Thursday, April 5, 2012

Yes, The New York City Department of Education "Banned Words" List Is As Bad As Reported

Numerous tipsters and friends pointed out the New York Post story about how the New York City Department of Education had banned words like "dinosaur" and "birthday" and "Halloween" from tests. I was quite ready to unload on the Department — in fact, I was discussing a contest to see who could use all of the words in one test question — when I was struck with a sudden and overpowering sense of skepticism, and ground to a halt.
Sometimes these stories are based on snippets of truth taken out of context, or misreported. Am I, I asked myself (not aloud, because that's pretentious), being taken in by a story that plays into my predisposition to see the education bureaucracy as witlessly politically correct?
20120403-banned-words-post.jpgSo, though it pained me, I tried to find the original source for the story. None of the news reports or blog posts about it posted the Department of Education document allegedly containing the dinosaur's-birthday ban. From a reference in one of the stories I figured that the language came from the Department's notice seeking bids from test providers — an RFP, to those who bid on government contracts — and located it here. But the Department's site doesn't let you access the RFPs unless you have a vendor account. Fortunately there's a Popehat reader who has one. I think he does work for the Department carting off dead bodies or catering mixed drinks to the rubber room or something; I didn't ask. Thanks to this intrepid reader, I had it — the Appendix to RFP #R0911, the Periodic Assessment Program. A delay followed, as I spent much of the weekend coughing up muppet-colored gunk. But then I read it.
And yes, contrary to my concerns, it's just about as bad as was reported.
The Appendix shows a list of topics for test questions "that would probably cause a selection to be deemed unacceptable by the New York City Department of Education." The Department explains:
In general, a topic might be unacceptable for any of the following reasons:
The topic could evoke unpleasant emotions in the students that might hamper their ability to take the remainder of the test in the optimal frame of mind.
The topic is controversial among the adult population and might not be acceptable in a state-mandated testing situation.
The topic has been ―done to death‖ in standardized tests or textbooks and is thus overly familiar and/or boring to students.
The topic will appear biased against (or toward) some group of people.
Now, it might be perfectly reasonable for the Department to avoid tests with obscene content, or content celebrating criminal activity, like the pimping-or-crack-dealing math test that the occasional "creative" teacher devises. But the Department's list of disfavored subjects is incomprehensibly broad and, in many instances, stubbornly irrational. Here it is, with the occasional comment from me:
Alcohol (beer and liquor), tobacco, or drugs (No questions about Prohibition? No questions about colonial tobacco trade?)
Birthdays (no "Ronnie got six presents on her birthday. She gave four away.")
Bodily functions (Presumably they mean no traditionally private bodily functions. Otherwise this is going to be a very abstract test.)
Cancer (and other diseases) (Nothing about Jonas Salk. Gotcha.)
Catastrophes/disasters (tsunamis and hurricanes)
Children dealing with serious issues (Not even children dealing with a fundamentally broken educational system run by twits?)
Computers in the home (acceptable in a school or public library setting) (Really? Because — kids would feel deprived? Really?)
Creatures from outer space
Dancing (ballet is acceptable) (What. The. FUCK.)
Death and disease (So — just avoid discussing any war, then.)
Dinosaurs and prehistoric times
Geological history
Expensive gifts, vacations, and prizes
Homes with swimming pools
In-depth discussions of sports that require prior knowledge
Junk food
Loss of employment
Nuclear weapons
Rap music
Religious holidays
Rock-and-Roll music
Running away
Vermin (rats and roaches)
War and bloodshed
Weapons (guns, knives, etc.)
Witchcraft, sorcery, etc.
But that's not all. Now that the Department has gotten a topic/word list out of its system, it's time to move on to more amorphous concepts:
Avoid anything that may be interpreted as:
Anthropomorphism (attribution of human characteristics to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena) (Anthropomorphism is allowed in retellings of fables.)
Biased towards or against any particular form or system of government (So. Democracy? Meh. Take it or leave it.)
Dangerous for children (alone at home, swimming without adult supervision, etc.) (No children-overcoming-adversity stories.)
Demeaning to any group (Not counting, presumably, demeaning to the children taking the resulting insipid tests)
Disrespectful to authority or authority figures (no questioning authority! No American Revolution stuff, please.)
Highly controversial (Meaning, whatever the Department wants it to mean)
Middle-class amenities that may be unfamiliar to some children (Decently written tests administered in decent schools, for instance)
Smug, moralistic, preachy (That invades the province of the Department's administrators)
Stereotyping of any group
Stridently feminist or chauvinistic
Avoid using trade names.
In short: I'm glad that I took the time to locate and read the source document. It makes the story worse, not better. \
New Yorkers' tax dollars went to drafting this list — to sitting in rooms and coming up with lists of concepts and topics that might possibly upset someone somewhere, and thus must be avoided in the modern Wiffle School.
Tell me: do you think the time spend devising this list, and devising compliant bids, and policing bids for compliance, contributed anything positive or useful to the education of children?

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