Erase to the top?

If you haven’t already, go read Hugh Biggar and Kel Munger’s cover story on the future of reading (see “Goodbye, books?” SN&R Feature). But wait—finish this column first.

As long as there have been readers, there have been nosy government agents who want to know what we’re reading.

In the United States, we’ve been mostly successful at telling them to get lost. But the rise of e-books and online book ordering is giving the agents new opportunities to snoop.

A new bill by California state Sen. Leland Yee, Senate Bill 602, would make it harder, requiring a warrant to snoop into reader records on sites like Google Books and

“We should be able to read about anything from politics to religion to health without worrying that the government might be looking over our shoulder,” said Valerie Small Navarro, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, one of the bill’s backers.

In 2006, North Carolina demanded that Amazon turn over purchase records of 24,000 customers as part of a tax audit of the company. The ensuing lawsuit was settled just a few weeks ago, with the government agreeing to make do without the customers’ personal information.

Before that case, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration tried to get an independent bookstore in Colorado called Tattered Cover to give up certain electronic purchase records for an investigation.

The bookstore said, “Hell no,” and the case eventually wound up in the Colorado Supreme Court, which also rejected the request. But Navarro says this sort of thing goes on more than we may realize.

“We only hear about those cases where people do the right thing and say no. We don’t hear about the cases where they just turn it over.”

Big Brother is one danger to the next generation of readers. Today’s drill-’em-and-kill-’em school culture is another.

Thanks to No Child Left Behind and President Barack Obama’s mutant strain of education reform, Race to the Top—kids are being turned into little test-taking machines, flogged to “achieve” for the benefit of teachers and administrators whose own jobs are increasingly dependent on test scores. It’s gotten so bad that Bites’ oldest child, Bits, actually had to write an essay about the last set of benchmark tests, with ideas about how to improve future performance.

One of the big proponents of this system is Michelle Rhee, sweetheart and partner in crime to Sacramento’s Mayor Kevin Johnson.

There’s been quite a lot of local buzz about Rhee and her Sacramento-based StudentsFirst organization—a league of education superfriends dedicated to vanquishing teacher unions and giving kids lots and lots of tests. (Here Bites is compelled to add that Mrs. Bites is a union teacher in the Sacramento City Unified School District, which provides excellent dental coverage for the whole Bites clan.)

Bites is not a bit surprised that The Sacramento Bee has mostly ignored a recent series of stories in USA Today, questioning student scores during Rhee’s tenure as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system.

Among other things, the paper found “statistically improbable rates of changed answers—from wrong to right—on student tests.” The unfolding scandal has been dubbed “Erase to the Top” by some of Rhee’s more smartassed critics.

Rhee has blasted the newspaper investigation, saying it was “an insult to dedicated teachers and schoolchildren who worked hard to improve their academic achievement levels.”

Of course, these kinds of reports aren’t all that rare. Cheating and scandal are inevitable in a system where teachers and students are being told it’s the tests that matter most.

But you know, though it’s not widely advertised, California law allows us to opt out of standardized tests for our kids. That suggests that we as parents have the power to pretty effectively monkey-wrench the whole twisted testing system before it gets much worse. They can’t cheat if we won’t play.