What High-Stakes Testing Has to Do With School Shootings

No, state tests do not single handedly Make a Murderer. There are no simple answers to systemic problems. So, contrary to the obnoxiousness we witness in our news feeds, there is no cause of school shootings.

But there are conditions.

An explosion is synergy at work. It can’t happen easily. It actually takes quite a few steps to make something – or someone – explode. Perhaps even design and skill. There are hundreds of ways that something will NOT ignite. So when it does, you know that conditions had to be just wrong.

A myriad of prerequisites drove the atmosphere from stable to volatile to violent.


Dry wood — stacked together — refined fuel — and a source of ignition.

It’s the conditions that matter.

We are a nation weary of fighting to guard against every possible spark that might threaten our tepee-stacked, gasoline-soaked piles of tinder. And too many educators like me have reluctantly participated in pouring more fuel on the stack.

Wait a minute— our kids are burn-ready, gas-soaked piles of wood??



Volatile. Have you been in our schools? Looked at depression and anxiety rates? Suicide rates? While Americans pontificate with our millions of debate-hours trying to protect them from school shooters, far more of them are killing themselves. (Suicide recently passed homicide as the #2 cause of teen death.)

Can we back up?

How did our kids ever get to be one spark away from disaster? Honestly, you can have all those spark prevention debates with your congressman or your Uncle Joe at Thanksgiving. I want to talk about our volatile kids.

These conditions did not just happen. This took a system – one that has been honed. Remember- every system perfectly executes what its perfectly designed to do.

Unfortunately, I know, all too well. I helped create them for too long. And here is how.

How to Systematically Create Volatile Kids

Say you asked me to design a system, from scratch, that would produce optimal conditions for wide-scale depression, anxiety, suicide, and, of course, school shootings. I could sadly concoct an awful, dreadful, brutally effective one.

The key is– control the weather. Any park ranger knows that it’s the weather that determines fire risk. On rain-soaked cloudy days, a fire just can’t take off.

An old adage goes, “Teachers aren’t weather forecasters; we are weather creators.” We don’t just report the rain. We make it rain. Rain that gives life to our kids is positive relationship. No fire can survive a downpour of this. Explosions won’t happen. So I’d begin with drying out the wood. Create an atmosphere of scarcity and make bullying weather.

Bullying Weather

This really does the trick. This year, there were 1 or 2 bullies in my class, sometimes 3. Depends on the week — and on the weak. It’s widely verified that bullies are created, not just randomly selected by a celestial lottery. Bullies wax and wane. Heck, “bully” itself is a bit of an arbitrary label to stick on a moving target. Humans are dynamic and fluid.

Many days, when conditions are right, I can become a bit of a bully.

“Sit down, get quiet, and get to work!”

“John– WHAT in the WORLD are you doing??”

“Shaniya– for the seventh time, GET. IN. LINE!

I just get tired, folks. Run out of steam. Spent. I’m human. So I vent, pass the buck, react. I know I shouldn’t. But against the best of intentions, I begin to create threatening- bullying- weather. It happens all too easily in a climate of accusation and scarcity.

I know full well how this plays out. I can turn students against each other with a snap of the tongue. They wont even know I’m the problem. They’ll think their classmate are. Just turn on my Accuser voice and watch as they all turn against each other.

The Accuser voice creates a perception of scarcity. Scarcity creates competition. And competition creates enemies.

The way my kids treat each other is a direct reflection of how I treat them.


Say I were to come in with a high energy smile, an engaging lesson, positive words, relaxed humor, and a contagious enthusiasm. What are the odds that fights break out?

Slim to none. Too much rain.

But if I come in grouchy and yelling? Start your timer. It won’t be long before the fights begin.

Having that snapshot, I now give you my 8 Step systematic plan to create the bullying weather necessary to produce long term, widespread volatility.

Step 1: Put many kids in a room with only one adult. Busy adults are best. Only give them the illusion of a relationship – even better than no relationship.

Step 2: Engage kids with fun. A gateway. A hook. A quick micro-burst of relational energy to attract their hearts before we distract them. Then, seamlessly transition into work. This gets them invested with as little relationship (rain) required as possible.

Step 3: Praise the successes of top kids to make the most relationship-starved ones desire praise and work harder. More work = more investment. The more investment now, the more despair we can create later.

Step 4: Analyze, analyze, analyze. Plaster successes (and implicit failures) on charts and graphs. Be specific. Make them keep track of it all, so they always remember. Emphasize their ability to get there with hard work — dried out, lonely kids will just hear, “Your shortcomings are your fault.”

Step 5: Focus, focus, focus on what’s still not right. This is especially important when students get really parched toward the end of the year. Continually remind them — even the best of them — that they are “almost there.”

Step 6: Make success a mirage. When the kids get “there,” celebrate quickly so you can move them up to the next level. Over time, this creates hopelessness.

Step 7: Repeat the cycle, day after day, year after year. More investment. Exponential growth of despair. After a while, a treadmill, but they still won’t get off. Why? They’ve invested too much. Like a man stuck at a quarter slot machine. Might as well keep going now.

Step 8: Emphasize clearly and often how much is at stake. Their college, careers, and even relationships depend on whether they will continue to run on this treadmill — whether they will keep working hard enough to earn the approval they are still seeking.

In short, if I were to design a system to create despair and hopelessness, I would essentially design the American Classroom.

Now, I know this sounds a dreadfully pessimistic caricature of what only the worst, most selfish educators would allow in their rooms. And thankfully, it is. At first.

Most teachers are just too darn joyful and positive. There is no way they would purposefully create this environment. They would only succumb to it if their own conditions were just right.

So, to create volatility, we don’t begin with students. We need concoct a way to drain teachers of their positivity and joy — and create volatility in them.

Got it. New article:

How to Create Volatile Teachers

Step 1: Put one teacher alone in a room with many kids. Kids with busy parents are best. When it’s budget crunch time, apply for a state waiver to cram even more students in.

Step 2: Engage teachers with fun trainings and emotional videos about how much they can touch students lives, and how much purpose there is in their job. Entice new teachers with promises of great vacation time and decent first year pay. Newbies will shrug at the fact that they’ll never get a raise.

Step 3: Praise the successes of the top teachers who look good in photos. Or, of the school across the lake. They must be doing such cool high-energy activities all the time. Highlight that one teacher with an awesome Pinterest wall who has no family at home and works every night and weekend.

Step 4: Analyze, analyze, analyze. Scores. Spreadsheets. Data Analyses. Do this well enough, and teachers will eventually forget to think of their students as humans with stories anymore. They will first and foremost think of them as a number. The lowest numbers will become pebbles in our shoes– problems– objects to be fixed. Relationship kills fire.

Step 5: Focus, focus, focus on what’s still not right. Forget the blood, sweat and sacrifice. Have lots of meetings that begin with a quick celebration and then get to the point – the few failures among all the success.

Repeat steps 3, 4, & 5 as often as necessary to achieve proper dehydration.

Step 6: Make success a mirage. Next failing kid. Next year. Next, next, next.

Step 7: Repeat the cycle, day after day, year after year. Treadmill.

Step 8: Emphasize, clearly and often, how much is at stake. Yes, their jobs and licenses, for sure, but even more- their students’ futures. Remind them that those mamajamas will be flipping burgers for the kids at the school across the lake if you don’t pound another 20 minutes of intervention in them today.

Follow these 8 steps faithfully, and, over time, you will see your teachers do this:




(same actual lady pictured)
Dried out.

Once again, if I were to design a system to create teachers who are dried out (or walking out), I would essentially design the American Public School System.

In fact, I would argue that great teachers are one of the primary reasons why our suicide and mass shootings rates are so low. I’m not surprised that we have suicides and homicides every day among our students. I’m surprised that we have so few, given the climate we’ve systematically engineered. Thanks, teachers.

Where does it end? Where does it Begin?

You may be wondering about the next level up. Are administrators just evil? Of course not.

Hopefully you’re catching on. Just repeat the steps at each higher level. Which is even easier.


Fortunately (for volatility’s sake), the higher you ascend the pyramid, the more the 8 Steps begin to create themselves.


First, it takes strong personal boundaries to not succumb to the 8 Steps. Thankfully (for our evil system), we don’t typically promote people with great boundaries. On average, we’ll promote the ones who are willing to sacrifice more and more of themselves for the company.

Secondly, the farther you are up the Pyramid, the more distant from your kids. Less empathy. It will be easy, almost necessary, for you to only interact with your schools’ highlight reels. Things will seem much more wonderful than they are on the ground.

Thirdly, your underlings will pretend all is well, just so you’ll like them. Just by your walking into classrooms, teachers and principals will rush to sweep their house in order.

Fourthly, leaders know full well they are still human. So the higher up they are, the more they naturally underestimate how big of a deal their words and actions are. They will utter crushing words without even knowing it.

See, a pyramid of structured leadership, in a system whose goal is to be the best, inevitably creates an inverted pyramid of pressure.


The higher you ascend, the more invested you are. The more invested, the more pressure to please your superior. The more pressure we feel, the more we pass down. Who, in this situation, feels the most pressure? Tiny directives by lawmakers easily become crushing weights by the time they trickle to our students. This may well create diamonds out of a few, but far too many are just turning to coal. Hard, charred, explosive coal.

Added Fuels

Now, to be clear, these are just wood-prepping basics. I didn’t mention the dozens of added fuels from the American Family system, such as parents distracted on their phones, overly competitive sports, unhealthy foods, or other factors you might throw in.

The bad news is this problem took millions of people decades to create. The good news is there are millions of us connected to one another who can begin to deconstruct tired old norms of racing rats. We do this by setting up personal boundaries, and living by a higher purpose than to keep our job or get higher scores.

We can reclaim our kids as humans with stories, rather than numbers on spreadsheets, when we keep their humanity our top priority.

It will take risks, for sure. It will take secure people who aren’t distracted by photoshopped highlights of the school across the lake, or threatened by their coworkers’ charming Pinterest walls. It will take millions of us being secure, amidst the insecurities and accusations of bosses, parents, and even our own selves.

Believing that we are enough and striving for more of what matters instead of more of what the system demands. It may look like lower scores at first, but if the trade-off is healthier kids, is it worth it?

Here’s to a change in climate for the 2018-2019 American School System: May it rain. May it pour down love and grace and peace. May teachers be free from the pressure to conform to the singular focus of higher numbers, and may our kids be freed from the weight of too much pressure. Then, when our kids can be fully accepted as fully themselves, will those dried up piles of tinder cease to look so threatening.

One thought on “What High-Stakes Testing Has to Do With School Shootings

  1. Seth,
    I never realized what a phenomenal writer you are. You hit the proverbial nail on the head once again!


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