Chicago Teachers Strike a Blow Against Testing


Ronald W. Evans is a professor in the School of Teacher Education at San Diego State University. His most recent book is "The Tragedy of American School Reform: How Curriculum Politics and Entrenched Dilemmas Have Diverted Us From Democracy" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). He is currently working on a book on the origins, development, and impact of accountability reforms in schools.

Teachers marching in the streets of Chicago on September 10. Credit: Flickr/sbcthemuse.

Chicago teachers went out on strike last Monday, and a key reason for the impasse has to do with accountability reform. The Chicago teachers union said no to a “reform” that would base 30 percent of a teachers’ evaluation on student test scores. With the nation running full speed ahead on school accountability reform, and various districts and states moving toward linking student test scores to the job evaluations of teachers and administrators, Chicago teachers took a stand.

Accountability reform centered on standards and testing is nothing new. But for teachers, the reform is reaching new extremes. In Los Angeles and New York, teachers at every school were ranked by student test scores and the results made public, supposedly in the hope that this would spur teachers to improve their performance. This was done in the belief that shaming and humiliating teachers could somehow work miracles to improve student learning. Linking test scores to teacher evaluations is a hot topic. The Chicago strike is important because it indicates that teachers are not only questioning the reform, but are willing to fight against it.

Obviously, for Chicago’s teachers, the immediate issue is the threat to teacher’s jobs, hinging on accountability measures that are deeply flawed, that measure some kinds of learning but not others, measures that are highly contingent on neighborhood and socioeconomic factors beyond the control of schools.

But the problem goes much deeper. We are in the midst of a school reform that doesn’t fit the higher purposes of education, a movement in which business practices of “scientific management” such as setting standards, monitoring pacing, and intensely measuring results, are being applied to schools as if teachers are labor and students are widgets, human capital on an assembly line. The accountability juggernaught has become a de-humanizing machine, stifling freedom of expression and democracy, ideals that were once the cornerstones of our highest educational aspirations, ideals that need to be restored in order to make real progress.

Origins of Accountability Reform

The current reform has its roots in the conservative restoration in schools and society, growing out of concerns in the late 1970s and early 1980s that our nation was falling behind in international economic competition, and that schools were to blame. It had roots in the “malaise” over American failures in Watergate, Vietnam, and the Iran hostage crisis. Critics had long blamed schools for societal problems, and increasingly looked to schools as either scapegoat or savior. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education declared in A Nation at Risk, an inflammatory report marking the official launch of the excellence reform movement: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

The report struck a nerve. Republicans (and many Democrats), corporate and civic leaders, and much of the public joined in supporting a movement to improve the schools -- not just the schools that had long struggled with poverty, but all the schools --based on the assertion that our schools were failing. Gradually, summit meetings involving the nation’s governors and business leaders led to state and federal legislation establishing standards and accountability, and applying rewards and punishment for performance as measured on standardized tests. A Nation at Risk, What Works, America 2000, Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top have meant a steady movement toward more accountability through application of business principles of competition and choice to America’s schools.

Underlying the reform were two key assumptions: first, that our schools really were failing; and second, that the answer could be found in applying pressure for better performance via a business model for systemic reform. The first assertion, that our schools were failing, was a gross oversimplification contradicted by strong evidence that most of our schools, and students, are doing well. Reform at its inception was predicated on a “manufactured crisis,” not a real crisis. The Sandia Report, commissioned in 1990, took an in-depth and longitudinal look at school performance measures, but was suppressed by the Bush administration because it found no system-wide crisis, contradicting the basis for the growing reform.

The Sandia Report, and a good deal of subsequent evidence, strongly suggests that the majority of U. S. schools are doing a good job; that international comparisons are inherently flawed; but, that we have pockets of troublingly low performance in poorer neighborhoods and among disadvantaged children. These are deeply entrenched problems linked to poverty and will take money, time, and resources to improve. Moreover, in most international comparisons, from the days of A Nation at Risk forward, the top tier of American students compare favorably with the top tier of students in other nations. International comparisons on test scores omit the fact that in a society with egalitarian and democratic ideals, we are trying to educate every student to the highest level possible; in many other nations, this is simply not the case: students are siphoned off at various junctures.

Second, the notion that pressure for improved performance would bring results has proven problematic. Pressure has led to a narrowing of the curriculum, undermining the broader democratic purposes of education and supplanting them with economic goals. It has led to widespread cheating, gaming the system by teaching to the test, and very little real evidence of improved performance. In the schools I visit, teachers are often coerced into using scripted programs, pressured to emphasize textbook learning, and focused almost entirely on tested curricula and their students’ scores, with the result that creativity, freedom, and the flexibility necessary when working with children, all hallmarks of good democratic education, are often left behind.

In short, reform is not working, and is instead creating obstacles to improved teaching and learning. Accountability reform has led to the de-professionalization of teachers, and has done so most perniciously in urban districts serving large numbers of the poor and students of color. It is little wonder that Chicago teachers went on strike.

Why it Matters

Historians should care deeply about all of this because schooling is about more than learning the basics, about more than simply learning the “facts” of history or the social sciences. It is about more than finding a job, preparing a skilled workforce, or strengthening our nation’s position in international economic competition. Education has another important purpose that is often left behind in the race to school improvement. That other face of education asks students to consider deep and fundamental questions, to examine evidence, to make critical judgments about their society, the world, and their role in it, and to reflect on values, problems, and issues of past and present. This should be the main purpose for studying history and the social sciences in schools. Factual learning is best seen as a by-product of a reflective process. Unfortunately, the standards, textbook, and testing regime has moved our nation away from these important goals, and has led the to reification of textbooks and memory centered approaches to learning. One history teacher I know summed it up well when she said, “It means we spend most of our time doing trivial pursuit.”

Chicago’s teachers are striking an important blow against an accountability reform that is not in childrens' best interest and does not serve our highest ideals of democracy and freedom. This may be the start of a protracted battle over the schools, centered on teacher’s hard won rights, who will control our schools, and whose interests will be served. For excellent teaching to occur in more classrooms, teachers need a strong measure of freedom and our support in returning common sense to school policy and reform.

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