Skip to content

Eugenic Legacies Still Influence Education

October 9, 2011

"Every student, every day" - a reminder to myself posted in my classroom. (photo: Ramin Rahimian)

One of the most important guiding principles in education is in loco parentis – we are morally and legally obliged to act “in place of the parent” when children are in our care.  That principle is the main reason for the sharply negative and visceral reaction I had when I read about John F. Kennedy High School using color-coded identification cards based on student test scores, and then a later article describing a similar program at Cypress High School (both in Orange County, California).  According to the Orange County Register, the different cards also led to different privileges around school, discounts on various purchases, and even led an administrator to insult a group of students in an assembly.  The policy has sparked  debate and quite a bit of criticism online (and in rather short order, the district announced that most of the discriminatory practices would be ended).  Anthony Cody wrote about it in his blog and I left some comments there and on Twitter, and the topic has been actively discussed on Huffington Post as well.

Acting in loco parentis, I try to remind myself that I have responsibilities to “Every student, every day.”  In the photo above, you can see one of the locations where I gave myself a visual reminder of my mission.  I have so much trouble with a school policy that treats not just some of its students, but the majority of them, as second class citizens.  That’s far from the democratic ideals that should infuse our schools, and far from good parenting.

The problem that the policy aimed to solve was that some students were not motivated to do their best work on state tests, and therefore the school’s Academic Performance Index was lower than it could have been.  Other schools have ways of motivating students, ranging from innocuous (a treat) to inane (big rallies and assemblies).  But of course, the school has no way of measuring effort, and must assume that many students putting forth their best effort will still come up short; using the negative motivator of shame will not help students already giving their best effort to somehow muster more effort.  For students who still miss the state’s “proficient” mark on this single test, Kennedy and Cypress high schools are content to relegate them to lower status in multiple daily interactions with their peers and the school.  There were predictable results (detailed below), including insults and discrimination, but apparently the school valued its Academic Performance Index more than it valued the mental health and wellbeing of the majority of its students.

I’d have thought the policies were so obviously wrong, so insensitive, so counterproductive and so poorly aligned with what we know about motivation and performance, that it would almost be unnecessary to write a blog post about the incident.  I’m glad that Anthony Cody did, but I didn’t think I’d have much more to contribute.  Until I mentioned eugenics – first on Anthony’s blog, then on Twitter.  In a series of exchanges with someone I respect, I was repeatedly challenged on my claim that this policy had connections to eugenics.  So here we go.

First of all, let me be clear.  I don’t think the intention of the policy was eugenic; I do not claim that the administrators believe human intelligence is immutable, or that they had any thoughts about trying to control human reproduction in order to pass along the most desirable genetic traits and thereby improve our “racial stock.”  In fact, most adults I know, in the field of education or not, have very little awareness of the eugenics movement, and were it not for my own learning over years of contact with Facing History and Ourselves, I probably wouldn’t know it either.  So, I’m not accusing these administrators of being eugenicists or actively supporting eugenic goals or beliefs.  I’m sure they are decent people with good intentions.  They made a serious mistake.

The range of actions and understandings with which all of us operate come from somewhere.  We are the inheritors of a complex history, some of it quite negative; the heavy stone of the American eugenics movement may have sunk to the bottom of the lake, but the ripples travel on whether or not we recognize their origin.  Perhaps without knowing it, these schools are carrying out policies that constitute yet another ripple from a rock they didn’t see hitting the water almost a century ago.

Some people will read this and say I’m going too far in pursuing this line of thinking.  However, a colleague I know who has studied this history extensively would say that I’m barely scratching the surface, and that evidence of eugenic influence can be seen in our overall testing policies, including high school exit exams.  Take a look at who ends up in continuation high schools, who ends up dropping out, and my colleague would tell you that all schools are still immersed in the legacies of eugenics in ways we rarely consider or confront.  I’m inclined to agree, but for now, will try to use this one example to make the point.  Maybe then we’ll have a foot in the door to look beyond these schools.

Eugenics was accepted science in the early twentieth century.  Armed with a rudimentary understanding of inherited characteristics and evolution, scientists, legislators, educators, clergy, the military, and many others in society looked for ways divide people by their qualities and even guide human reproduction at the societal level, just as farmers would try to improve crop yields and livestock through a selective process.  County fairs and exhibtions around the country offered scientific displays showing the threat of higher birth rates among the lower classes of society, and they held “Fitter Family” contests to identify and extol the ideal characteristics of those who should procreate and pass on their genes. Tens of thousands of Americans were deemed unfit to reproduce and sterilized against their will or without their knowledge, a practice blessed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell.

In the field of education, intelligence tests promised an era of scientific efficiency, as each child could be provided with the education befitting the intelligence displayed on a single test taken at an early age.  Regarding those children with the lowest measured intelligence, eugenicist and professor Lewis Terman wrote, “Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master abstractions, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding” (“The Measurement of Intelligence” pp. 91-92, 1916).  One test, separate treatment, and a heavy dose of judgment regarding who deserves basic rights – those are parallels that are hard to deny in the present case.

Take a look at the illustration below.  In the upper left corner we see “THE OLD METHOD” where schools must use guesswork for sorting students into different classes.  “THE NEW METHOD” is the use of intelligence tests, in the hand of a gentle but authoritative education system.  Random guesswork is now out, but the goal has not changed; students will still be sorted into classes, only now with greater certainty.  In an era where eugenic thinking ruled the day, the sorting of students into separate classes was an assumed good, a benefit to society.

Illustration from the American School Board Journal, 1922. (via Facing History and Ourselves)

The faith in the tests was firm, though by modern standards they were clearly riddled with cultural biases.  For example, the test might require a person to recognize what was missing in a simple line drawing of a known image – for example, a face missing a nose.  Although, if you immigrated from a landlocked nation, you might not recognize a crab at all.  If you had never seen a phonograph, it would be hard to know which part was missing, let alone what to call it.  If you had never seen a bowling lane or lawn tennis… well, you see the problem.

The concerns being raised today about the abuse of testing to classify students resemble criticisms expressed against eugenicists almost a century ago. Reacting the misuse of intelligence tests by scholar Carl Brigham, Horace Mann Bond of Langston University wrote:

… But so long as any group of men attempts to use these tests as funds of information for the approximation of crude and inaccurate generalizations, so long must we continue to cry “Hold!” To compare the crowded millions of New York’s East Side with the children of Morningside Heights [an upper class neighborhood at the time] indeed involves a great contradiction; and to claim that the results of the tests given to such diverse groups, drawn from such varying strata of the social complex, are in any wise accurate, is to expose a fatuous sense of unfairness and lack of appreciation of the great environmental factors of modern urban life (“Intelligence Tests and Propaganda.”  Crisis, June 1924; vol. 28, no. 23).

As was the case in 1924, administrators at Cypress and Kennedy have used tests in a way that inevitably leads to “crude and inaccurate generalizations,” without any apparent critical analysis applied to the problems with the tests, or the way the results are interpreted.  They may try to distance themselves from those generalizations, but that would be like slapping the scarlet “A” on Hester and then disowning the easily foreseen ostracism by saying “well, that wasn’t our intent.”

The Orange County Register reports on the effects of giving the top-tier students special treatment:

The reminders of the three-tiered system are everywhere. At the school cafeteria, Kennedy administrators have created two lines with separate entrances – one for black- and gold- card holders, and another for white-card holders. Because the school has more white-card holders, the white-card-holder line is typically longer, students say.

In addition, black- and gold-card holders are known for crowding up to the front of the white-card-holder line and pushing their way inside, without waiting in any line at all, students say.

“The cafeteria runs out of the good food, so they take all the good stuff,” said freshman Nick Lindeman, 14, of La Palma, a white-card holder who buys lunch in the cafeteria daily. “I feel like I’m being bullied because they’re rubbing it in our faces that they’re better than us, and the school isn’t doing anything to stop it.”

On a recent day, the line was unusually long, and so many students were cutting that Lindeman gave up and didn’t eat, he said.

Lindeman’s mother, Peggy, said her son has a learning disability that prevents him from scoring well on standardized tests, making the color-coded ID cards a particularly bitter pill to swallow.

“Any student with a disability, this really shuts them down,” Peggy Lindeman said. “They’re like, ‘Why try? You’re already labeled.'”

A student with a learning disability finding that his identity and test score mean less access to food at school should be enough for any compassionate person to say this program needed to end immediately.  It should never have started in the first place.  If the goal of raising test scores is worth pursuing with rewards  (and I would argue it isn’t), then at least spend the time to find an appropriate choice that does not directly harm other students.

A summary of eugenic goals in The Eugenics Archive at Cold Spring Harbor states that eugenicists, “encouraged reproduction of the ‘best and the brightest’ and discouraged reproduction of the ‘unfit.'”   Another section of the same website notes that eugenicists “sought ways to popularize what they considered to be good marriages.  Francis Galton [the originator of eugenic theory] urged the brightest and the healthiest individuals to marry each other.”  In his private notes (now in the Cold Spring Harbor Eugenics Archive), Galton went a step further and suggested that a man aged 23-30 might be issued a eugenic certificate that would  “prove him to be distinctly superior in Eugenic Gifts.”  The American Eugenics Party took that idea public and urged the creation of a formal classification system to ensure marriage among suitable mates.


Galton's handwritten notes, from the Cold Springs Harber Eugenics Archive.

And what is being encouraged at Kennedy High School?  From the same Orange County Register article:

Kennedy parent Carol Lopp of Buena Park said she has already approached school administrators to express her concerns, especially after she learned that a school administrator jokingly told female students at an assembly that they should aspire to go to dances with black-card holders instead of white-card holders.

“I said, ‘You are bullying them; you are degrading the white-card holders and making them feel like they are inadequate,'” said Lopp, a special-education instructional aide in another school district. “They said, ‘You don’t understand; everyone was laughing.’ I said, ‘Because you laugh about it, that’s ok?’ They said, ‘You don’t understand.’ I said, ‘No, you don’t understand.’ They used to put a dunce cap on kids to make them do better in school.”

I am not arguing that the situations are identitical – I don’t believe that the administrator supports the American Eugenic Party platform.  But where does a joke like that come from, and why does it come up in the context of a dance, and directed at female students?  The implication is clear: the higher-scoring students are more suitable social partners, if not more suitable mates.  The adminstrator may not know anything about eugenics or believe in eugenic principles, but he said what a eugenicist would have said, under conditions a eugenicist would have endorsed.

I think the eugenic echoes are ringing loudly in this case, and the misuse of tests continues.  Federal, state, and local policies clearly use the tests for “ranking and ordering” more than for any evaluative purpose, and these administrators took those rankings towards the extreme.  It cannot be argued that they have served any useful educational purpose through the intentional stratification of students in their daily lives on campus, particularly in non-academic interactions.  The stated goal of the program is to motivate the students – by perks or by shame – to offer their best efforts.  But the reason to coax their best effort out of them was to make the school look better and generate a higher school ranking.  And what does it say about the tests and the broader policies we have in place, that students and schools are so ruled by tests students don’t care about?  But in the end, the truly disappointing performance does not belog to the low-scoring students.  If anyone has been found wanting, it is the school administrators, along with school or district staff who supported this policy, and those who gave tacit approval within or outside the schools.

How did it reach a point where discrimination and segregation so reminiscient of our negative eugenic history somehow seemed like a viable means to an unworthy end?

Are Kennedy and Cypress high schools truly unique?  I hear the voice of my colleague with expertise in this area suggesting that it is merely a matter of degree.  We would all do well to take a closer look at the policies in our school systems, our underlying assumptions about the purpose of schools and education, and the patterns of who receives the best of our efforts and resources, and whom we’ve left behind.  I’m calling on all of us to hear the echoes of history and accelerate our progress away from that past, until the echoes fade beyond recognition.  We do not have to reduce children and schools to scores and indexes, and we certainly do not have to compare the results of these narrow measures, declare winners and losers, and dole out unearned rewards and counterproductive punishments.

Not comparing and ranking?  Now that would be a bold paradigm shift towards innovative education reform worth pursuing.

At the moment, we are so steeped in grading and measuring and ordering and comparing that what I’m suggesting will be dismissed as naïve and idealistic by many readers.  I am not suggesting that we should prop up students’ self-esteem by saying everything they do is fine and all work is equal.  I believe in holding students to high standards in their work, and I know that real and lasting self-esteem follows from real achievement, meeting real challenges.  I don’t accept that grades and rankings are necessary, or even conducive to the goals we hold dear in education.  Maybe if enough like-minded educators, parents, schools, colleges, and leaders would be bold enough to question assumptions they’ve lived with all their lives, our education system might evolve, giving up on a race to the top in favor of truly leaving no child behind.

UPDATE [10/9/11]: The Orange County Register has a new article with more complete information on the district’s decision to reverse course on most aspects of this policy. The Register quotes a district press release:

“Although many of the students and parents on the two campuses are very proud of the program, we recognize that some students have negatively interpreted some components of the program. Therefore, we are modifying some aspects to address those concerns and ensure that all students feel supported on campus.
“Students will no longer carry color-coded binders. Cypress High School and Kennedy High School will provide uniform binders and uniform school ID cards for all students, at no cost to them. … The privileges that are of a public nature, such as faster lunch lines, will no longer be in place.”

The comments following the article, as of this writing, are running largely in favor of the policy and against the district revoking privileges.  There is a Facebook group, apparently student-led, called “BRING BACK GOLD/PLATINUM PRIVILEGES JOIN AND SUPPORT CAUSE.”

[10/9/11 – edit: corrected Terman quotation to include the word “abstractions”]

36 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2011 12:58 pm


  2. Rick Wormeli permalink
    October 9, 2011 1:21 pm

    Wow, David, Thank you for taking the time to sort through your thinking and that of others on this topic, and doing it so eloquently. What these two schools are doing is indefensible. It’s a corruption of pedagogy and schooling so devastatingly apart from what’s healthy for students, their communities, and our larger democracy, it should be critical mass enough for those district’s administrators and state officials to intervene. ‘And just as startling: that faculty go along with this. Wow, again. These policies read like the villains in one of the current fantasy/horror teen novels — you almost think it can’t be real, but it is. This makes us wonder what path led to this result, and to hope that we will recognize those signs if we find ourselves on the same path in some other school.

    How subtle this can be, ‘creeping into daily thinking as we swim through the daily tasks and situational myopia, but when seen with objective eyes in the larger perspective, we see it’s insiduous nature. With the best of intent, schools desperate to improve student learning sometimes do very questionable things, but we hope we have enough of a democracy to provide balance, to not let any one policy get too far out of line with our true mission, and to make sure we are considering all factors before implementation.

    Important voices were not heard in this decision, accurate training in how to teach adolescents and build school culture was missed. Hopefully, these schools will receive enough feedback to make them re-consider. it breaks my heart, let alone afronts my professional mind, to think about what goes unlearned and unachieved in both white card and black gold card students while they are in high school and in their years beyond. — Rick Wormeli, Herndon, VA

  3. October 9, 2011 1:50 pm

    This is a rich and important post, and reminds me of the scholarly work along these lines done by one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of the past half century, Stephen Jay Gould. His book, The Mismeasure of Man” is highly relevant to this.

    I think this sort of thinking is almost inevitable in a time of expanding inequality. The beneficiaries of this inequity are bound to seek rationales for it, and since racial superiority is somewhat passe, we use test performance as some sort of rough proxy for a human’s merit. It is just a few steps more down this path to start literally labeling people, and treating them according to their designation.

    • October 9, 2011 7:07 pm

      There has been some interesting back and forth about Gould’s treatment of Morton, with a recent paper showing that Gould may have fudged the data (claiming that Morton fudged his data). Here is a reasonably good summary from John Hawks.
      Mismeasure of Man is still a great book, and Gould still a great evolutionary biologist, but some of his colleagues are disappointed that his ideology seemed to trump the careful scientist in this regard.
      It is interesting that you say this sort of thinking is partly driven by rising inequality. I would think that shrinking inequality would also drive this sort of scientific labeling. If everyone can read, and the differences between people are smaller, then you need science to put people in bins. Not to say that is what is happening, I am just not sure that we can blame this awful use of science on rising inequality.
      I think the beneficiaries of the inequity want to think that instead of devoting their ill-gotten gains to leveling the playing field, they want science to do it for them. Science is clearly not up to the task.

  4. October 9, 2011 2:59 pm

    Thank you for pointing out the ways in which standardized tests are used to hinder success for many. It’s time to reimagine and restructure education so that every child’s right to a dignified, responsive education in schools equipped with conditions for excellence is met.

  5. October 9, 2011 4:22 pm

    This is really interesting, thank you for sharing. I’m going to use some of what you share with my seniors as we study “Brave New World.” Who are the Alpha-Plusses, after all? My students have been astute at observing the patent obscenity of the social system in that text, all to certain to themselves that such stratification doesn’t actually happen… there is always truth before satire.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      October 9, 2011 7:46 pm

      Good connection! I actually use a lot of resources and information about eugenics along with Brave New World as part of my Facing History and Ourselves English class (sophomores). That’s the main reason I had all these associations in the first place. The post was already quite long or I would have worked in something along the lines of “I’m awfully glad I’m an Alpha…”

  6. October 9, 2011 4:36 pm

    David, thank you for writing such a thoughtful post.

    When I first heard about this colour-coding via test scores, I was as disgusted as I was unsurprised. The more time and effort I spend looking at how testsandgrades are being used by educators and policy-makers, the more I see schemes that I describe as nothing less than dehumanizing. This story is no exception.

    Arguing over whether we are using testsandgrades appropriately in an effort to effectively rank & sort children is a massive exercise in missing the point — the real problem is that we continue to rank and sort with testsandgrades at all. I wonder how many people will follow their objections to this story far enough to reach this logical conclusion?

  7. October 9, 2011 6:09 pm

    Among the most insightful blog posts I’ve ever read. Kudos…

  8. October 9, 2011 6:42 pm

    Great post! I was thinking along similar lines in this scientific american blog post:

    A few things to add, related to intelligence tests (I am a cognitive psychologist, with a background in the history of psychology), I like to talk with my students about when they started which was in France, just at the beginning of universal education. Part of the intentions were not just creepy sorting, but acknowledging that some sorting would take place, and the French government worried that the de facto sorting would be according to class lines. The original tests were partly intended to give a scientific boost to the unwashed masses, who risked being pushed to the “lower” classes based on prejudices, or parental influence. The scientists thought they were using a microscope, and didn’t realize the extent they were simply codifying their own class privilege.

    I would argue that the problems now are similar in that we don’t trust the teachers, and instead turn to “scientific” tests in what Rick Hess recently called our “achievement gap mania.”

    As a scientist, i would say that there is a role for science, and many tests do provide us with _some_ information. But they are a limited tool, and only useful in the hands of someone who knows how to use them. There needs to be a respect of the craft of teaching, which complement the tests, instead of being ruled by them.

    Anyways, great post.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      October 9, 2011 7:39 pm

      Just following up on the origins of the test, my understanding is that Binet was concerned that IQ tests would be used exactly in the way they ended up being used, but the genie was out of the lamp, so to speak. I heard/read somewhere that he intended his IQ test as a snapshot in time, but for decades it was assumed to be a more permanent characteristic.

  9. Jan Dietzgen permalink
    October 10, 2011 12:43 pm

    After graduating from Columbia during the “Strawberry Statement-occupy-the admin-building ’68, I taught in the inner city in Cleveland. The District had an monthly attendance data collection where they identified their students by name and a local IQ test. Palma reminds me of this.

  10. Angie permalink
    October 11, 2011 7:58 pm

    Do parents have a legal right to opt their children out of taking the test? What would happen if the majority of parents exercised that right and opted their children out? Would it be possible for parents to stop all this simply by saying “no”?

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      October 11, 2011 9:31 pm

      Angie – I believe parents have the right to opt out in most states, including California. There is definitely a growing movement of people recommending that approach. I recall hearing/reading that it would not require a majority, but simply a decent-sized minority of opt-outs to taint the results of the tests for any school or district. I believe the short-term result would be that a school with too many opt-outs would go into program improvement, or further down the road of program improvement, or potentially, reach the end of the line and be subject to school closure/reconstiitution. Also, where we have schools making poor decisions about rewards and punishments based on the tests, (such as those in this post), students would face consequences at school. The long-term result, especially if enough schools participated, would be more positive, in my opinion. I must stress that I’m speaking strictly for myself here, and my views are probably not shared by any employer or affilitated institution. But imagine – if the people rejected the system and made it stop working, we might have a couple of options superior to the status quo, (assuming voters don’t have the stomach for more of what messed us up in the first place). Either come up with a more legitimate evaluative program that looks at kids and schools holistically, (as Governor Brown suggested in his recent veto of SB-547), or give up on state rankings and “accountability” ratings and indexes. I have never formally endorsed an opt-out approach or openly encouraged it because ultimately, we’re talking about civil disobedience, and the participants in such action have to be prepared to take negative consequences. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not resist arrest; he went to jail willingly to expose the injustice he was protesting. The consequences of a test boycott would not land on me, so I’m not going to be the one calling on students and parents to take the risk. For more info, you might look up Opt-Out on Facebook, and Project Bartleby (taking its name from the famous Melville character who resisted by saying, “I would prefer not to”).

    • October 13, 2011 6:32 pm

      re: Opting out. Yes there is! In fact there’s a whole movement brewing. You can get more info here

      If you’re in California here’s the relevant ed code:

      60615. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a parent’s or
      guardian’s written request to school officials to excuse his or her
      child from any or all parts of the assessments administered pursuant
      to this chapter shall be granted.


      I couldn’t find the relevant ed code section but I’m pretty sure in California it’s illegal for a teacher to promote opting out at his or her own school but certainly within your rights as a parent to make that option known at your own child’s school.

  11. October 16, 2011 6:48 am

    Why bother getting your knickers in a twist assuming good intentions?

    All this reminded me of was the system of yellow stars, pink triangles, etc that color coded the inmates of concentration camps into Jews, homosexuals, politicals, etc for purpose of creating a hierarchy of abuse. And Jim Crow….perhaps the lunch lines met the Plessy v Fergusen test of separate but equal? Abusing the white card holders is as diabolical as it is transparent.

    If they behave just like Nazis we should stop assuming good intentions. The unspoken tragedy here is the moral debasement of the gold/black/platinum card holders who have started a Facebook page to demand the return of their privileges. In 1936 they had a name for those kids: Hitler Youth.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      October 16, 2011 9:06 am

      Hi Steve – the reason I assume good intentions is that it’s just hard for me to imagine folks staying in the field of education with other intentions. The parallels are there, and I’d like to think that if I’d participated in anything like that and then had it pointed out to me, I’d stop and engage in some heavy duty self-reflection, further learning, and straighten myself out. The friend I refer to in the article would say that in more subtle ways, many, perhaps most of us are still feeling the pull of the eugenics’ influence – we just don’t color-code it and set up different lines. As for the now “victimized” group organizing on Facebook, I agree that they’re clamoring for undeserved privileges and with a serious lack of understanding or concern for their peers. There’s a confluence of adult misunderstandings trickling down to the kids, compounded by the unique ability of teenagers to recognize and call attention to every sling and arrow aimed their way – along with some that aren’t really.
      I’ll also assume your good intentions, but suggest that the Nazi comparison won’t win anyone over to your way of thinking – it’s just too extreme. Eugenic theory may be a common source, but these are different rivers.

      • October 18, 2011 3:47 am

        David, there are two sources of the virulence of my response.

        The first is Vermont’s sorry history on eugenics, expressed in the person of Henry Perkins of the University of Vermont. Perkins frightening work was was exposed in a large scale multimedia exhibition at MASS MOCA in N Adams MA some years ago. Your post certainly struck a nerve with this Vermonter.

        The second is that I spent 6 hours at the Holocaust Museum in DC last summer, much of it on the top floor, dealing with the Weimar years through the early years of the regime. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to see the deep parallels between that period and our own. Of course as Sinclair Lewis pointed out, an authentic American fascism will look nothing like its famous European cousins.

        You may be right in saying that use of historical metaphor won’t win me any friends, so I’ll obfuscate by saying that in the current environment we need to vigorously expose and stamp out right wing totalitarian thinking and practices wherever they rear their ugly heads. Perkins shows that we have narrowly averted mass catastrophe multiple times. The history of the 20’s and 30’s shows that going “Oh, they’re not that bad,” is just….naive.

        Next time I’ll just reference Star Bellied Sneetches 🙂

      • October 18, 2011 4:04 am

        Let me add I don’t really have any good intentions towards people who behave in such fashion. They should be ashamed of themselves.

  12. February 17, 2012 7:57 pm

    Thank you. finding this today helped me back on my feet. I’m an elementary teacher and I was dumbfounded this week when our principal brought in two teacher to train us for a new a test prep program. Teachers from another district came in to show us their “successful” program that has “worked wonders” to increase their standardized test scores. What do they do? Throughout the school year, they give preparation tests then they display the scores–with pictures of students and their scores posted. The large student pictures are shown on a graph under the categories: Far Below Basic, Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. And, that’s no all. There is a place on the school site that has all student names with the results from each of the preparations tests. And that’s not all. The students are then given bracelets to wear; the bracelets identify the students by their score. And that’s not all. The teachers have created little jingles describing the students by the test score, such as: In the lunch line (for basic), At lunch (for proficient), and of course (out to lunch) for those not measuring up…..

    I’m still not at the worse part: many teachers at my school *want* to implement this program. I seriously affected, stunned. Of course I’m trying to find my way into another school, but I am tenured and our economy offers very little job opportunity right now.

    I have loudly spoken out against this. I have referred to Eugenics, mentioning the connections I see to this student labeling and the history of eugenics. My colleagues have ridiculed me and mocked me. Even the one teacher who is somewhat aligned with me thinks my analogy to eugenics is not accurate and too extreme. When I met with my principal to register my objections to identifying students by test their scores publicly, he replied, “Teaching is not for the faint hearted.” I couldn’t hold it in. In fact, I almost yelled, “I’m not faint hearted. I just know my history.”

    Still, I began doubting myself midst a teaching staff either going along silently (not going to talk about this) or energetically agreeing to Our New Test Prep Program: Students will attend rallies, chant “I believe. I can succeed.” And then, more bubble-in tests. Those who make the score get a pretty identifying bracelet. It’s ugly for those who a Far Below Basic. Pictures of students are posted with their scores for all to see. And, this goes for all students, all students have their results posted publicly: Even special education students with learning disabilities, low-socioeconomic students with not enough food to eat, students who have had a recent traumatic event, students who just arrived from another country who speak no English (the test is only in English and all students are required to take the real test and practice tests)….*all* students will have their scores posted publicly with their picture attached.

    I talked to our union representative and said, “it doesn’t seem like this is legal.” She said, “it is legal.”

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      February 17, 2012 8:59 pm

      My heart goes out to you, and to the students at your school. For the life of me I can’t figure out how educated professionals who actually work with children and care about them will still buy into the groupthink around such policies, and all of the underlying assumptions that are not questioned frequently or rigorously enough. You’re describing a policy approach that is harmful to children. Period. For more information and resources, I highly recommend checking the resources at – and I’ll follow up with you more by email.

  13. Jack Stansbury permalink
    February 18, 2012 7:08 am

    This reminds me of an award given out by the University of Virginia Medical School. It’s called the Robert Bennett Bean Award. Robert Bean was a noted anthropologist from the early 1900s that tried to show the brains of blacks were inferior to the brains of whites, based on scientific evidence.

    I can’t for the life of me understand why UVA thinks this person is worthy of the name of an award, and if I was a med student there, I certainly wouldn’t want to win that award!


    Robert Bennett Bean:

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      February 18, 2012 10:08 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Jack. We have some similar dynamics in my community – schools and buildings named after some prominent eugenicists. There are a few people who have raised questions about that, but I haven’t heard of any ongoing efforts to change the names. Are there many people who are aware of this award from UVA?

      • Jack Stansbury permalink
        February 19, 2012 5:58 am

        I don’t think so David. I emailed the school about it several years ago, but the award is still there. Sureley UVA could find someone else to name an award after who does not have such a controversial past.

  14. February 19, 2012 2:53 pm

    I agree completely with the parallels you draw between the Eugenics movement and our current policies. The paragraph about marginalizing students and making them feel like test scores is the reason this will be my last year teaching.

    • Beli permalink
      February 19, 2012 10:29 pm

      I’m sorry to hear this will be your last year teaching…I’m thinking the same thing myself. For sure, I’m at a crossroad. I’ll either (1) get out of teaching, abandoning the field to regain my health and soothe the skin and bones left (2) stay and battle the forces, where skin and bones seems sure to turn to ash. It’s severe, I’m tired and feel defeated. The direction education is heading is a repeat of the worse of our history. Still….as long as CA is not in the RTTT mix, I wonder if a line still can be drawn in this state. I wonder if all those who see the Eugenics connection can unite and strategize. When I see blogs like this I wonder if there’s still hope. Little things stir such wonder and a small glimpse of hope: Jon Stewart, Ravitch, Anthony Cody….among other folks.

      I wish you the best as you change career direction. There is a wise part of myself that tells me to do the same thing, to live the final years of my life in peace, inside the beauty of nature and friends. I crave peace and community, two things the teaching profession has disallowed due to upheaval and 10-12 hour work days.

  15. February 23, 2012 3:22 am

    As the poet Wordsworth once wrote “We murder to dissect”-children have become a vehicle for profits to companies who care nothing abut killing a child’s future to make money on testing them endlessly-thank you for writing this piece! end high stakes testing and the corporate take pver of public education

  16. September 3, 2012 6:47 pm

    The truth is, schools are being graded by standardized tests. Until that ends, schools are going to try everything to bring up scores. Get ready for more cheating and less material being covered (unless it’s on the test)

  17. Pam Moran permalink
    March 2, 2014 5:19 am

    I live in Carrie Buck’s hometown, Charlottesville Va. The stain of eugenics in Virginia is an hidden history of not just the Commonwealth but the U.S. We were used at Nuremberg to justify the Holocaust. We took the possibility families away from young people sterilized with the aim of improving the “stock” of humanity. We validated and set the stage for the sorting and valuing behaviors in schools today. I am appalled that Angela Duckworth lauds Sir Francis Galton on her famed Grit website. Great post. Thank you.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      March 2, 2014 1:15 pm

      Pam, thanks for reading and commenting. I live in a town with its own connection to all of this history. Palo Alto is of course the home of Stanford University, home of much of the early work on intelligence testing and the application of eugenic thinking in education. We still have educational buildings and schools named after Terman, Cubberly, and Jordan. Every once in a while someone learns more about those connections and there’s brief discussion about the inappropriateness of the names given the change in our values and principles. But no real momentum for change has taken hold as far as I know.


  1. Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day… - The Best Resources To Learn About High School ID’s & The Scarlet Letter
  2. 2011 InterACT in Retrospect « InterACT
  3. The Illusion of Schooling « The Treehorn Express
  4. GATEECA – Part 4 « Living Behind the Gates
  5. Top Ten Posts of 2012 « InterACT
  6. Focus on Testing Reflects Eugenics Legacy | DAVID B. COHEN

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: