In 1998, some seven years after Dr. Seuss’s death, Jack Prelutsky and Lane Smith produced Hooray for Diffendoofer Day (Knopf Press) based on an unfinished manuscript by Theodor Seuss Geisel. The book is a fable for our times. I would read it to my school leadership classes when I was teaching at Rutgers.
This is a story about a very different schoolteacher , Miss Bonkers who was illustrative of a very creative school called Diffendoofer, where the students were, “learning lots of things not taught in other schools” and where the “teachers were remarkable, they make up their own rules”. The faculty is described as an array of individuals who love children, deeply understand learning and capture the imaginations of their students in creative ways.
The principal in the story is Mr. Lowe who was constantly checking to see if the students are, ‘learning this and that and such and such” with “a face wrinkled as a prune from worrying so much”. Reading on we learn that Mr. Lowe is concerned because “all schools for miles and miles around must take a special test to see which school’s the best.” Those schools not doing well according to the plot would be torn down and the students sent elsewhere to school, most likely in Flobbertown “where everyone does everything the same”.
I’m not sure if Dr. Seuss or the authors who finished his story realized their ability to see the future but the children’s story is a parable focusing on the overemphasis and preoccupation with testing that has gripped our nation and the corresponding diminished importance of a rich curriculum, excellence in teaching and the diversity of learners.
As you might have guessed the students at Diffendoofer School do well on their tests and in fact get the “very highest score”. They outscored the students in Flobbertown, the competition where the students are described as miserable, dressing in one style, singing the same song, never dancing, with no time for recess and where even their “lunches have no taste at all”.
Before the test Miss Bonkers lowers the students’ level of concern by pointing out that at Diffendoofer School they’ve learned the things they need to pass the test and something more, “we’ve taught you how to think.” In the simple text of this children’s tale we are reminded of what we all know. A rich curriculum, creative teaching and the engagement of the student in the learning process trumps a narrow focus on prescriptive outcomes and test prep pedagogy.
Tests tell us what we already know. There are good schools and schools that need to improve. What we need to learn is how to make every school improve. A quick read of Hooray for Diffendoofer Day provides some suggestions, reminds us of things we know to be true and perhaps the courage to speak out against the growing demand for more testing and greater accountability.