Connections to the World Outside the Classroom:
“Make Sure Your Understanding…Is the Same as Ours”

The Michigan Council for the Social Studies (MCSS) conference is an annual event whose drafted objectives state that 100% of "Michigan students will achieve at the 'Met Standard' level on the MEAP (Michigan Education Assessment Program) Social Studies test." The Rouge Forum has participated in the MCSS annual conferences for a number of years. We have increasingly made regular attempts to raise the level of awareness regarding standardized curriculum and testing like the MEAP. We have always made an effort to place standardized curriculum (Standards and Benchmarks) and testing (MEAP) in the social context of the rise of inequality and increased authoritarianism. The leadership of the MCSS, despite its stated objective of increasing MEAP scores and pushing standardized curriculum and testing, has always been supportive in the sense that they welcome and accommodate our views at their annual conference.

When we arrived to the booth on the first day of the MCSS conference, we immediately put up our banner and posted a MEAP SCHMEAP flyer. This grabbed peoples attention and folks were ecstatic at the fact that there is an organization that is consciously opposing the MEAP madness. It is a real strange conference because many of the attendees dislike the MEAP but its leadership is promoting the darn thing. None the less, the NO MEAP pins sold like crazy and we only wish we had more to just give away. We would have had at least half that place wearing NO MEAP pins. The whole morning we saw people grab the MEAP SCHMEAP flyers and laugh. I think the laughing is important because there is this underlying fear regarding the MEAP and when you can laugh at what causes your fear, well, that just may lead to change. 

On the backside of the MEAP SCHMEAP flyer was a game called MEAP SCHMEAP BINGO. MEAP SCHMEAP BINGO is just like normal bingo but instead of numbers filling the boxes MEAP lingo does. It is designed for the boring sessions that want to teach teachers how to improve MEAP scores. Here are its directions:

As we know, many meetings that deal with the MEAP are not intellectually challenging and are really quite boring. We at Creative Educational Resources have devised MEAP SCHMEAP BINGO to help you through the meetings. The rules are very simple; It is just like normal bingo. Below is your playing card. Each box in the playing card has a MEAP related word that is commonly heard at social studies sessions dealing with the MEAP. When the presenter says one of the words, you simply place an X over that word. The participant who places an X over words that create a line of 5 X's going across, down, or diagonally must jump up and scream MEAP SCHMEAP! The first participant to scream MEAP SCHMEAP will receive a $2500 scholarship to attend future MEAP related meetings.*

The asterisk refers to a footnote indicating that budgetary cutbacks have lead to the indefinite postponement of scholarships.

Each year, bureaucrats from the State of Michigan are sent to the MCSS conference. In the literature they provide, a couple pieces of information jump out, revealing the true nature of standardized curriculum and testing and those who support them. First, in reference to this literature, the Michigan Department of Education says that "This resource is provided to assist with the improvement of student achievement based on Michigan social studies standards--a necessary component of responsible citizenship (emphasis added)." The literature states that "success on the MEAP is connected to successful instruction aligned to the Michigan Content Standards and Benchmarks for the Social Studies." It has all this fancy stuff about "Deep Knowledge," "Higher Order Thinking," "Substantive Conversation", and "Connections to the World Outside the Classroom." Within these headings, it suggests that the "teacher [should ask] questions to which there are no 'right answers,'" "make connections using authentic classroom assignments and authentic assessment, and to "ask more open ended responses [I realize this does not sound right. I think the State meant to say that teachers should ask questions that elicit multiple responses]." Without any sense of irony, the literature suggests that teachers need to "MAKE SURE THAT YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE BENCHMARKS IS THE SAME AS OURS." The social studies portion of the test is primarily multiple choice contradicting the suggestion that there be no right answers. The idea of "mak[ing] sure… your understanding of the benchmarks is the same as ours" makes hollow all the other valuable suggestions of Deep Knowledge, Higher Order Thinking, etc. As a friend says, you can teach fascism using whole language. One of the areas "students are having difficulty with" is "explaining what is found in a frontier region." What does this mean? Do we find the near extermination of Native Americans by the United States of America in the name of freedom and democracy on the frontier? Do we find good intentions gone bad? What do you think it means? On the test, there is only one right answer. Content is critical. To us, this is blatant regulation of knowledge couched in language that sounds professional and good.

Prior to each session held by a bureaucrat of the Education or Treasury Department (Michigan's testing is controlled by the Treasury Department), we passed out MEAP SCHMEAP BINGO to incoming participants. The representatives from the State were not aware that we were doing this outside their sessions. During our first experience, a participant from the session became very upset with us for passing out these flyers to incoming participants. She wanted to know who knew we were doing this and we told her that we knew we were doing this and the people who had taken one on their way in knew we were doing this (smart allick). She said that she was going to go and tell on us. Telling on us meant going to the MCSS board members to inform them that this was happening. The irony is that the State and MEAP pimps push an idea called "Core Democratic Values." This is a list of values a small group of people 'found' in the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and other 'founding documents.' Obviously, this good citizen who sees "the improvement of student achievement based on Michigan social studies standards--a necessary component of responsible citizenship" was going to protect people from my radical MEAP SCHMEAP flyers. Her interpretation of the Core Democratic Values must not include passing out flyers to people going into a session held by a representative of the state.

Guess what happened at the next session where we were again handing out the flyers. Yep, an MCSS board member came to watch us. He was a nice guy though and did not comment at all, but just paced back and forth monitoring. Anyway, the Rouge Forum's best friend, Bruce Brousseau (sarcasm) decided that he wanted to talk to us. He claimed that we were deceiving people by handing them materials outside the session doors as people walked in. It may have been unintentionally unclear, but deception is really quite drastic. Bruce does not like the Rouge Forum. Last year, at the National Council for the Social Studies annual conference, he spoke up at a Rouge Forum sponsored session saying the Rouge Forum is telling lies and was then shouted down by the audience. At the following MCSS conference, near the end of his MEAP promoting session, I stood up and invited people to a demonstration that was being held in opposition to standardized curriculum and testing. As I was calmly talking, he was literally screaming at me demanding that I tell the audience that I am from the Rouge Forum. Despite this type of behavior he was promoted to not only coordinate the development and implementation of the Social Studies portion of the MEAP, but all parts of MEAP. Brousseau was trying to explain something to me that I did not quite understand so I asked if he could be more explicit and he responded with, "well, you know, the Rouge Forum lies." Of course my gut said, "punch the &%$*!#@ guy in the face," but this guy gets angry when you refuse to get angry, so I laughed. At any rate, I asked him what he wanted from me and he said that I needed to be more explicit in explaining to incoming participants that the flyer being handed out is not for the session. (Brousseau has no authority at this conference.) So, as we were handing these out, we said, "Here is anti-MEAP stuff you don't have to take…the test." Bruce left. The said flyer was copied on pink paper. When the session started, the State social studies MEAP coordinator (who is really a part of the Treasury Department), said, I kid you not, "Okay folks, we are going to get started with the pink piece of paper." How many minds went to the MEAP SCHMEAP BINGO when he said that? ha ha. Of course, he was referring to some other sheet he had brought but…. Before we left, we peeked in and I could see people playing MEAP SCHMEAP BINGO. Oh boy, what a great day.

On day two of the Michigan Council for the Social Studies conference, people came back to the booth to get the NO MEAP pins, decals and shirts. Based upon the responses from teachers at the conference, this test is quite hated by the teachers of Michigan. The booth experience was great particularly because it was an opportunity to share experiences, make connections, and feel a sense of solidarity with the many social studies teachers who share similar concerns. During this day, we again leafleted the State sponsored MEAP related sessions. The Superintendent of all Michigan Public Schools, Tom Watkins, who is being heralded as a friendly leader for educators did not escape the leaflets. He is a master at using all the "positive" buzzwords of education. His words do not match his actions because his plan is going to use the MEAP scores as 67% of a school's grade. In his predecessor's plan, which admittedly was worse because is used MEAP participation and MEAP results as the sole criteria, the cut off scores to determine whether a school would be accredited by the State needed to be lowered because "too many schools" would have "failed." Thus, to some, Watkins is a godsend. Secondly, because the letter grades were going to be based upon, in part, participation rates, it would have significantly impacted a wealthy Republican school district. Parents and students in this particular school district (Birmingham Public Schools) had initially refused to take the tests and had extremely low participation rates. Since then, the State offered them a bribe of $2500 in the form of a scholarship for passing the MEAP. This caused participation rates to increase but not as much as in poor districts where administrators and teachers pressure students into participating, often times with misinformation. Here is a difference I learned during the meeting. The Birmingham Public Schools sends a letter home asking parents whether their children are going to be taking the tests. In middle, working class, and poor schools, parents and children are being told that they are not allowed to opt their child out of the test, which is not true. These acts clearly indicate the political and class nature of school reform. 

Despite all the other ironies, the most fascinating comment made to us during this conference was that the MEAP was a good thing because it has brought 3000 social studies educators together. This man claimed that prior to the MEAP, these MCSS conferences were lightly attended. For me, this raises the questions about whether tests are being pushed for more reasons than just educating our future but lining particular pockets of textbook companies. Secondly, he assumed that the increase in attendance is going to lead to an increase in the quality of social studies instruction. I am fascinated by his comments because he fetishized the test and ignored the social relations that are propelling the high-stakes nature of the test and 'motivating' administrators and teachers to transform and solidify particular curricular and methodological practices to increase scores on the standardized tests. In terms of the curriculum, it promotes a social studies content that denies the historical conflict of class struggle and how that has shaped much of our lives. Instead, it promotes capitalism as the glorified conclusion of past historical struggles, suggesting that there is no other way to live. (This is the best we can do. We have reached the pinnacle of human development.) In terms of methodology, standardized curriculum and testing assumes that knowledge is static rather than fluid. Standardized curriculum and high-stakes testing reinforces a social relationship in the classroom which requires students to placate the teacher in order to "get" the necessary knowledge to score well on the test and therefore be considered a valued citizen. Paulo Freire has effectively argued against this form of education that promotes a relationship where the student is a being for another. Although the student should be the subject of his/her knowledge, he/she is not the subject in the construction of his/her understanding of the social world, rather, the student is an object whose purpose is to absorb more cultural capital than his/her peers and accurately mirror the real subject of the classroom, the teacher. However, with standardized curriculum and high-stakes testing, the subject has become even further removed than the teacher, and has become the test maker. As we pointed out earlier, the teacher needs to make sure his/her understanding of the standardized curriculum is the same as the State of Michigan's. Concurrently, Corporate America, who benefits from the social relations that are reinforced through standardized curriculum and testing, and their pimps in government are the ones ratcheting up the high-stakes nature of standardized curriculum and testing. Hence, we have a perfect authoritarian structure for their perfect society where privilege continues to exist through the domination of others.

In the name of democracy and equality, it is necessary that we place our minds and bodies in opposition to standardized curriculum and high-stakes testing.

Greg Queen

Katy Landless 

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