Sunday, September 18, 2011
Opponent of Standardized Tests Leaves Legacy
Vito Perrone Sr., a leading advocate for humanistic, regimentation-free public education and a mentor to several generations of liberal reformers who fought the tide of standardized testing, died on Aug. 24 in Cambridge, Mass. He was 78.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his son Sean.
Among progressive reformers, Dr. Perrone’s commitment to flexible teaching methods and his opposition to standardized tests made him the conscience of the profession in the modern era, when financially stressed schools nationwide embraced standardized tests as a way to improve academic performance and streamline the teaching process.
In Dr. Perrone’s view, which he disseminated for 40 years as a professor of education, first at the University of North Dakota and later at Harvard, the excessive use of such tests warped the education process, inhibited children’s natural interest in learning, caused teachers stress and prevented them from carrying out their real jobs: instilling in children a love of learning and teaching them the principles of citizenship in a democracy.
Though that view has been out of fashion in the mainstream of public education since the 1980s, Dr. Perrone’s persuasiveness attracted a stream of followers and helped give rise to a loose network of public alternative schools in New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia.
“Vito rallied the wing of the reform movement that was largely underrepresented in the ‘reform’ debate that you hear about today,” said Jay Featherstone, emeritus professor of education at Michigan State University. “But he kept the progressive vision alive. And he turned a generation of teachers into activists.”
Among those who considered Dr. Perrone an inspiration was Jonathan Kozol, the educator and writer whose 1967 book, “Death at an Early Age,” ignited nationwide public outrage over classroom conditions in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Another adherent was Deborah Meier, a MacArthur “genius” grant winner who founded the progressive East Park Secondary School in East Harlem and led the Mission Hill School in Boston.
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Kozol said Dr. Perrone’s influence could be seen in the mounting opposition to the No Child Left Behind law, which has fueled widespread school standardization since it was signed by President George W. Bush in 2002.
“Deborah Meier and I heard it over and over again at the march on Washington last summer,” Mr. Kozol said, referring to the July “Save Our Schools” demonstration that drew about 5,000 teachers from around the country to demand increased financing for public schools and limits on standardized tests. “They were saying, ‘Where are the deans of education who will stand up for public education the way Vito Perrone did?’ ”
Vito Perrone was born on April 26, 1933, into the only Italian-American family in rural Bath, Mich., where his father, Joseph, was a railroad foreman. His father and his mother, Anna, were immigrants from Sicily.
The youngest of six children, Mr. Perrone graduated from Lansing Eastern High School and Michigan State University, where he was an All-American wrestling champion. After receiving his Ph.D. in education and behavioral studies at Michigan State, he taught there from 1962 until 1968, when he became the dean of the New School of Behavioral Studies in Education at the University of North Dakota.
Dr. Perrone received national attention for a program he established at North Dakota to upgrade the education of the state’s primary and secondary school teachers, many of whom were graduates of two-year “normal schools” rather than four-year colleges. He invited the teachers to get their bachelor’s degrees at the university. To make that possible, he recruited and trained a cadre of graduate students from around the country, many of them Peace Corps veterans, so they could substitute while the regular teachers studied for their degrees.
The success of the project, which brought North Dakota schools from near the bottom to near the top of national rankings, inspired Dr. Perrone to begin an even more ambitious project in 1972, the North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation.
Now based in the Chicago area, the study group is a national organization of teachers, administrators and scholars who research and share findings on how students learn and how teachers can inspire them, based on the theories of the American philosopher John Dewey, considered the father of the progressive education movement.
In 1986, Dr. Perrone was named vice president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
In 1988, he became director of teacher education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he continued to teach until he suffered a stroke in 2000. He made a slow but steady recovery from the stroke, attending meetings and seminars in recent years, until his sudden death last month in Cambridge, where he lived.
In addition to his son Sean, of Watertown, Mass., he is survived by his wife of 55 years, Carmel; four other sons, the Rev. Vito J. Perrone of San Francisco; Christopher, of Inver Grove, Minn.; Patrick, of Nutley, N.J.; and Jack, of Rochester; two daughters, Maryann, of Lyon, France, and Siobhan, of Danvers, Mass.; 11 grandchildren; and a sister, Rose Doeringer of Grand Rapids, Mich.
Accepting a citizenship award in 1998 from a Cambridge peace group, Dr. Perrone explained his apprehension about public school systems that encourage teachers to “accept the message of test scores rather than to go beyond them.”
“What if our children and young people learn to read and write but don’t like to and don’t?” he said. “What if they don’t read the newspapers and magazines, or can’t find beauty in a poem or love story? What if they don’t go as adults to artistic events, don’t listen to a broad range of music, aren’t optimistic about the world and their place in it, don’t notice the trees and the sunset, are indifferent to older citizens, don’t participate in politics or community life?”
With a teacher’s rhetorical urgency, he added, “Should any of this worry us?”