There’s an interesting article from the Washington Post up today about Prince George County Board of Education’s proposal to claim ownership over all the work done by students and teachers (somewhat related side note: Mr. Weinstein, where do I send the check?). It’s a ridiculous proposal for many reasons, most of them involving the work of teachers. But interestingly, the student side of it is not entirely new. It brought up an incident from high school that I had almost forgotten about. I’m recording it here so I don’t forget it again, and also to serve as an example of how ridiculous this proposed policy would be in practice.
I attended George Washington High School in Denver, Colorado, graduating from the International Baccalaureate program in 2007. I was a captain of the speech and debate team, co-founder of a controversial underground magazine, managing editor of the newspaper and probably the biggest nerd in the whole place. Perhaps a bit too far ahead of my time, I bought a palm pilot with bar-mitzvah money on the first day of high school and used it with a portable folding keyboard to take notes. I also secretly used my bluetooth feature phone and some free dial-up providers to connect to the internet on the Palm Pilot during class to read news and play games. This was still years before the iPhone made high school teachers hyper-sensitive to technology. Because my phone was always in my pocket, because Palm Pilots had a reputation for being offline assistants and because most teachers didn’t know about bluetooth’s capabilities, they were delightfully ignorant about what I was doing.
Despite some bad learning habits, I got a great education there. GW’s IB program was one of the best in the country. The teachers were excellent and the students were there to learn. This was the case 90% of the time, except every year in the spring, when we were forced to spend an entire week participating in the mandatory Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP, Colorado’s implementation of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. For those who don’t remember this particularly dreadful attempt at education reform, the tests were designed to grade the school as a whole and allocate funding based on those grades. Students’ results were not collected or reported on individually.
Now, there are some very difficult social issues that come into play in this next bit and in the interest of telling this story I’m going to tread over them lightly. Suffice it to say that the NCLB was completely backwards and reinforced a lot of institutionalized racism. Test results are not the way to allocate funding. The IB program at my school was also controversial. On the one hand, it was pretty segregated from the rest of the school and mostly white, whereas the rest of the school was mostly black. On the other hand, the program’s high test scores helped the school get more money. I still have difficulty unpacking my feelings about it and this isn’t the right place to do it.
At the time, however – and remember we were teenagers – my friends and I absolutely detested the CSAPs. We hated them for being an utterly useless waste of time, for the stupidity of the way they distributed resources and in no small part because they reinforced the discomfort IB kids felt for being simultaneously disdained by most of the rest of the school and at the same time responsible for a lot of its funding. We protested the CSAPs in some interesting ways. A group of us founded an underground print magazine called The Green Light (which paid for itself with advertising) and distributed copies of CSAP opt-out forms with the first issue. This drove the administration crazy because each opt-out counted as a zero for the school.
The CSAP had an essay portion, which usually asked you to respond to an insipid prompt. One year the prompt asked students what non-profit group they would volunteer for. Responses from Green Lighters included “Drugs for Tots,” a fake organization that supposedly “teaches kids the metric system,” and the Boy Scouts, an essay filled with innuendo. These essays became citywide news when the school somehow discovered them and suspended the two students for “defacing school property.” This was especially absurd because schools weren’t supposed to look at completed tests before sending them to the state.
We responded by re-writing the essays and publishing them in The Green Light.
The next year, the prompt was “what would you change about the world?” My response was the CSAPs. I pointed out the flaws with the test in an essay that felt to my teenage mind like a pretty awesome takedown. Eager to republish this too, I pulled out my Palm Pilot – it had an epic 1.2 megapixel camera, way better than most phones at the time – and without thinking took a picture of the essay. A teacher who was apparently watching from the hallway through the window of the classroom door saw me, burst through the door, confiscated my Palm Pilot and dragged me to the principal’s office.
What awaited me there may have been one of the weirdest disciplinary meetings ever. I knew the principal pretty well because I was active in lots of school activities, and he seemed as amused as he was angry. The problem was, no one really knew what I had actually done wrong. The test rules said nothing about using electronics except graphing calculators. I wasn’t copying anyone else’s answers, so I hadn’t technically cheated. They didn’t really know what to do, so they called Denver Public Schools to ask for help.
Eventually, someone from the district called to inform them that I was guilty of “copyright infringement.” They said they were sending my Palm Pilot “downtown” to delete the photos I had taken and that I would face suspension. Then they called my parents.
This is where I got pretty lucky. My dad was in the media and knew what to do. He first told me I had made a stupid mistake. Then he asked the administration how they could possibly accuse me of infringing on the copyright of an essay I had written and how it could be grounds for a suspension. He said he would expect the Palm Pilot to be returned undamaged. He mentioned what an interesting story it was.
The administration took the hint. They dropped the idea of suspension and instead asked that I perform some community service around the school (they never followed up to arrange this). They returned the Palm Pilot a few weeks later, forcing me to rediscover my awful handwriting. The memory card had been wiped but it was undamaged.
Was it smart to photograph the test? No, I was being a dumb teenager. But why shouldn’t that essay be my property? Far from being paid to write it, which is the usual implicit agreement behind workplace IP assignments, I was required to write it to help the school. And more generally: what does it say to kids just starting to learn about academic building blocks like plagiarism and citation that their work doesn’t belong to them? What kind of message does that send about the value of intellectual work? And this was 2006. Given the role technology plays in education today, doesn’t it limit a student’s ability to connect their work to broader academic discussion?
Of course, they made me finish the test to avoid giving the school another zero. The next day, an entire page of new language had been added to the proctor’s notes. Anything written during the test, it claimed, was property of the state. Copying it would be considered copyright infringement and grounds for suspension, expulsion and possible criminal charges.