not much just chillin': the hidden lives of middle schoolers
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The pressure is on at schools across America: No Child Left Behind and the reforms that paved its way have created a new vision of education emphasizing measurable progress for every student, every school, every year. Schools are judged primarily on the bottom line: test scores. To meet these expectations, educators give struggling students more attention than ever — not just teaching children but in many ways raising them.

To discover whether this approach is producing better students, Linda Perlstein immersed herself in a Maryland elementary school once deemed a chaotic failure but now held up as an example of reform done right. Perlstein explores the rewards and costs of that transformation, through the experiences of the people who lived it.

Third-graders meditate to activate their brains before exams and perfect the “brief constructed response” to essay questions, but they never write a story or put on a skit. Teachers follow rigid guides about not just what to teach but how. The tireless enthusiasm of the principal — by turns a CEO, therapist, data analyst, and PR agent — is tinged with a hidden dose of ambivalence about the changes she must manage and intensifying anxiety as test day approaches.

Tested illuminates real-world considerations of many of the topics under discussion in today’s educational policy debate, including:

  • Changes in how reading is taught.
  • The academic intensity of kindergarten.
  • The paradox of teaching children as individuals while expecting them to reach the same levels in the same time — particularly with special ed and ESOL students.
  • What's gained — and what is left behind — when schools go “back to basics.”
  • What standardized tests do and don't tell us about students, and the fine line between good education and good test-prep.
  • How disadvantaged students and their affluent neighbors receive different instruction.
  • Ways schools try to improve teacher quality and retention, and the complexities of merit pay.
  • How character and behavior problems impede learning, and what schools do to address them.
  • The increasing role of educational consultants and business practices in schools.

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The Wall Street Journal



Jay Mathews, The Washington Post
“This is the best book ever written about No Child Left Behind. ... All sides can learn from her book, because it is vivid, unpredictable, fair, balanced and — I am not kidding — very entertaining. Perlstein has a storyteller’s grasp of the fun to be found in the lives of teachers and students at a well-run school. ... Despite all the time I have spent in schools, I know much more about the impact of our testing system on teaching and learning than I did before, just from having read this deep and revealing book.”

Larry Cuban, Stanford University professor emeritus and author of The Blackboard and the Bottom Line
“I have read many case studies of schools over the years, and Tested has to rank as one of the best. It is detailed without being overwhelming, aware of what goes on in the classroom and principal’s office, and shows a deep understanding of the policy world in which teachers and administrators operate. The impact of the Maryland School Assessment becomes evident in the accumulated detail of its wear and tear on teachers, students, and the principal of Tyler Heights.”

Publishers Weekly
“Tales of third graders prepping for an exam prove genuinely, surprisingly dramatic; Perlstein crafts a gripping narrative out of the day-to-day business of education through solid reporting, taking into consideration the politics, goals, interests and architects of the program. ... The faces of children, teachers and administrators emerge vividly, and Perlstein largely avoids taking sides in favor of an honest, enlightening look at the complex reality of this much-debated policy.”

David Simon, executive producer of HBO's The Wire” and “Treme
“Linda Perlstein
s Tested is essential reading for anyone who still believes that statistics alone can be the measure of a childs educational potential and standingand for those, as well, who have long doubted the simplistic premise of No Child Left Behind but were without the facts to affirm those doubts. Tina McKnight, the principal of Tyler Heights Elementary, is a woman worth cheering, but the crusade she and others have been asked to fight is far more suspect. Children, teachers, school administratorsthis is the human element, the souls actually at stake, and they are nowall of them prisoners of politics and public perception.

E.D. Hirsch Jr., author of The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and The Knowledge Deficit
“If you want to know what is going on in our schools in the age of No Child Left Behind, this is the book to read. To the heroism of our over-blamed teachers and to the cluelessness of our administrators and policy makers, especially those who have imposed unwise test regimens in response to the new law, Linda Perlstein’s gripping story is an indispensable guide.”

Robert Johnston, The Chicago Tribune
“No author has cataloged the complexities, and the costs, of No Child Left Behind as vividly and intelligently as has Linda Perlstein. ... Perlstein’s pen makes test prep come alive as a semitragic drama, full of passion, disappointment, hopes sustained and dreams dashed. Perlstein also has a flair for fun, as well as a quiet wit, that make ‘Tested’ a consistently compelling read. ... ‘Tested’ has such immense power that every policymaker involved with No Child Left Behind has a moral obligation to read ... this careful, wise, humane and terribly important book.”

Eric Mackey, Anniston Star
“Perlstein tells the story in such plain language and makes the story so real that you will truly be able to empathize with these wonderful teachers and their amazing principal. ... It is, after all, a great story that will leave you feeling both triumphant and a little bit melancholy. Most of all, you will feel like you understand the pressures and challenges of teaching a little better than you did before--even if you are a teacher yourself.”

Susan Gardner, Daily Kos
“What Perlstein has managed to do in this excellent book is the same magical trick Barbara Ehrenreich pulled off so well in Nickled and Dimed: taking public policy and its consequences down to the micro-personal level and making it real to readers. ... The result is a smooth, captivating, heartbreaking read that’s informative on policy and devastating in depicting the crushing test environment. ... As the chapters wind down, the dramatic interest ramps up, proving that you can write about public policy in way that makes it as engaging as a summer blockbuster.”

Mark David Bradshaw, Watermark Books
&ldquo'Tested is a testament to the will and dedication of American teachers, who often struggle against unbelievable odds — sometimes including the education system itself. It’s a very timely look at the changing shape of our schools, and it’s a crash course in the pressures and predicaments facing today’s kids. A thoughtful, well-researched book, its test will be whether it can bring the necessary attention to the important issues it addresses.”

Sam Seder, The Majority Report
“These books are great and worth a read. ... In Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade, Linda Perslstein embedded for a year in an elementary school and exits with a clearer vision of just how complicated an endeavor improving schools can be.”

Steven Mintz, author of Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood
“This book is absolutely fantastic: gripping, sparkling with insights, and deeply moving. I consider it a must-read for anyone who has the slightest interest not only in education but in poverty, family life in low income communities, and, of course, contemporary childhood. The story is all the more devastating because Perlstein isn’t promoting an unambiguously anti-No Child Left Behind agenda.”

Luther Spoehr, The Providence Journal
“As Congress discusses whether and how to reform NCLB this fall, Perlstein’s readable book will enlighten anyone who wants to put human faces on the data and think about how to help our children become educated, not merely ‘literate.’”

“Perlstein brings telling details, engagement, and perception to her investigation of how a single school coped with the high stakes attached to standardized tests. As educators and lawmakers ponder the renewal of No Child Left Behind, this book offers some piercing insight into the reality of reliance on standardized tests to measure a school’s effectiveness.”

Jal Mehta, The American Prospect
“In a field that is dominated by ideological polemics and dry academic studies, Perlstein has written a vivid, carefully documented, and even suspenseful book ... that offers the general reader and scholar alike an engaging, if often grim, portrait of life under NCLB. Unlike most educational policy researchers, who emphasize the scientifically quantifiable, Perlstein’s writing also reflects a humanistic sensibility and concern for the ultimate purposes of education.”

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Copyright © 2007 Linda Perlstein