We must end the Test-and-Die era, part 1: You can’t untangle mass school shootings from school grades and stress-based education

This may end up as a five or six part series. Bear with me. I will get to guns and the sheriff — who has not yet made a formal proposal — in part 3 or 4. I will do so calmly and rationally. But I want to start all of this with a history lesson and a correlation that you may not have considered.


It is a simple fact that the era of mass school shootings and the era of test-and-punish education rose together and have sustained together — on the same timeline. They are inextricably linked in the educational experience and imagination of my children and yours if you are my age. Ask our kids in 20 years to describe their school era in two words, and I wager they say: “testing” and “shooting.” You’ll have to make them talk in complete sentences to remember the joys of good teachers and relationships and projects and discussions and music and sports.

To be clear, correlation is not causation. I don’t know of any individual mass school shooting specifically linked to test frustration or stress. But I don’t know any shooting not specifically linked to some form of toxic stress.

When you pump enough stress or heat into a dynamic and fragile system, that system will fail and blow at its weak points. As extreme weather is a symptom of climate change, so, I believe, are school shootings a symptom of the stress of test-and-punish. Just like our state and national teacher shortage is. Stress, as opposed to healthy developmental pressure, kills.

And for 20-25 years, bipartisan national education “reform” leaders have unapologetically pumped toxic stress into the lives of millions people who participate in public education — as students and employees alike. And they have been utterly indifferent to the human outcomes. Their bipartisan lack of self-criticism, their bipartisan cheap moral vanity has been the enduring hallmark of their failed movement.

A bloody era is born

This is from the historical overview of the Florida Department of Education’s website.

In 1996, the State Board of Education approved the Sunshine State Standards as Florida’s new academic standards, which were then distributed to school districts. The State Board of Education approved a contract with CTB/McGraw-Hill for the development of the FCAT as an assessment tool. In addition, the 1996 Florida Legislature passed laws recognizing the Sunshine State Standards as the academics standards for Florida students, and authorized the February 1997 field testing of FCAT in grades 4, 5, 8, and 10.

The equivalent of this — creating the infrastructure and intent to punish teachers and kids based on standardized tests scores — was happening all over the country in the mid-1990s. It was something I never had to live with as a student. I am so grateful.

A few months after that field test of the FCAT, the modern school shooting era began in Pearl, Miss., on October 1, 1997.

A 16-year-old named Luke Woodham murdered his 50-year-old mother, Mary, at home before killing his ex-girlfriend, 16-year-old student, Christina Menefee, and 17-year-old student, Lydia Kaye Dew, then wounding seven others at Pearl High School. I was a young reporter at the time for the Palatka Daily News. I remember the coverage on the newsroom TVs.

There were many, many other shootings at schools prior to Pearl, throughout our history. There were even very occasional mass killings. But Pearl created the modern media spectacle mass shooting that we know today. The last shooting before Pearl with double digit casualties happened in 1992, before the rise of the commercial internet and cable “news” competition. Neither MSNBC nor Fox existed in 1992. And certainly, cable news and the Internet/social media have ratcheted up stress in school communities in many ways over the years. They are magnifying glasses for the harsh, heated light that test-and-punish generates.

Pearl was most remarkable for its influence. In short succession, within eight months, media event school shootings happened in Kentucky,  Arkansas, and Oregon. The casualty count and media frenzy grew with each — as did fear on the ground. I can remember getting assigned as a reporter to cover the story of a local boy in Palatka who got in trouble for writing something suggestive of violence. He was a little weird and aloof — and harmless — I remember thinking. But I can also remember asking the boy and his parents, “Well, he kind of fits the profile, doesn’t he?” It took less than a year for a school shooter “profile” to emerge. It has more or less stayed the same since.

Jeb Bush was campaigning for Florida governor during this time on a school grade and teacher punishment platform. He was elected in November 1998.

Columbine happened a few months later, on April 20, 1999.

To my knowledge, no one stopped to consider Columbine when Jeb’s test-and-punish, stress-based model of education became the template for the federal No Child Left Behind act (maybe the worst bipartisan law in the history of America). NCLB has largely remained the federal template for education for since 2000.

Irrational math and deadly incentives

Wikipedia has a very useful school shooter database.

Starting with Pearl, I count 16 total media spectacle mass casualty school shootings — the shootings we know as “school shootings” — in the school shooting era. The definitions of these are a little squishy and subject to interpretation. You might count one or two more or less than I do. In any case, one-to-many spectacle shootings are a very small subset of all school shootings, which are mostly person-to-person disputes that turn violent. The death is just as real, of course. It’s just not as vivid and made for TV. I also count five mass college shootings (Virginia Tech, Umpqua, etc.) That’s 20ish of what we generally classify under “school shootings.”

There are roughly 15 million kids in high school today. Thus, by my math, about 75 million kids have moved through high school in the Test-and-Die era. Fewer than 25 of them have committed mass murder against their classmates. (A few had more than one shooter — Columbine, etc.)

By comparison, 2,000 or more kids will commit suicide this year alone. That is far more than have died in all mass school shootings, combined, ever. Expect six or seven today. TODAY. To be fair, the teen suicide rate fell for the first half of the Test-and-Die era. But it has accelerated since 2007; it continues to accelerate. I would love to see it charted against the growth of the national teacher shortage. In any event, if we saw the death masks of suicidal kids in person, each day, I suspect they would affect us in the same way that video of school shootings does. But we don’t see their death masks each day.

I think this mathematical context and reality should be part of any training/drill that we perform concerning school shootings. I heard from a parent this week whose child became increasingly upset and traumatized by constant discussions of school shootings — and what to do — during the day Friday. She eventually couldn’t manage it emotionally any more. Please talk less about it, the mom said. I also hear lots of people say the opposite.

It is a simple fact that if we turned school shootings and suicide into a rational STEM/FSA problem, their numerical relationship would dictate a different response and priority than we give them today. But as I’ve long argued, STEM is an inadequate lens for the totality of humanity. Indeed, data becomes completely irrelevant when horror pierces our imaginations. Lynchings were a small subset of racism-related violent death; but they held outsized power to terrorize imaginations. In that way, I have long thought that school shootings, as a hideous social ritual or custom, most resemble lynchings.

Deadly incentives

So doesn’t this shoot down your own argument, Billy, about the relationship between test-and-punish/VAM/fraudulent accountability and school shootings? Isn’t it irrational to link them?

Not at all. It’s irrational not to link them. It’s irrational not to recognize them as the extreme endpoint of a model that kills slowly and ruthlessly and inexorably in a million different ways.

The Jeb Bush/Kelli Stargel model of education is built on three real tenets:

We waste too much money on lazy teachers.

If you doubt me on the Jeb Bush aspect of this, consider that his foundation published this essay less than 48 hours after the Douglas shooting. Go read the whole thing and ask yourself if a psychopath wrote it. For example, it contains this excerpt. Click to enlarge.

These are the people who run everything. My dearest teachers and public school staff: this what your educational leaders think of you. They publish this when your brethren lie dead or bleeding from defending children from the weapons of mass death that they allow free access to. Any vote you cast for these people — for anyone in power in this state government — is a profound act of self-mutilation. They’re abusers, not leaders.

Kids and school employees are data, not human beings with souls and bills to pay

Anyone in public education can you tell that guidance counselors have become test co-ordinators and state paperwork jockeys.  Indeed, the guidance counselor that helped me in the moment of 8th grade vulnerability and crisis I wrote about here would almost certainly have no time for me today. Modern guidance counselors in Florida do not counsel.

As a district, Polk County serves 104,000 kids with a combined 60 mental health counselors/psychologists. That’s a ratio of 1716-1. They spend most of their time, as I understand it, doing ESE testing of one kind or another.

The recommended counseling ratio, from the American  School Counselor Association is 250-1.  Admittedly, those sorts of ratios are subject to all sorts of numerical mischief and interpretation. But the principle remains.  And Test-and-Die gets you from multiple angles: it pumps in stress while systematically removing tools to address it through starvation funding and accountability incentives.

Above all, I would like to provide every school with 5-10 person humanity team. They would do nothing but counsel; do bully intake and resolution; reach out to parents daily in friendly ways to make sure they understand what’s happening at a school. Whatever the humanity of a school needed, this team could do. All that stops us is money. When you hear people ask, “Why do you need more money? Why is it so damaging to only now have as much money per student as we did a decade ago?” Tell them: “1716-1”

Also point out to them that the George W. Bush economy was terrible for teachers; the Barack Obama economy was terrible for teachers; and the Donald Trump economy is terrible for teachers. The view has not changed for them in 20 years. Teachers are the core of the middle class. So it’s no wonder they’re leaving the profession and the middle class is dying. That’s what money means.

All performance evaluation relates to “moving” data; not developing people

I tweeted that bit of Swiftian satire recently. I think it speaks for itself. But several people sought to clarify with me that it was actually satire. That’s always the best and most painful satire — the kind where you can’t really tell.

And just in case you want to know what all this death has gotten you, taxpayer/business leader/citizen, consider this test score growth map. Remember purple is bad.

Come to Bartow on Feb. 27. Tell your state government and your School Board “No more exploding human tissue; no more slow indifferent death.”

So many of our teachers and principals shield their children from the daily pains of Test-and-Die with their minds and energy — just like they shield them from bullets with their bodies.

People ask me all the time, with some hopelessness and desperation, “what can I do about this? How can I help them?”

You can start by telling Kelli Stargel and Rick Scott and our incompetent and immoral DoE that we will not take even more money away from the human beings who most need it and give to high-priced consultants in the service of perpetuating the Test-and-Die era.

We’re taking that vote on Tuesday, Feb. 27, at the School Board building in Bartow.

Before the Douglas shooting, most of the board seemed inclined, unhappily, to follow the dictates of the priests of Test-and-Die. I wonder if that has changed now. Come test us and see.

I have also made it clear to staff that I expect us to invite/demand that failed Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, failed Chancellor Hershel Lyons, and poor, nice,  powerless DoE regional flunky Gayle Sitter actually show up to that 2/27 meeting.

Here are their email addresses and phone numbers:


Chancellor.Lyons@fldoe.org (850-245-0509)

Gayle.Sitter@fldoe.org (850-245-0426)

Their past behavior suggests they won’t come to face you or us. But we need to demand it nonetheless; so we can point it out relentlessly. We also need to demand that all Polk legislators come who voted for this measure, whether they come or not.

Whoever you contact, be nice about it. Especially be nice to Gayle Sitter, who I think is a nice, well-meaning person in a terrible job. But at some point, everyone has to answer for their choices.