Psychological Abuse: A Springtime School Ritual?


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It might seem extreme to you for me to write about the psychological abuse of children in schools. However, at the end of the post, I hope you will understand why I did.

Although the content of this post might seem to some to be controversial, I believe that the content warrants being stated, and that there is more to what is discussed here than meets the eye.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 50.1 million students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools.  Except for students in kindergarten and Grades 1 & 2, about 40 million students take high-stakes tests for several days during the springtime.  This ritual is repeated every year, and has been since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001.

Imagine, nearly 40 million students sitting at their desks bubbling in or keyboarding their answers to multiple choice tests that will be used to rate them against each other, and also be used to rate their schools and teachers, who potentially could lose their jobs depending upon how the kids do on the tests.  Is this happening in a democratic society?  Yes it is.  Why in a democratic society would we put students in this place of not only determining their own fate, but the fate of their teachers.

It’s not only a dumb idea, it possibly violates child labor laws.  We are asking parents to send their students to school (work?) to sit for hours upon hours providing the state with examination results that will be used to check teachers, and their own schools.  Professor Stephanie Jones of the University of Georgia suggests that

Teachers — workers in the system controlled by bosses above — will be exploited. Students — the “producing” workers in the system whose production of test scores will decide reward for those above them — will be exploited.  Extracted from Merit Pay Could Revive Child Labor, AJC, May 3, 2014.

High-stakes testing is not a one-day or a week-long event.  Many schools have reduced the curriculum, especially at the elementary school level to mathematics and reading, and spend all year preparing their student for the high-stakes testing ritual.

Students, in many situations, are subjected to a “drill and kill” curriculum and are burdened with incessant amounts of homework, much of which is rote learning and mindless.

Are students being subjected to a curriculum that is abusive?  Have student test scores become the goal of education, and does this focus limit the range of experiences for students and teachers?  What is effect of such narrowing on student spontaneity, creativity and problem solving?  What is the effect on student’s mental health?  Feelings?  Attitudes?  Hopes? Self-worth?

There is a long history on the effects of such a narrow view of schooling on student well-being and achievement.  However, in this blog post, I want to focus on the experience of a school counselor who documented and then put forth a report on her experiences in an elementary school about student abuse.

At the heart of this story is the ends that school officials will go to raise student achievement scores.  We don’t have go any further than the Atlanta Public Schools and the cheating scandal that was caused by a culture of fear and intimidation (as documented in the Governor’s Report), and lead to the indictment of over 40 Atlanta school officials, including Beverly Hall, former superintendent of school.  Changing answer sheets, providing copies of the exams to teachers in advance, clandestine and secret meetings in administrators offices, and outright denial when a few brave teachers questioned the actions of some administrators and teachers.

As so often happens, people who ask questions, or whose views are different from those in power are often ridiculed and called lunatics or fanatics.  Is this what happens when we boil education down to a test score?  Is this what happens when we overtly champion competition among students, between schools, and use this to showcase administrators, especially superintendents.  Beverly Hall received the hight accolades available in the field of education while at the same time leading a corrupt administration.

The policy of using high-stakes test scores to measure and rate student outcomes may be one of the worst policies that we have enacted.  Because of this policy, it is always in the best interest of administrators and school boards that teachers be held responsible for raising student achievement scores, and if they don’t and if their school doesn’t measure up, then there will be severe consequences.

As John Kuhn has said in his new book, Fear and Learning in America, “it isn’t tests that are the bad guy, it’s the misuse of tests.”  Using tests as the motivator of learning will lead to failure for many of our students.  We misuse testing and in so doing, put students in harm’s way because many of the teaching strategies that seem to work are ones in which an authoritarian regime is put into place, and students end up being indoctrinated into a system of control and behavioral management.

Kuhn puts the apparatus of high-stakes testing in perspective with these comments:

Standardized testing has gone from tool to tenet. At one time, standardized tests in schools were used explicitly according to instructions. In recent years, however, no less of an authority than the federal government has called for extending student test results beyond their prescribed meaning. Others have carried this unproven new method out to yet another degree.

They want to use student scores to rate the educator preparation programs that produce the educators who teach the children who take the tests. This is akin to castigating the maiden who milked the cow that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt if there happens to be a problem with the house that Jack built.

Soon they’ll ask to use 4th-graders’ math scores to rate the institutions that granted the graduate degrees to the professors who teach in the educator preparation programs. It’s the Six Degrees of Standardized Testing game, and there seems to be no end to the extension of testing.  (Kuhn, John (2014-02-15). Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education (Teaching for Social Justice Series) (Kindle Locations 987-994). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition).

Fear and intimidation are an unfortunate result of this extreme view of the use of tests.  It can cause schools to import teaching strategies that will take advantage of students, especially students who typically have not been served well by schools or society, and ask them to carry out mindless tasks, that parents in more affluent neighborhoods would not allow to happen to their children.  And if affluent parents don’t live in neighborhoods where the schools meet their standard, then they send them to prestigious private schools.  We have many here in Atlanta.

The Courageous Counselor

There is an educator in Austin, Texas who has documented this approach to teaching, and the effects on the psychological well-being of elementary  school students.  This is an educator who was willing to use open and use democratic methods to alert the school system of the what she considered to be the abuse of students in a Title I school in Austin.  She wrote and submitted several reports to bring this abuse to the attention of the school district, a school district whose superintendent was Dr. Meria Carstarphen.  Dr. Carstarphen has been hired by the Atlanta Public Schools, and will begin her transition to becoming the superintendent this month and will begin officially in July.

Will what I am about to describe rise up in Atlanta’s elementary schools?  Will the new superintendent focus her attention on turning around so-called failing schools?  Will she come in to “fix” Atlanta’s schools?  Will she be committed to a corporate type of school reform she advocated in Austin by relying charter schools, Applied Behavioral Analysis, and hiring of uncertified and inexperienced recruits from Teach for America (TFA). Indeed, will she form a bond with the Teach for America recruits who were just elected to the Atlanta School Board, and will she hire new principals, who are in some way affiliated with TFA, or who subscribe to her turn around and fix it type of reform?

Here is the story of one Austin educator who uncovered and then revealed the kind of teaching and test-taking that led to the psychological abuse of students in at least one if not more Austin elementary schools.  Carstarpen’s footprint is revealed in her story.

In an October 2013 report that she sent to Texas State Senator Nelson and the HHS Committee, she raised the specter that psychological abuse was observed and happening in a public elementary school in the AISD.

She described a system of behavioral engineering called the New 3 R’s that was being hailed as a success story because it raised the test scores of students in a Title I school.  However, Ms. Feilke documented that punitive methods were being used to prod and prompt students to learn by rote, get the right answers on tests, and conform to a system of extreme authority.  She observed, over her 30-year tenure as a school counselor, the steady decline and deterioration of the school environment.  Her premise is that the school climate has changed because of the emphasis on state testing and corrosive school politics.

Open Letter

Her open letter which you can read in full here, is a harrowing description of how children, especially of low socio-economic and minority status, have been mistreated to reach the goals of the state, and the administration of the district.  She believes that these children are being used in an experiment, rooted in punitive classic conditioning to meet the goals of the school district, which is increase student test scores and eventually graduation rates.

She summarizes her observations of her report this way:

  • The New 3 R’s System is a rigid system of behavioral engineering that uses punitive methods of ABA which are known to cause psychological harm to young children.  Some of the methods are known to cause mental illness and criminality.  The New 3 R’s is a sophisticated system of bullying.
  • AISD administrators allowed the New 3 R’s System to be used in elementary schools for the purpose of obtaining high performance ratings on statewide tests, but without adequate oversight of mental health experts who would have recognized the potential for psychological abuse.
  • AISD has allowed administrators to use punitive methods of ABA in violation of certification requirements and with methods known to cause psychological damage to young children.
  • AISD administrators ignored the counselor’s reports of the New 3 R’s methods as being psychologically abusive to children, and retaliated against the counselor.
  • Children in Texas public elementary schools are entitled to have their mental and physical health protected by state law.  There are no agencies with adequate laws in place to protect the rights of these children.

Administration’s Investigation

After her report was filed in October, the school district sent in an Associate Superintendent to investigate [itself].  Here is what Ms. Feilke wrote about this in an email on May 1, 2014:

AISD Asst. Sup Maria Hohenstein spent a month at the school in a crisis mode doing “cover up”, and creating “fake” surveys that only included “select” staff, then AISD denied that my  allegations were true. They turned the “punitive” cafeteria punishment into an “opportunity” for any student who wanted to sit in isolation and do work during lunch.  That was after they first absolutely denied it existed, then discovered several mentors who had observed it for two years, and then tried to make it “positive”. Parents and teachers in AISD Title I schools have become well indoctrinated so now it is” beware the messenger’s head”! (Email from Joyce Murdock Feilke, May 1, 2014)

I don’t have good evidence that the school district used bullying tactics to discredit Joyce, but eventually she decided to resign in February, 2014.  Her letter of resignation is one that is written by an educator who was willing to withstand an administration that had a reputation, according to Brian R. McGiverin, Texas Civil Rights Project, of retaliating against employees who speak out against its flavor-of-the-day pet project.

Mr. McGiverin also indicated that:

Superintendent Carstarphen was probably an unfortunate choice for the top post in Austin because she didn’t seem to brook disagreement or dissent.”  Mr. McGiverin goes on to say that in 2012, in a backlash against Carstarphen’s project above, half the trustees were replaced with a slate of reform candidates. They haven’t done as much as we hoped they would, but they blocked extensions of Carstarphen’s contract beyond 2015. The next election this November was likely to add board even less likely to extend her contract, which is the reason most people think she decided to leave. (Email from Mr. Brian McGiverin, May 2, 2014).

All the more evidence that we should read Joyce Murdock Feilke’s letter of resignation as a preamble for real education change. Here it is.

Letter of Resignation

During the past twenty years that I have worked in the Austin Independent School District, I have served as counselor at Bowie HS, Reagan HS, Kealing MS, Burnet MS, Oak Springs Elementary, Lucy Read Pres Center, and most recently at Blackshear Elementary School. In my earlier years in AISD, counselors experienced administrative support when advocating for children’s mental health needs.

However, in recent years, the punitive culture of high stakes testing and test preparation has created a disturbing and unhealthy obsession with children’s performance and data, while disregarding and neglecting their most basic developmental needs. The current rigid curriculum of fragmented, mind numbing, low-level thinking, and rote memory test drill neglects real learning and healthy development that is the essence of children’s future success and well-being.

AISD administrative abuse of power and lack of empathy and understanding of children’s developmental needs indoctrinated school principals to use a management/leadership style that can be callous, self-absorbed, and dishonest. It indoctrinates enthusiastic talented teachers to become desensitized, emotionally detached, and to act like scripted robots. It indoctrinates parents to give up family time and outdoor time with their children to endure more of the same punitive work and performance anxiety at home.

AISD’s age inappropriate focus on performance has created an environment that does not confirm children or allow them freedom to develop their own individuality and independence through real learning and positive interactions with peers and healthy attachments to teachers.

Instead, children are psychologically stifled, manipulated, and exploited with performance reward/punishment/competition and chronic feelings that they can never fully measure up. The children learn to distrust adults and feel bad about themselves. It is an environment of “survive” rather than “thrive”.

My observation of AISD’s dysfunctional system and lack of protest from employees is expressed in the words of Alfie Kohn in an article called Encouraging Courage: (Education Week, September 18, 2013)

… professionals in our field often seem content to work within the constraints of traditional policies and accepted assumptions — even when they don’t make sense. Conversely, too many educators seem to have lost their capacity to be outraged by outrageous things. Handed foolish and destructive mandates, they respond only by requesting guidance on how to make them. They fail to ask “Is this really in the best interest of our students?” or to object when the answer to that question is NO.

As an elementary school counselor, I have continued to be “outraged by outrageous things.” I question if AISD administrators have the ability to recognize the difference between punitive and positive, or if they fully understand the damage caused by an invalidating environment that is observable in many AISD elementary schools, especially the Title I Schools?

While AISD administration employs a large communications staff to promote itself “Hollywood style” to the public with claims of being a model urban school district, there is a worm in that red apple logo.

Behind closed doors, the most oppressive and psychologically restraining environments in AISD are those in Title I Elementary Schools, where minority children are conditioned to become submissive to harsh authoritarian control, where they learn not to think for themselves, but only to obey commands and to fear making mistakes.

The prison like environment of “learned helplessness” called the 3 R’s that is celebrated by AISD for winning performance awards in Title I Schools is a shameful testimony to the professional disregard of children’s needs and arrogance that now prevails and is perpetuated by AISD administration. I have attempted to speak up and advocate for children in AISD who are most affected by this invalidating environment and dysfunctional administration.

It is my goal to continue speaking up. I am submitting my resignation as counselor to pursue this advocacy without retaliation from an administration that does not recognize or respect the needs of children, or the rights of professionals who work to support and help them.

For the past week or so I have been in touch with Joyce, and have also communicated with Mr. Brian McGiverins, an attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, and author of an important blog that relates to much of Joyce’s story.  I also have been in touch with Dr. Julie Westerlund, Professor of Science Education at Texas State University who has collaborated with Joyce, and written about how state testing impedes learning.

For many years, I have written about testing and how it has been misused to control teaching and learning, and the nature of the curriculum.  Testing is entwined with curriculum standards, and the fact that America is moving toward a Common Core of standards sets up a perfect storm for U.S. schools.  There are administrators, bolstered with the support of the reformers of the last ten years, who believe all student should learn the same stuff at the same time, and that we should use web/computer based high-stakes tests to keep everyone in line.

The opposition to this is growing.  I am very pleased to join with educators including Joyce Murdock Feilke, Julian Vasquez Heilig, Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody, Ed Johnson, Mercedes Schneider, Julie Westerlund and many others to give voice to the opposition, and to rebuff those that think the purpose of education is to destroy public education.

Was it extreme for me to write about the psychological abuse of children in schools. What do you think?


About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University