Test ‘Em All

In 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act passed Congress with bipartisan support. George W. Bush signed it into law in January 2002. The main thrust of the bill was to introduce a nationwide testing regime for students in the third through eighth grades. Schools that failed to have a certain percentage of students pass the exams were subjected to increasing penalty — from being required to design and implement plans for improvement, up to being shut down. Incredibly, by 2014, every student in the country, according to the bill, is expected to be able to meet minimum proficiency standards. Schools that don’t meet the 100 percent threshold will be subject to intervention.

The result has been a massive experiment in education, the scope of which I suspect relatively few Americans have really fathomed. With the stakes so high, schools — except private ones that have the ability to opt out — have been re-engineered around the goal of achieving high test scores. Curricula are now centered completely around the tests, which means teaching the reading and math skills as measured by the exams receives top priority, and classes that have nothing to do with the tests, such as music and art, being eliminated.

One motivating idea — initially supported by conservative think tanks but also embraced by the Obama Administration — has been the concept of introducing the “free market” and “accountability” into the classroom. In other words, if kids don’t perform, it’s the fault of their teachers. If you can hold the teachers to account, or fire the ones that don’t “perform,” then the test scores will increase and all will be well. The villains, according to this narrative, are the teachers unions that protect bad teachers. In fact, the rhetoric gets so heated that in the movie Waiting for Superman, the teachers and their unions come across as Lex Luther (to drag the metaphor to its sad conclusion). This consensus has the advantage of having lots and lots of money behind it, with billionaire backers such as Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, and hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson fully on board.

This whole approach strikes me as nonsense for many reasons, but chiefly because this isn’t the free market, it’s public education, a massive, complex system that has to educate everyone from privileged suburban kids to children born in the U.S. but with immigrant parents deported back to their home country. We’re talking about human beings with a multitude of needs, not widgets in the education factory. Besides that, I’ve always thought if you want to introduce “market mechanisms” into  public education, start offering salaries comparable to what a corporate lawyer makes to people who apply to teach in urban schools. The current approach just dumps on the people who are already in the trenches struggling. Obviously there are a bad teachers, but there are also a lot of great ones who are fighting against the odds to do what the best they can with limited resources, in very tough conditions.

For all the hype about charter schools, the most thorough study of charter schools yet has shown on average they fare no better than public schools.  A strong argument can be made that charter schools that have reported good results have done so by attracting the most motivated students and families in their communities, leaving out kids who have special needs or come from especially challenging backgrounds. This is no doubt a positive for some of the kids in the charters, but hardly a policy solution for the system as a whole.

I don’t think that the reform movement and charter schools such as KIPP are devoid of good ideas; quite the opposite. But I think the religious fervor displayed by many reformers — advancing with the help of boatloads of hedge fund cash — is misplaced. Whenever something like “the future of our children” at stake, there seems to be a huge temptation for people to climb up on the high horse. There is no magic bullet, and demonizing teachers is going to head us in the opposite direction of where we want to go.

At any rate, the latest champion of the “new consensus” is Steven Brill, who just published a book called Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Diane Ravitch –U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education under the first George Bush and Bill Clinton, and an early supporter of charter schools who has since done a 180 — takes down Brill’s book in this review.  The whole article should be read, but here’s her general thesis:

The response to the current crisis in education tends to reflect two different worldviews. On one side are those who call themselves “reformers.” The reformers believe that the schools can be improved by more testing, more punishment of educators (also known as “accountability”), more charter schools, and strict adherence to free-market principles in relation to employees (teachers) and consumers (students). On the other are those who reject the reformers’ proposals and emphasize the importance of addressing the social conditions—especially poverty—that are the root causes of poor academic achievement. Many of these people—often parents in the public school system, experienced teachers, and scholars of education—favor changes based on improving curriculum, facilities, and materials, improving teacher recruitment and preparation, and attending to the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children. The critics of test-based accountability and free-market policies do not have a name, so the reformers call them “anti-reform.” It might be better to describe them as defenders of common sense and sound education.

Read the rest here.