for administrators, but it would also free teachers from endless test preparation and let students focus on real learning.

We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts. By doing so, we are withholding from our neediest students any reason to read at all. We are teaching them that words do not dazzle but confound. We may succeed in raising test scores by relying on these methods, but we will fail to teach them that reading can be transformative and that it belongs to them.

An English teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan.

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