“A Noble Failure” tests the limits of testing

Susan Mach takes on No Child Left Behind's measurement mania

Jacklyn Maddux, John San Nicolas and Maureen Porter in  "A Noble Failure"/Owen Carey

Jacklyn Maddux, John San Nicolas and Maureen Porter in “A Noble Failure”/Owen Carey

During my one visit to Disney World in Orlando, I had one overwhelming feeling: Everything here has been measured. The length of the rides was just barely long enough to “justify” the length of time spent in time waiting for my turn. The volume of soft drink per dollar, determined to the thousandth of a penny, stopped just this side of “outrageous.” The social engineers had predicted my behavior and directed it as much as possible to squeeze as many of those tiny increments of cash from my pocket as possible.

Do you get the idea that I don’t like measurement? That’s wrong: I believe in “measure twice, cut once.” But I do hate the idea that EVERYTHING can and should be measured, which is one of the reasons I gravitate toward the arts. Great art never feels “measured.” Quite the opposite. It feels immeasurable.

Another thing that feels immeasurable to me is education. Sure, we can create metrics around education and take a stab at figuring out whether math and English and social studies are being learned. But it’s a gross stab. Learning isn’t linear; it arrives in fits and starts. And the arrival of the”big picture,” the moment of useful integration of knowledge, can take… decades.

My thoughts about education and measurement put me at odds with the law of the land (which is No Child Left Behind), but they align me just about perfectly with local playwright Susan Mach’s new play, “A Noble Failure,” a smart, sharp and polished play that premiered this weekend at Third Rail Repertory Theatre. (She also premiered “The Lost Boy,” at Artists Repertory Theatre this weekend, but that’s another story that we’ll get to later.)

Mach also opposes the centrality of testing in No Child Left Behind, and she opposes the privatization of public education, with which it’s linked. These issues are the backdrop of “A Noble Failure,” and thanks in part to a set of outstanding acting performances, astutely balanced by director Philip Cuomo, the human consequences of testing and privatization get a good and bright airing.

***

Rolland Walsh, left, Rosalyn Davies and Bruce Burkhartsmeier star in Susan Mach's "A Noble Failure."/Owen Carey

Rolland Walsh, left, Rosalyn Davies and Bruce Burkhartsmeier star in Susan Mach’s “A Noble Failure.”/Owen Carey

The action occurs in Fillmore High in a decaying neighborhood in an unnamed city. Principal Truman Spencer (Bruce Burkhartsmeier, crusty and occasionally R-rated) is trying to roll with the punches of the “administration” and lessen the impact of their initiatives on his best teachers, including Rosalyn Davies (Jacklyn Maddux, warm and weary), as well as such newer ones as Darren Loftus (John San Nicolas, who has newbie down perfectly). And, of course, he has to deal with troubled kids like Ivan (Rolland Walsh, brash and impulsive), too.

The principal is about to get some “help,” in the form of Barbara (Maureen Porter), who’s an education efficiency expert, ready to apply her skills at teaching to the test to help raise the scores at Fillmore. Hey, it’s the law of the land, remember? And the administration sends in a lawyer to “help,” too, Hank (Gavin Hoffman), who is establishing the legal basis for the layoffs that are coming. Mach’s ear for that extremely irritating combination of legal-bureaucratic-pop psychology language is just about perfect. This is what Hell sounds like, I think.

As Barbara, Porter has the most delicious lines, such as, “poverty, poverty, blah blah blah” and “sometimes my marketing background gets the best of me.” She’s the perfect, icy villainess, determined to bulldoze anyone in her path, without a moment’s skepticism about those tests she teaches to or a thought about what real education is. Hoffman doubles down on this narrow definition and role: They are cogs in the bureaucratic machine, and the REAL results, the lives of real kids, simply don’t matter.

***

Jacklyn Maddux in "A Noble Failure"/Owen CareyThe audience at my Sunday matinee was older (meaning simply, my age!), and from their reaction to the shabby treatment of the wonderful teacher Rosalyn, you could tell that they were surprised at the implacability of the test machinery and its human servants.

Two side issues during the play also seemed to resonate. The first was how easy it is to “cheat” the test. (This is apparently a widespread problem: here’s a link to a Frontline story on Michelle Rhee’s reform experiment in Washington, D.C., for example.)

The second? Where does “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” fit into a pedagogy that is all about testing? How about “Hamlet”? How do we measure the effect of great literature or art or history (not the textbook variety) on students and by extension… us?
And this is where we came in, yes? We can’t. Not really. Maybe we can test a kid’s reading comprehension or short-term memory. But what’s the value of the soliloquy in “Hamlet” that the troubled student recites at the end of the play.

“O God! God! / How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, / seem to me all the uses of
this world! / Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden, / that grows to seed; things rank and
gross in nature / possess it merely.”

He is in the process of returning a book of Shakespeare to Rosalyn’s library, one she’s given him for his own. But he figures there is a use for “Hamlet,” and he shouldn’t keep it to himself: “Ms. Davies, someday somebody’s going to need this. I gotta go.”
Sitting in the audience, I think we all had the same anxiety.

What if someday someone DOES need Shakespeare, and he’s not there to help, simply because we can’t fit him into a test? And we shuddered at this peek at a world that does not contain Hamlet.

NOTES

This review was posted first (in a somewhat different form) at Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Arts & Life page, where I’ve begun to post again. Check it out: There’s a good John Kin video preview of “A Noble Failure” there!

“A Noble Failure” continues at 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sundays, in the Winningstad Theater, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland.
Visit the Third Rail website for ticket info.

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