Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Test Driven Educational Reform- A Desperate Response to A Society Rotting at the Core

Professor Mark Naison

Fordham University

The breadth of support for tying teacher evaluation to student test scores is something which cuts across all parts of the political spectrum. It is something which unites Barack Obama with Newt Gingrich, Bill Gates with the Koch Brothers, Andrew Cuomo with Scott Walker, and Al Sharpton with Glen Beck and Bill O’Reilly While those of us who have spent our lives in the classroom regard this as ill-advised and counterproductive, it is important to examine why test driven educational reform is virtually the only policy initiative which commands this kind of bi-partisan support.

To do so, we have to take an honest look at what has happened to America’s working class and poor in the last thirty years, particularly in those portions of the country which were once part of America’s industrial heartland. Looked at from the vantage point of once proud industrial centers like Detroit, Baltimore, Buffalo, Newark, Bridgeport, Gary, Youngstown, and Philadelphia, the United States is a society literally rotting at the core. Whole stretches of these cities lay abandoned ever since their factories closed, with only piles of bricks and metals left as reminders of industries that once employed millions of people. Often, the only new building in the most decayed sections of these cities are schools and prisons, with the former often serving as recruiting grounds for the latter. With more than 2 million people now in prison in the US- as compared to less than 400,000 in 1980- and with over 10 million people having spend time in prison and been rendered virtually unemployable, there are huge stretches of urban America, and more than a few small towns, where the streets are filled with men, and more than a few women, who have no secure connection to the legal labor market and whose pessimism and despair creates an atmosphere that literally sucks the energy out of everyone around them As someone who has walked these streets, as well as driven through them in most of the above mentioned cities, it is hard not to feel like a whole section of the American population has been abandoned by their government. No one talks about these people, no one does anything for them, no one discusses the conditions they are living as problems central to the future of the society. Needless to say, these conditions have been immeasurably worsened by tax policies and industrial policies, adopted in the last 30 years, which have frozen working class incomes and concentrated wealth in the top layers of the society to an unprecedented degree.

So where does school reform come in? Some time during the last ten years, a broad spectrum of groups in American society, some of them elected officials and community organizers, some of them business leaders, decided that the way to bring America’s most devastates communities into the economic mainstream was by radically transforming schools. If we somehow turned schools into places of energy and optimism, where young people learned skills necessary to compete in a global economy, then maybe the children of the poor could escape the fate of their parents and we could achieve a more equal society without changing tax policy or redistributing wealth.

It was an extraordinarily seductive vision. It appealed to parents and community leaders living in poor neighborhoods because it appeared to show, for the first time in decades, that the nation was willing to invest in the future of their children. It appealed to political conservatives because some of the reforms proposed- school vouchers and charter schools- involved the application of market principles to the public sector. And it appealed to the very rich, because it promised a path to greater equality that left the tax system that allowed them to acquire great wealth untouched

In the beginning, school reform appeared to be a “win win:” for everybody. But after the first few years, when dramatic reforms, including vouchers and founding of charter schools, appeared to show few significant gains in test scores, or changes in the atmosphere of neighborhoods where the experiments took place, the discourse of reform started to center on the “problem of bad teachers.” With cruel cynicism, reformers began arguing that their brilliant plans were being sabotaged by poorly motivated and recalcitrant teachers, and that elevating children out of poverty through schooling could only be effective if teachers were forced to work much harder and be fired if they refused to produce.

This conclusion resulted in a determination to use test scores, not just to rate the progress of students, but to motivate teachers and administrators. Across the nation, with the encouragement of educational foundations funded by some of America’s wealthiest people, school systems began tying the salaries and careers of teachers and principals to the test scores of students they worked with, began systematically attacking teachers unions for standing in the way of these motivational schemes.

When teachers resisted giving up seniority rights to allow such accountability plans to be put in place, they were demonized as the major obstacle, not only to educational reform, but to the achievement of economic and even racial equality. Public school teachers, and leaders of teachers unions, were lambasted in the media, and by public officials in Washington and State Capitals, as selfish and pampered. If school systems could replace teachers at will the way business did with employees when they didn’t perform, than school performance would improve over night and the US would become economically competitive and egalitarian with one wave of the magic wand. The key was to constantly rate student learning by measurable criteria and determine the status of teachers, administrators and entire schools on the basis of such “data.”

By the time Barack Obama was elected, the momentum of this accountability frenzy was well nigh irreversible.

There was only one problem. There was no place in the entire United States where such strategies achieved any of the intended results. There was not one school system in a low income community where test scores were significantly raised by tying teacher salaries and tenure to student test scores, nor was evidence anywhere that such reforms had a measurable effect on income distribution or economic development in depressed communities. To put the matter bluntly, if you applied the same accountability criteria to educational reformers that were are being used to rate teachers and principals, they would all be fired.

What test driven school reform turns out to be, when all is said and done, is an initially well intentioned, but now cruelly deceptive effort to reduce poverty and inequality without addressing any of its root causes in taxation, industrial policy and the distribution of funding forr housing, health care and community economic development

Because of that, it can never succeed in achieving its professed goals, but along the way, it can suck the life out of schools and demoralize a generation of students and teachers.

In school systems around the country, that is exactly what it is doing.

Mark Naison

May 16, 2011

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