How A Crackpot Theory of Education Reform Became National Policy





2-6-12

Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, "White Boy: A Memoir," was published in the spring of 2002.

Future historians are likely to tell the following story: some time during the early twenty-first century, a cross-section of the American elite began to panic. They looked at the growing chasm between the rich and poor, the huge size of the nation’s prison population, and the growing racial and socieconomic gulf in education, and decided something dramatic had to be done to remedy these problems.

But instead of critically examining how these trends reflected twenty years of regressive taxation, a futile “war on drugs,” the deregulation of the financial industry, the breaking of unions and the movement of American companies abroad, America’s leaders decided the primary source of economic inequality could be found in failing schools, bad teachers, and powerful teachers unions.

No serious scholar, looking at the economic and social trends of the previous twenty years or the major innovations in social policy that have unleashed the power of big capital, gives the slightest credence to this analysis of the sources of inequality, but the idea that educational failure is the prime source of all other social deficits has taken hold with the force of a religious conversion. Corporate leaders, heads of major foundations, civil rights leaders, and politicians in both major parties have bought this explanation hook line and sinker, and so thus we have one of the strangest social movements in modern American history—the demonization of America’s teachers and the development of strategies to radically transform education by taking power away from them.

The consequence of this leap of faith is the idea that there has to be a centralized effort to monitor educational progress though quantifiable measures, coupled with accountability strategies that call for the removal of teachers and the closing of schools if they don’t meet their criteria. Through policies developed at the federal level, but implemented locally so that they affect every school district in the nation, scrutinizing teacher effectiveness has become a national mission with as much fanfare as was America’s efforts to put a rocket in space during the 1950s and 60s.

The centerpiece of this mission has been that teachers are to be judged on student performance on standardized tests, as there are no other “objective” criteria that could generate meaningful statistical information on a national scale. But America’s states and municipalities do not have consistent testing policies, so the feds have called for universal testing related to a nationally developed set of Common Core Standards, with the loss of federal funding the consequence of failure to comply.

This all sounds very rational until you look at it from the perspective of individual schools. To evaluate teachers through standardized test results, and do it across the board, you have to have tests in every grade and every subject. This not only means tests in English, math, science and social studies, it means tests in art, music and gym (or the elimination of those programs entirely, as some schools have done).

No public school has ever willingly tried doing something like this, and for good reason. It means that all that goes on in school is preparation for tests. There is no spontaneity, no creativity, no possibility of responding to new opportunities for learning from current events, either globally, nationally, or locally. It also means play and pleasure are erased from the school experience, since students will be under constant pressure from their teachers, who know that their own jobs depend on student performance.

What you have, in short, is a prescription for making the nation’s schools places of fear and dread, ruled by a test protocol that deadens minds and stifles creative thinking. Make no mistake, there are people who stand to benefit handsomely from this insanity—especially the companies who make the tests and the consultants who administer them—but anyone who thinks this level of testing will make America’s schools more effective or reduce social inequality has a capacity for self-delusion that staggers the imagination. Only people with no options would choose to send their children to schools run that way. The wealthy will send their children to private schools that eschew testing (and to a great extent they already do), and the somewhat less wealthy will withdraw from the system and create their own cooperative schools or engage in home schooling. Where does that leave the poor?

The saddest part about all of this is that the Obama administration, like the Bush administration, continues to push the testing regime with the support of both major parties and a cross-section of America’s corporate leadership.

There are few examples in American history where such a crackpot theory guided social policy this way. The most recent than springs to mind is Prohibition, which was based on the conviction that banning booze would somehow create greater social stability and save America from corruption.

Someday, test-based education reform will go the way of Prohibition, but not before incalculable damage is done to the nation's children.


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