By all accounts, Daniella Cook is an excellent teacher. Just ask any student or administrator at East Chapel Hill High School where the history teacher was awarded the Sallie Mae First Year Teaching Award three years ago. Or better yet, ask Cook herself. "Teaching is my passion," says the 24-year-old Durham resident and child advocate, noting how she "loves to help kids discover how big the world really is."
Unfortunately, it is a passion Daniella Cook currently has to do without. Earlier this year, she left her chosen profession due, in large part, to what she feels is North Carolina’s unfair reliance on "high-stakes" educational testing — tests commonly used as a the main criterion for student promotion and graduation. The legislature’s recent adoption of statewide student accountability standards, an offshoot of former governor Jim Hunt’s ABCs of Public Education reform package, greatly expanded the number and importance of such standardized tests in the state’s classrooms.
"Test scores are driving the car while both students and teachers are trapped in the back seat," laments Cook, referring to how these tests devalue the teaching and learning process. She points out how teachers are forced to "teach to the test" at the expense of other subjects not included in the testing process, and how students’ classroom work, creativity and good grades are undermined by an over-reliance on test scores. Cook also decries the state’s monetary incentives — schools that test well receive special accolades and extra dollars, including staff bonuses. Rather than improving education through increased accountability, Cook feels the standards blame kids and teachers for the current social problems and inequities affecting public education. "We are blaming victims instead of dealing with real problems," she says, noting that she "could no longer take part in a system that wasn’t trying to make things better. It’s a shame that I had to get out of the car to help put it back on course."
Putting it back on course has become Daniella Cook mission in education. In February, Cook was hired as a Fair Test Organizer by the Common Sense Foundation in Raleigh. In this role, she helps coordinate the growing movement of concerned parents, teachers and citizens against the state’s test-heavy educational standards. In the past few months, the energetic Cook has traveled the state and attended numerous conferences and community meetings on the issue. Along with lending organizational assistance, she acts as a resource for parents seeking to understand the standards, their implications and any associated legislative policy matters. Cook also works with the newly formed North Carolina Coalition for Fair Testing, a collection of concerned groups working to get legislation passed to either improve or eliminate the current testing system.
However, Cook’s anti-testing organizing began well before the Common Sense Foundation hired her. In the past three years, the outspoken advocate’s name and opinions have constantly surfaced in the news as she committed herself to doing what many of her teaching colleagues are scared to — publicly oppose testing. While many teachers consider this to be biting the hand that feeds them, Cook sees it differently. "There are very few fighting this battle who have a recent background in teaching," she says. A fact which, she believes, makes her an asset. "Somebody," continues Cook, "has to get up and fight and help folks realize they can stand up for themselves."
Most important, for her, is standing up for children. In a September 2000 issue of the Independent (On the Bubble, D. Jackson, available on the NCCAI website), Cook spoke out against what many critics feel is the punitive and inequitable nature of the current testing process:
"I firmly believe that every child can learn. . . But I also believe you have to give every child the tools to learn before you start penalizing them for not knowing something."
Standing up for others was never a foreign concept to Cook. The sixth of seven children born to an upholsterer and a cook, the Cincinnati native followed the example of her parents’ ongoing activities in their local community. While cooking in the Ohio public school system, her mother was an outspoken advocate of the children for whom she prepared meals. It was not uncommon, says Cook, for her mom to confront principals when she felt they were treating kids unfairly. "She would tell them, ‘you don’t treat children that way," she recalls. Cook also points out that her parents took the kids with them to any community organizing events, including the successful effort to stop an expressway from being built through the heart of their Cincinnati neighborhood. "At the time, I didn’t realize I was being politically educated," she says. "But by the time I got older, it was natural for me to stand up and fight."
Upon earning a BA in History, Education and Black World Studies from Miami University at Ohio in 1998, Cook relocated to the area for work. She was attracted to the social justice orientation of the history department at East Chapel Hill High.
"She is one of the most talented teachers I’ve ever encountered," says Howie Machtinger, director of Carolina Teaching Fellows. Machtinger was a social studies teacher at East Chapel Hill High when Cook arrived there. Tremendously energetic and an incredible intellect, he continues, "Daniella brings a positive spirit to whatever she does. She always knows what’s best for educating and helping children."
While Cook appreciates such accolades, her source of inspiration lies elsewhere.
"My faith drives me," says Cook, who feels that "every person was sent here for a reason. We all should live our lives with a sense of purpose."
When it comes to the fight against high-stakes testing in North Carolina, her purpose is clear.
"Oh, we’re going to win," says a confident Cook. "It’s gonna be a long and hard struggle, but I have no doubt in my mind that we will win."