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Power or Prison

by Judith Tannenbaum
San Francisco, California

A San Francisco high school teacher recently told me: “We know exactly what our students need, and none of it is measured by test scores.”

I am sure that there are those who sincerely believe that exit exams and standardized tests are the way to leave no child behind. But whenever I walk into a school labeled “under-performing,” I feel like that kid in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Because the young people we measure -- i.e. our children -- aren’t products to put on a scale. They are human beings who have lives full of experience: summer days at Dolores Park, a sidewalk bloodstain where a friend was shot down, a grandmother’s stories, firecrackers marking a family’s last day in China, a father weak from cancer, police lights and handcuffs, morning bird song back home in Nicaragua, sirens and helicopters, refried red beans on a ceramic plate.

If we’re going to measure, doesn’t the cancer count? The refried red beans, the firecrackers?

As I say, I am sure there are those who sincerely believe in the positive value of testing to standards. Still, I wonder if these folks send their own children to a school whose learning environment is entirely shaped by the need to improve test scores. Parents who have a choice seem to choose schools that understand intelligence as multi-faceted, schools that create a wide variety of approaches to the process of learning and critical thinking. Parents who have a choice don’t choose schools such as the one I recently heard of where only the top five percent of students (as measured by test scores) are allowed any art during the school day.

The “naked emperor” I see when I walk into our schools these days looks like this: some of our children are being prepared to assume power and others are being prepared for prison.

Listen to the experts, two men from among the seven million Americans currently in prison, jail, or on parole or probation. Spoon Jackson writes from one California maximum security prison about his own youth: “I lived on the edge of society, with no forum, form, or way to express what was on the inside and real.” Rick, another middle-aged man serving a life sentence, said: “When I was young, if any teacher had ever invited me to put my feelings into a poem or a painting, I might not have quit school.”

We come into the world wired to learn. Schools offer the best learning conditions when they welcome students with excitement, intelligence, curiosity, and passion. Welcome to my child, your child, and to all our children including those in “under-performing” schools. If everyone is welcome – welcome for all of himself and herself: the after school job, the always-drunk uncle, the red skirt waiting in the closet for Saturday’s date, the little brother caught by the streets, the boyfriend back in Korea – then we will truly leave no child behind.

Judith Tannenbaum currently serves as training coordinator with San Francisco’s WritersCorps ( She has taught poetry in California public schools, after-school programs, and prisons for thirty years. Her Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin was published by Northeastern University Press in 2000. She also has written and edited writing texts for classroom teachers. For more information

Published in In Motion Magazine April 4, 2007

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