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Question Knowledge (and Authority)

Educator Daniella Cook believes the current obsession with high-stakes testing subordinates creative thinking in favor of rote memorization



"I need to have a life," laments Daniella Cook, relaxing on a large sofa in the living room of a house near downtown Durham. It's a Saturday afternoon in November and the 25-year-old Cook has just led a discussion group of 12 activists, educators and parents on effective ways to challenge punitive educational policies in North Carolina. Like most of her weekend days, and all of her weekdays, the former teacher has devoted this one to organizing against what she feels is the state's unfair practice of "high-stakes" testing--tests commonly used by public schools as the sole criterion for student promotion and retention. North Carolina's three-year-old standards of student accountability have expanded both the number and the consequences of such tests.

"I want students to be productive, creative, socially active citizens," says Cook, whose dissatisfaction with such policies was the primary motive behind her recent departure from teaching. "You don't accomplish that by saying 'Pass this test or you won't make it to the next grade.'"

Since coming to the state four years ago, Cook's life has been consumed with overturning what she refers to as its "dark, Darwinistic approach to education." Schools with resources, she explains, are more likely to test well. As a result, they receive special accolades and monetary bonuses for staffers, and are less likely to have their curriculums dominated by test preparation. Poor, low-performing institutions are publicly labeled as such, subject to dismissals and takeover by the state, and are driven to "teach to the test" at the expense of other subjects not included in high-stakes exams. Cook feels these policies fault kids and teachers for current social inequities affecting the public school system. "We are blaming the victims," she says, "instead of dealing with real problems."

As fair-test organizer for the Common Sense Foundation in Raleigh, Cook coordinates the growing movement of concerned parents, teachers and citizens against test-heavy standards. In the past year, the energetic Durham resident has traveled the state planning and attending conferences and community meetings on the issue. While lending organizational assistance to emerging groups, she acts as a resource for parents seeking to understand the standards, their implications and associated legislative policy. Cook also helps coordinate the North Carolina Coalition for Fair Testing, a collection of concerned groups working to get legislation passed to either improve or eliminate the current testing system. Due, in part, to the coalition's efforts, the General Assembly legalized a fair-testing provision two months ago that, among other things, prohibits the sole use of a standardized test for promotion decisions.

But by no means did Cook's anti-testing battle begin with her current position. During her three years as a history teacher at East Chapel Hill High School, her opinions constantly surfaced in the news while doing what many of her teaching colleagues were scared to do: publicly oppose testing. As a leading member of the Triangle-based PACE (People About Change in Education), Cook organized colleagues, parents and administrators around the anti-testing cause.

"It is her goal to develop an aroused public that will fight for education," says Howie Machtinger, a PACE member and the director of Carolina Teaching Fellows. Machtinger, who describes Cook as an incredibly talented teacher, was a social studies teacher at East Chapel Hill High when Cook arrived there in 1998.

"Organizing and teaching make up the centerpiece of her consciousness," he says, "and she always seems to know what's best for educating and helping children."

Machtinger points out that in her current capacity, Cook has brought together a statewide network of groups concerned with testing that "really didn't exist before." He stresses that Cook has helped expand the anti-testing movement by forging links between its established suburban core and its growing urban and African-American components. Along with coordinating ongoing conferences on testing with key black leaders and communities across the state, Cook has strengthened the movement's ties with the NAACP, along with other prominent black and Latino organizations.

"Her energy, passion and commitment energizes others to do something about this negative educational policy," says Common Sense Foundation director, Chris Fitzsimon.

"Her energy is so obvious that sometimes people miss some of her other impressive qualities," says Machtinger. On top of her drive, leadership and communication skills, Machtinger calls Cook "one of the most intellectually curious individuals I've ever known."

Cook's intellectual curiosity is what got her into teaching history in the first place. While in a history class at Walnut High School in her hometown of Cincinnati, an elderly white teacher informed her mixed-race class that the reason why slavery lasted so long was "because the slaves were happy and they wanted it too." Stunned, the seventh-grader forcefully responded that "the reason why slavery lasted so long was because they would have been lynched if they had tried anything else!"

"Vividly" remembering the incident, Cook says it became the main reason she wanted to devote herself to teaching and the study of history. "As teachers, we must instill a capacity for critical thinking in our students," she says, stressing how the current testing obsession subordinates higher-level thinking in favor of rote memorization. "Students should know how to question what we commonly accept as knowledge and authority."

After graduating from Walnut High, Cook earned a bachelor's degree in history, education and black world studies from Miami University of Ohio in 1998. That same year, she relocated to the Triangle for a teaching position after being attracted to the social-justice orientation of the history department at East Chapel Hill High. During her first year at the school, she was awarded the Sallie Mae First Class Teaching Award, an honor bestowed on the nation's most outstanding first-year teachers. The award is given to teachers chosen by a panel of national education experts for superior instructional and interactive classroom skills.

Though no longer inside the classroom, Cook continues to fight for children and get results.

"The progress we've seen on this issue is due largely to the way she has connected with different people around the state," says fellow PACE member Dani Moore. A training and technical coordinator at the UNC-based Student Coalition for Action in Literacy Education (SCALE), Moore feels Cook combines the "great thinking and analytical capacities of a professor" with a grassroots approach that connects her to parents and teachers. She has a real passion, continues Moore, for "doing the right thing for the people of North Carolina."

Apparently, Cook's passion has no time limits.

"I want to be an 85-year-old activist," she says, eyes twinkling. After reiterating the need for a better balance between organizing and other activities, Cook ultimately acknowledges the all-consuming nature of what she feels is her life's true purpose: organizing for the sake of young minds.

"The minute I feel like I'm done," says Cook, "I'll probably die."

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