Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Strange Genesis of "Education Reform"- How a Crackpot Theory Became National Policy

In future generations, historians are likely to tell the following story. Some time during the early 21St Century, a cross section of the top leadership of American society began to panic. They looked at the growing chasm between the rich and poor, the huge size of the nation’s prison population, the growing gulf in educational achievement between blacks and whites and poor and middle class children 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 20 years, or the major innovations in social policy that unleashed the power of big capital, would have given to slightest credence to this analysis of the sources of inequality, but the idea that educational failure was the prime source of all other social deficits took hold with the force of a religious conversion. Corporate leaders, heads of major foundations, civil rights leaders, politicians in both major parties, bought this explanation hook line and sinker and so began 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, supported by no serious research, was the idea that there has to be a centralized effort to monitor educational progress though quantifiable measures, coupled with accountability strategies which called for the removal of teachers and the closing of schools, if they didn’t meet those criteria. Through policies developed at the federal level but implemented locally so that they effected every school district in the nation, scrutinizing teacher effectiveness became a national mission introduced with as much fanfare as was America’s efforts to put a rocket in space during the 1950’s and 60’s.

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

This all sounds very rational until you look at it from the individual school level. To evaluate teachers via standardized tests, 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.

No school in any country, at any time in history, ever 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, not creativity, no possibility of responding to new opportunities for learning that relate to events that occur locally, nationally, or globally. It also means play, and pleasure are erased from the school experience, and that students are put under constant stress, maximized by teachers who know that their own job security depends on student performance.

What you have here, in short, is a prescription for making the nation’s schools a place of Fear and Dread, ruled by test protocols that deaden minds and stifle creative thinking. Make no mistake about it, 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 which eschew testing, the well organized will withdraw from the system and create their own cooperative schools or engage in home schooling.

The sad part about all of this is that the Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration, continues to push this program, with the support of both major parties and a cross section of America’s corporate leadership.

There are not too many other examples in American history where such a crackpot theory guided social policy this way. The last example I can think of was the passage of the Prohibition Amendment to the US constitution, based on the conviction that the banning of alcoholic beverages 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 nations children

Mark Naison
January 19, 2012


Andrea Merida said...

Great article. The only thing I would add is the influence of the disaster capitalist-minded folks like Milton Friedman, as well as the hold of hedge-fund managers. The mass hysteria stems from the corporate push to privatize, as I'm sure you agree.

Sue VanHattum said...

>Some time during the early 21St Century, a cross section of the top leadership of American society began to panic. They looked at ... and decided something dramatic had to be done to remedy these problems.

Do you think that the teacher-bashing really comes even from a desire to solve problems?

I've had the impression that NCLB was meant to destroy the public schools, and more recently, that the teacher-bashing is meant to destroy our unions. I don't know if that's true, but it sure looks like it.

When you talk about all the other things that are being ignored, that seems intentional too. Distract us with the education issues, so we're not fighting them about all the rest.

This analysis seems awfully kind - not as useful as most of what I've been reading here. (I love your blog.)

Mark Naison said...

Unfortunately, I know all these progressives who were enthusiastic about NCLB and Charter Schools, and teacher accountability rubrics because they thought they would reduce the Black White test score gap. Then when they saw these strategies hijacked by corporate interests, some of them had second thoughts. Diane Ravitch writes about this in her book. NCLB and school reform, she says, were the product of a Left/Right Coalition.

Sue VanHattum said...

I've got to read that book. I don't think of democrats as progressives, generally. Both parties seem quite corporate-controlled, and then they differ on the social issues the corporations don't care too much about.

My congressman, George Miller (D), mentioned in a mailer to constituents that he was one of the authors of NCLB. I wanted to talk to him, but I have never figured out how to do that. (I don't have much free time as a single mom.)

I think Deborah Meier (who I do think of as progressive) supported charter schools at one point. It's often hard to know how something that could be helpful will be twisted by those with the power into something that causes new problems.

Dan tdaxp said...

I'm sure some people cry equality with all their heart, but I doubt any of the power elite do. "Equality" is a cry for the weak.

Education Reform is the Civil Rights struggle of our day: it has nothing to do with equality.