There is a certain cognitive twitch that occurs only when one is writing a multiple choice question for poetry. It’s a brain hiccup caused by the tension of doing something that shouldn’t be done but has to be done.
Everyone in the room, myself included, knew the non-negotiables:
- goal was to write a common assessment
- it needed to include poetry
- it had to generate quantitative data (ergo, scanning MC questions versus hand scoring written responses)
It simply wasn’t a viable option at that moment to switch gears completely to curriculum-embedded, performance tasks like some districts had done. Things had been negotiated. Compromises had been reached. So, there we were. Trying to find a poem that was equal parts complexity and simplicity.
As most teachers do, this group found a way through and used student choice, several different poems, and a focus on the CCSS Language standards to make it an assessment that would generate useful information without causing too many brain cramps.
On my travels to my next adventure, I kept re-living the day. Why didn’t we push back harder? Why didn’t I advocate more vocally for a better assessment when asked to support this group of teachers? Did we capitulate because as a room full of white women, we were socialized to follow the rules? We did what was asked. We met the mandate while doing our very best to ensure quality assessment. No one left feeling like we would be imposing something unethical or unfair on the students but at the same time… a multiple choice question about poetry. Did we do the right thing?
In a twitter exchange on the theme of the thinking behind certain mandates, Peter Greene tweeted to me, “So just lie back and think of England?” Which, first, no. And second… no. (No time to click the link? The phrase is wrongly attributed as advice from Queen Victoria to her daughter-in-law about producing an heir but has come to represent a trope that women need to suffer through sex for the greater good. Here is where every real nerd will repeat, “The Greater Good.”)
It would seem there are three ways to deal with policy mandates with which we disagree.
- Refuse it. The Opt Out approach appears to be about changing policy by refusing to participate. It’s not necessarily about finding a way through, it’s about finding a way around.
- Be excused from it. New Hampshire’s approach to annual testing is asking permission to come at it from a totally different direction.
- Find a way through it. Leveraging mandates to make the best of what’s been asked.
I compulsively read everything I can on cognitive biases and how our brains are lazy by design. So I spend a lot of time while traveling trying to figure out the holes in my logic model. See – I’m okay with #3. I’m okay with schools looking at policy and saying, “Welp. This is silly. But, it’s policy. How can we attend to this in a way that honors what we value and protects our students?” And then moving on. I don’t see it as capitulation, but I suspect that’s because I’m treating it as a narrow issue of assessment/curriculum design.
Some authors like to compare the Opt Out movement to activities through history, especially during the Civil Rights era and each time I read one of those blog posts, I struggle against my instinct to reject them as hyperbole. In some cases, I’ve no problems connecting parts of a system (impact of cultural appropriation on the well-being of Native Americans) but here… (Opting Out of a state test as a gesture towards more equitable schools), I struggle.
There is, I suspect, a great deal to be said about what it means to leverage mandates. It’s a close cousin to “asking for forgiveness instead of permission” and lives in the narrow space between doing what is required and what is right. Is it a matter of changing of what we can? Or do I have a giant blind spot around the Opt Out movement?