Standardized Testing Creates Captive Markets

thumbnail_Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 10.41.23 AM

It’s easy to do business when the customer is forced to buy.

But is it fair, is it just, or does it create a situation where people are coerced into purchases they wouldn’t make if they had a say in the matter?

For example, school children as young as 8-years-old are forced to take a battery of standardized tests in public schools. Would educators prescribe such assessments if it were up to them? Would parents demand children be treated this way if they were consulted? Or is this just a corporate scam perpetrated by our government for the sole benefit of a particular industry that funnels a portion of the profits to our lawmakers as political donations?

Let’s look at it economically.

Say you sold widgets – you know, those hypothetical doodads we use whenever we want to talk about selling something without importing the emotional baggage of a particular product.

You sell widgets. The best widgets. Grade A, primo, first class widgets.

Your goal in life is to sell the most widgets possible and thus generate the highest profit.

Unfortunately, the demand for widgets is fixed. Whatever they are, people only want so many of them. But if you could increase the demand and thus expand the market, you would likewise boost your profits and better meet your goals.

There are many ways you could do this. You could advertise and try to convince consumers that they need more widgets. You could encourage doctors and world health organizations to prescribe widgets as part of a healthy lifestyle. Or you could convince the government to mandate the market.

That’s right – force people to buy your products.

That doesn’t sound very American does it?

In a Democratic society, we generally don’t want the government telling us what to purchase. Recall the hysteria around the Obamacare individual mandate requiring people who could afford to buy healthcare coverage to do so or else face a financial tax penalty. In this case, one might argue that it was justified because everyone wants healthcare. No one wants to let themselves die from a preventable disease or allow free riders to bump up the cost for everyone else.

However, it’s still a captive market though perhaps an innocuous one. Most are far more pernicious.

According to dictionary.com, a captive market is “a group of consumers who are obliged… to buy a particular product, thus giving the supplier a monopoly” or oligopoly. This could be because of lack of competition, shortages, or other factors.

In the case of government mandating consumers to buy a particular product, it’s perhaps the strongest case of a captive market. Consumers have no choice but to comply and thus have little to no protection from abuse. They are at the mercy of the supplier.

It’s a terrible position to be in for consumers, but a powerful one for businesspeople. And it’s exactly the situation for public schools and the standardized testing industry.

Let’s break it down.

These huge corporations don’t sell widgets, they sell tests. In fact, they sell more than just that, but let’s focus right now on just that – the multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble assessments.

Why do our public schools give these tests? Because peer-reviewed research shows they fairly and accurately demonstrate student learning? Because they’ve been proven by independent observers to be an invaluable part of the learning process and help students continue to learn new things?

No and no.

The reason public schools give these tests is because the government forces them. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requires that all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school take certain approved standardized assessments. Parents are allowed to refuse the tests for their children, but otherwise they have to take them.

It wasn’t always this way. When the act was first passed in 1965, it focused almost entirely on providing students with equitable resources. That all changed in 2001, with the passage of No Child Left Behind, a reauthorization of this original bill. And ever since, through every subsequent reauthorization and name change, the federal law governing K-12 schools has required the same standardized testing.

The testing corporations don’t have to prove their products. Those products are required by law.

It’s one of the largest captive markets in existence. That’s some 50.4 million children forced to take standardized assessments. The largest such corporation, Pearson, boasts profits of $9 billion annually. It’s largest competitor, CBT/ McGraw-Hill, makes $2 billion annually. Others include Education Testing Services and Riverside Publishing better known through its parent company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

If many of these companies sound like book publishers, that’s because they are or their parent companies are. And that’s no coincidence. It’s another way they bolster their own market.

Not only do many of these testing corporations make, provide and score standardized assessments, they make and provide the remedial resources used to help students pass.

So if your students are having difficulty passing the state test, often the same company has a series of workbooks or a software package to help remediate them. It’s a good business model. Cash in before kids take the test. Cash in when they take it. And if kids fail, cash in again to remediate them.

Ever wonder why our test scores are so low? Because it’s profitable! The money is all on the side of failure, not success. In fact, from an economic point of view, there is a disincentive to succeed. Not for teachers and students, but for the people who make and grade the tests.

But that’s not all.

Once you have a system in place, things can become static. Once districts already have the books and resources to pass the tests, the testing corporation has less to sell them, the market stagnates and thus their profits go down or at least stop growing.

The solution once again is to create yet another captive market. That’s why Common Core was created.

These are new academic standards written almost exclusively by the testing corporations and forced on districts by federal and state governments. Under President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, $500 million in federal education grants were tied to adopting these new standards. States were coerced to push Common Core on their districts or else lose out on much needed funding.

This resulted in the need for districts to buy all new materials – new text books, new workbooks, new software, etc. It also required the states to order brand new standardized tests. So once again the testing industry cashed in at both ends.

And these tests were more needlessly difficult so more children would fail and need costly remediation.

Was there a pressing academic need for these new standards? Was there any evidence that these standards would increase student learning? Were there even any independent studies conducted to attempt to prove a need?

No. This was a total money grab. It was naked greed from one industry completely enabled by our lawmakers at the federal and state levels.

Republicans made noises against it, and some still do. But consider this – the overwhelming majority of state houses are controlled by the GOP. They have the power to repeal Common Core at any time. Yet almost none of them did or do.

Ask yourself why. It has nothing to do with the Democrats. Republicans are owned by the same masters as the so-called liberals – these same test corporations.

You have to understand that our government is no longer ruled by the principle of one person, one vote. Money has become speech so wealthy corporations get a huge say in what our government does.

If an industry gets big enough and makes enough donations to enough lawmakers, they get the legislation they want. In many cases, the corporations write the legislation and then tell lawmakers to pass it. And this is true for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Standardized testing and Common Core are one pernicious example of our new captive market capitalism collapsing into plutocracy.

Our tax dollars are given away to big business and our voices are silenced.

Forget selling widgets. Our children have BECOME widgets, hostage consumers, and access to them is being bought and sold.

We are all slaves to this new runaway capitalism that has freed itself from the burden of self-rule.

How long will we continue to put up with it?

How long will we continue to be hostages to these captive markets?

Decolonizing Through Dialogue: Authentic Teaching in the Age of Testing and Common Core

waitingsuperman3023

 

If you’re not careful, being a public school teacher can become an act of colonization.

 

This is especially true if you’re a white teacher like me with classes of mostly black students. But it’s not the only case. As an educator, no matter who you are or whom you teach, you’re a symbol of authority and you get that power from the dominant structures in our society.

 

Believe it or not, our schools are social institutions, so one of their chief functions is to help recreate the social order. Students enter as malleable lumps of clay and exit mainly in the shapes we decide upon. Therefore, as an educator, it’s hard not to fall into the habit of molding young minds into the shapes society has decided are appropriate.

 

In some ways this is inevitable. In others, it’s even desirable. But it also runs against the best potential of education.

 

In short, this isn’t what a teacher should be. My job in front of the classroom isn’t to make my students into anything. It’s to give them the opportunity, to generate the spark that turns them into their best selves. And the people who ultimately should be the most empowered in this process are the students, themselves.

 

But it’s easier said than done.

 

The danger is best expressed in that essential book for any teacher, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” where Paulo Freire writes:

 

“Worse yet, it turns them (the students) into ‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles’ to be filed by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.”

 

In most cases this means Eurocentrism – a kind of worship of all things white and denigration of all things black, brown and all pigments between.

 

We take the status quo and find every blind justification for it. In fact, this can become the curriculum, itself. Every counter-narrative, every criticism of the power structure then naturally becomes a danger. Revisionist history becomes history. European philosophy becomes the only accepted definition of rationality. Ideologies of empire become obvious and inescapable. White becomes the norm and racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia all become hidden and internalized.

 

You’ve heard the criticism of curriculums focusing exclusively on dead white males. This is why.

 

And not only does it silence minority voices, it reinforces a false view of the world. Folk singer Tom Paxton made that clear in this classic song:

What Did You Learn In School Today?”

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that Washington never told a lie,
I learned that soldiers seldom die,
I learned that everybody’s free,
And that’s what the teacher said to me,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned the policemen are my friends,
I learned that justice never ends,
I learned that murderers pay for their crimes,
Even if we make a mistake sometimes,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned that war is not so bad,
I learned about the great ones we’ve had.
We fought in Germany and in France
And some day I might get my chance.
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?

I learned our government must be strong;
It’s always right and never wrong!
Our leaders are the finest men
And we elect them again and again,
And that’s what I learned in school today,
That’s what I learned in school

 

We can see why this kind of teaching is valued. It reinforces the status quo. But at its core education is essentially subversive. It supports new ways of thinking. It is by definition revolutionary. When you encourage students to think for themselves, some may come to conclusions that differ from the norm. This is entirely healthy and the only way societies can grow and change. But it’s inimical to the people in power who often are in charge of the educational system. They don’t want new ideas if those ideas will challenge their hold on the reigns of power. Socrates wasn’t forced to drink hemlock, after all, because his lessons supported the Athenian elite.

 

So we’re left with a real quandary. How do teachers remain free to inspire while being a part of a system that doesn’t value inspiration?

 

The natural forces of society work against authentic teaching like gravity pulling at a rocket. Unless you’re actively pushing against the ground, the most natural thing in the world is to just go with the flow. The textbook says this is the way. Teacher training programs often agree. Cooperating teachers who have been in the classroom for decades back it up. This is the best method. Just keep it up.

 

But it’s not. And you shouldn’t. There is another way even though it’s hard to see. And THAT’S often what you need to be doing for your students.

 

Let me pause at this point to make one thing clear: I don’t have all the answers.

 

I am no expert in how to do this. I have fallen victim to it, myself, more often than I’d like to admit. It may be next to impossible to avoid the accepted route much of the time. But if we want to be good teachers, we need to try.

 

If we really want to provide the best service to our students, their parents and the community, we have to break out of the mold. We have to allow our students the chance of seeing the world and not just our version of it.

 

The best ways I’ve found to do this are through selection of texts, use of Socratic Seminars and allowing as much choice as possible in assignments.

 

When selecting texts, you want to be as inclusive as possible. Provide students with the widest possible range of authors and opinions. In Language Arts, this means purposeful multiculturalism. It means authors of color being prized equally with the European cannon. It means women and transgender authors. It means authors subscribing to a wide range of beliefs and skepticisms. And it means accepting genres and forms that are often devalued like song lyrics, rap, Manga, graphic novels and anything that can be considered deep, substantial texts.

 

Finding such sources can be exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating. Unfortunately, not all schools permit teachers to do this to the same degree. Some districts mandate teachers only use certain texts already approved by the school board. Others provide a list of approved texts from which teachers can pick.

 

Each educator will have to find ways to navigate the system. It’s best if you can find support from administrators and in the community for what you want to do and go from there. But this can be a challenging road especially in our era of high stakes testing and Common Core which values authentic teaching not at all.

 

Another essential tool is class discussion. You may or may not be able to broaden the texts being discussed, but you can usually provide space for students to discuss those texts in class.

 

My 8th graders and I use the Socratic Seminar method of discussion extensively.

 

With almost every piece of literature, I write guided open-ended questions for the students to consider. The questions come out of the text, but I try to focus on queries that will get students thinking about how the text relates to their lives, gender and economic issues, questions of theme, race and opportunities to make connections of every type. Eventually, I even allow students to begin writing these questions, themselves.

 

The way I see it, my role is essentially an opportunity maker. It isn’t about finding an answer that will please me, the teacher. It’s about exploring the subject. It’s not about what I think. It’s about what students think. And that makes all the difference.

 

Finally, I’ve found it beneficial to allow students choice in their assignments.

 

There are many ways for students to demonstrate knowledge. They can write essays, take a test, create a collage, design a power point presentation, make an iMovie, act out a scene, etc. I try to expose students to multiple formats the first half of the year and then give them increased choice in how they’d like to express themselves in the second half.

 

Not only does this free students to think, it encourages the deepest kind of learning. It makes the lesson vital, important and intrinsic.

 

All of these approaches share a common feature: dialogue. They put the student, teacher and the author in a vital relationship. They take steps to equalize that relationship so that one isn’t more important than the others. It’s not just what the author, teacher or student thinks – it’s the interrelationship of the three.

 

Ultimately, it’s up to the student to decide the relative value of the results. Sure, they get grades. Sure, the system will judge students based on those grades. But the value of those grades isn’t as important as the resultant learning and the value students place on the experience.

 

To me, that’s the best kind of learning. And it’s the result of authentic teaching and dialogue.

 

It is the most inimical thing to colonization. Students are not enslaved to a system. They aren’t in servitude to a prepackaged group of ideas and norms.

 

They are valued and empowered.

 

Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing for them?

Always Be Testing – The Sales Pitch for Corporate Education Reform

Screen Shot 2017-03-15 at 10.31.13 AM

(After the “Brass Balls” speech in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” by David Mamet.)

 

(Rated PG-13 for language)

 

(Interior: a public school classroom during an after school staff meeting. Teachers are seated at student desks including Singer, Moss and Aaronow. Williamson, a middle school principal, stands in front of the room flanked by Blake, a motivational speaker brought in by the state. Singer is furiously grading papers. The other teachers are pleasantly chatting about trifles before Blake calls the gathering to attention.)

 

[Blake]
Let me have your attention for a moment! So you’re talking about what? You’re talking about that kid you failed, some son of a bitch who doesn’t want to pass, some snot-nosed brat you’re trying to remediate and so forth. Let’s talk about something important. Are they all here?

 

[Williamson]
All but one.

 

[Blake]
Well, I’m going anyway. Let’s talk about something important! (to Singer) Put that colored marker down!

 

[Singer]

But I’m grading papers…

 

(Blake)

I said Put that marker down! Markers are for testers only.

 

(Singer scoffs)

 

[Blake]

Do you think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. I’m here from downtown. I’m here from the Governor and the Legislature. And I’m here on a mission of mercy. Your name’s Singer?

 

[Singer]
Yeah. Mister Singer, actually.

 

[Blake]
You call yourself a teacher, you son of a bitch?

 

[Moss]

I don’t have to listen to this.

 
[Blake]
You certainly don’t, Madam. Cause the good news is – you’re fired. The bad news is you’ve got, all you got, just one week to regain your jobs, starting today. Starting with today’s meeting.

 

[Moss]

What!? The union contract doesn’t allow you to just fire us all without cause.

 

[Blake]

Union!? There ain’t no more union! This is a Right to Work state now, Bitch. And that means you have the right to work – for less – until I fire your sorry ass.

 

(Assorted grumbling)

 

[Blake]

Oh, have I got your attention now? Good. Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s merit pay. As you all know, the teacher whose students get the highest test scores gets a bonus. First prize is a thousand bucks. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize is a box of pencils. Third prize is you’re fired. You get the picture? You’re laughing now?

 

[Singer]

That’s ridiculous. Mrs. Moss teaches the advanced kids. All her students get high test scores.

 

[Blake]

What? And your kids are in the general track? They don’t get high test scores? Then step it up, Singer! You want to get a paycheck in this district, you’ve got to earn a paycheck. You got test prep manuals. The school board paid good money for them. Get those workbooks so your kids can pass the test!

 

[Singer]

Workbooks!? That’s not learning?

 

[Blake]

That’s where you’re wrong. Workbooks are the only learning that counts! Kids take the tests that show whether you’re doing your fucking jobs! You want to keep working here? You want to keep sucking at the public tit? You get those kids to pass the motherfucking tests. And those workbooks do that. They teach kids how to pass the motherfucking tests!

 

[Singer]

But my kids are all from poor homes. They’re malnourished. They don’t get the same medical care. There are no books in their homes. Many of them suffer from PTSD from abuse or exposure to violence….

 

[Blake]

And you think they deserve some kind of entitlement? A medal? Fuck them and fuck you! Let me make one thing perfectly clear – If you can’t get your students to pass shit, you ARE shit, hit the bricks, Pal, and beat it cause you are going out!

 

[Singer]

Are you kidding me right now? You want my students to pass these tests. The tests are unfair. They’re economically and culturally biased. The connection between the tests and learning is weak.

 

[Blake]
The fucking tests are weak? You’re weak. I’ve been in this business for fifteen weeks.

 

[Moss]
Fifteen weeks? Try thirty years.

 

[Blake]

Anyone who’s still a teacher after thirty years should be put to sleep. All you need is a year or two. That’s what I’m doing. Teach for America. Five weeks training, two year commitment, then move on to Washington where you can advise lawmakers on what schools need.

 

[Moss]

What’s your name?

 

[Blake]

Fuck you, that’s my name! You know why, Missy? Cause you drove a Hyundai to get to work. I drove an eighty thousand BMW. That’s my name.

 

[Singer]

I took the bus.

 

[Blake]

(To Singer) And your name is “you’re wanting.” You can’t play in a man’s game. You can’t teach them. (at a near whisper) And you go home and tell your wife your troubles.

(to everyone again) Because only one thing counts in this life! Get them to score above basic. Get them to demonstrate the minimum skills necessary!

 

[Singer]

What about what they think and feel?

 

[Blake]

No one gives a shit about what they think and feel. You hear me, you fucking faggots?

 

(Blake flips over a blackboard which has two sets of letters on it: ABT, and AITP.)

 

[Blake]

A-B-T. A- Always, B-be, T-testing. Always be testing! Always be testing!! A-I-T-P. Attention, interest, testing, passing. Attention — do I have your attention? Interest — are you interested? I know you are because it’s fuck or walk. Your kids pass or you hit the bricks! Testing – you will test those students by Christ!! And passing. A-I-T-P; get out there!! You got the students comin’ in; you think they came in to get out of the rain?

 

[Singer]

Actually, many of my students live in public housing down there by the railroad tracks. You know those slums? Roofs leak in half those units…

 

[Moss]

And for a lot of kids school is the only structure they get all day. Their parents are out working two to three jobs. They have to take care of themselves and often younger siblings.

 

[Singer]

And food. Don’t forget food. If it wasn’t for the free breakfast and lunch program, many of my kids wouldn’t eat…

 

[Blake]

Bullshit. A kid doesn’t walk into this school unless he wants to pass. That’s why they’re here! They want to learn! They’re sitting out there waiting to be told what to do. Are you gonna’ tell ‘em? Are you man enough to tell them?

 

[Moss]

I’m a woman. Most of us are women.

 

[Blake]

(to Moss) What’s the problem, Pal?

 

[Moss]

You think you’re such a hero, you’re so rich. Why are you coming down here and wasting your time on a bunch of bums?

 

(Blake sits and takes off his gold watch)

 

[Blake]
You see this watch? You see this watch?

 

[Moss]
Yeah.

 

[Blake]

That watch cost more than your SMART Board. (Takes off his shoe) You see this shoe? Italian. It costs more than your entire salary. (slicks back his hair) You see this haircut?

 

[Moss]

I get it.

 

[Blake]

Do you? Because I do. I made 26 million dollars last year. How much do you make? You see, Pal, that’s who I am. And you’re nothing. Nice person? I don’t give a shit. Good mother? Fuck you – go home and play with your kids!! (to everyone) You wanna work here? Test!! (to Aaronow) You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksucker? You can’t take this — how can you take the abuse you get in a classroom?! You don’t like it — leave. I can go out there tomorrow with the materials you got, make myself a thousand dollars in merit pay! Tomorrow! In one class! Can you? Can you? Go and do likewise! A-I-T-P!! Get mad! You sons of bitches! Get mad!!

 

[Singer]

Oh, I’m mad. I’m mad that a shallow schmuck like you thinks he can come in here and tell us how to do our jobs. School is about so much more than test scores. You can’t reduce it all to a multiple choice assessment. These kids need a broad curriculum, not just reading and math. They need science, art, social studies, foreign language, recess – all the stuff the rich kids get at the $50,000 a year private schools. And all you want to give them are standardized tests!

 

[Blake]

You know what it takes to teach public school?

 

(He pulls something out of his briefcase. He’s holding up a hammer and a plastic model of a one-room schoolhouse. He puts the model down on Aaronow’s desk and then smashes it to pieces with the hammer.)



[Blake]
It takes school choice to teach in a public school. It takes charter and voucher schools, schools run like a business – not this mamby, pamby, commie, socialist shit!

 

[Moss]

Choice? Is that what you call letting private interests suck up public tax dollars without the same transparency and regulations as public schools? You mean schools not run by an elected school board, who meet in private and do almost whatever they please with our tax dollars? You mean schools that can turn away the hardest to teach children – unlike public schools that take everyone?

 

[Blake]
I’m talking about schools with balls!
(He puts the hammer over his crotch,– he puts it away after a pause)



[Blake]
You want a paycheck? Do like the choice schools do — Go and do likewise, folks. The money’s out there, you pick it up, it’s yours. You don’t–I have no sympathy for you. You wanna go into your classes tomorrow and test and get your kids to pass, it’s yours. If not you’re going to be shining my shoes. Bunch of losers sitting around in a bar. (in a mocking weak voice) “Oh yeah, I used to be a teacher, it’s a tough racket.” (he takes out a software package from his briefcase) This is the new Common Core aligned diagnostic system. It’s like the MAP, Study Island, iReady and iStation – only better.

 

[Singer]

Those programs suck.

 

[Blake]

This is better. With it, your students will sit behind a computer screen for several hours every day taking stealth assessments.

 

[Singer]

You mean mini-tests?

 

[Blake]

No. Not mini-tests. They’ll run through the program and get instruction on every Common Core standard and their answers will show how much they’ve learned.

 

[Singer]

They’re tests. Standardized tests. Every day.

 

[Blake]

This is the Pearson leads. And to you, it’s gold. And you don’t get it. Why? Because to give it to you is just throwing it away. (he hands the software to Williamson) It’s for testers. (sneeringly) Not teachers.

 

I’d wish you good luck but you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you got it. (to Moss as he puts on his watch again) And to answer your question, Pal: why am I here? I came here because the Governor and Legislature are paying me to be here. They’re paying me a lot more than you. But I don’t have to take their money. I can make that tying my shoes. They asked me for a favor. I said, the real favor, follow my advice and fire your fucking ass because a loser is a loser.

 

(He stares at Moss for a sec, and then picking up his briefcase, he leaves the room with Williamson)

 

[Singer]

What an asshole.

 

[Moss]

He may be an asshole but he’s got the state on his side.

 

[Aaronow]

This isn’t what I signed up for. This isn’t why I became a teacher.

 

[Moss]

What did you sign up for?

 

[Aaronow]

TO TEACH! Not to be some… some… glorified real estate agent!

 

[Singer]

It’s funny. We know how crazy all this testing, Common Core, and charter school crap is, but no one wants to hear us.

 

[Moss]

And now without collective bargaining, we can’t even speak up without fear of being fired.

 

[Aaronow]

Fear!? If we don’t push all this teaching to the test nonsense, they’re going to fire us. And if we do, they can replace us with computer programs. We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

 

[Singer]

Not if people wake up. (Moss and Aaronow scoff) Not if the public takes a stand, if parents and teachers opt their kids out of the tests…

 

[Aaronow]

Didn’t you hear the man!? They’re putting the kids on computer programs to test them every day!

 

[Singer]

Then we fight every day. We protest every day. We get parents together and other concerned citizens and we go to the capital and we fight. Call your representative. Go to your Senator’s office. Stage a sit in. Hold a mock trial. Write a blog parodying a scene from a famous movie. Get public attention. Make some noise.

 

[Aaronow]

And you think people will care? You think people will know?

 

[Singer]

We’ll teach them. We’ll show them. That’s what we do.

 

[Moss]

We have no other choice.

 

[Aaronow]

Always be testing?

 

[Singer]

Always be teaching.

 

(Curtain)

 

The Original Scene from GlenGarry Glen Ross:

Pittsburgh Public Schools Advised to Repeat Same Mistakes Over and Over and Over…

screen-shot-2017-01-19-at-8-18-55-am

 

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

-Albert Einstein (attributed)


“AAAUUURGH!”

-Charlie Brown

 

 

If I crash my car right into a wall, the worst thing to do would be to get into another car and crash it right into the same wall!

 

But that’s what the Pittsburgh Post Gazette thinks city school administrators should do.

 

A new comprehensive report about Pittsburgh Public Schools concludes that standardization and Common Core have produced zero progress in the district over the last decade.

 

And the editorial board of the city’s largest remaining newspaper says this means administrators should stay the course – indeed, double down on test prep and uniformity.

 

The 175-page report by The Council of the Great City Schools affirms that the district showed little to no improvement in the last 10 years.

 

“In fact, analysis of student achievement trends shows little to no improvements since 2007,” the report went on. “Although some scores went up and others went down over the period, achievement gaps are about the same — if not wider — than they were when the work started.”

 

You would think this would be a scathing indictment of administrators during this time who focused on test prep and uniformity to the exclusion of more student-centered reforms. In particular, during the same time covered in the report, administrators paid for new curriculum designed to standardize instruction across schools and grade levels. They instituted a value-added bonus system rewarding principals who run the schools with the highest test scores. They even increased the length of the school day to drive achievement.

 

They did all this, and it didn’t help a bit.

 

Some might see that as proof of the error of past ways.

 

But not the Post Gazette.

 

In the minds of the editorial board, this is a ringing endorsement of those policies that got us nowhere.

 

Mark Roosevelt, superintendent from 2005 to 2010, and Linda Lane, superintendent from 2010 to 2016, are actually singled out by the paper as heroes of reform!

 

Wait a minute. These are the people in charge when the district apparently was stalled. If anything, these functionaries should bear the blame, not get a pat on the back. We should do anything BUT continuing their work which lead to this dismal report.

 

But instead, the editorial board writes, “[T]he work of Mr. Roosevelt and Ms. Lane was not in vain. They inaugurated a coherent system of reforms, made the federal benchmark known as ‘adequate yearly progress’ twice in three years, restored the district’s credibility with the foundation community, forged a closer relationship with the teachers union and generated a new sense of optimism. The course they charted is worth revisiting.”

 

What!?

 

Voters are fed up with number-worshipping flunkies who don’t see kids as anything but data points. That’s why the community has consistently replaced number crunching school directors and administrators with people who have a new vision of education – a community schools approach.

 

The editorial board may look down their noses at current Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet who took over just this summer and the positive changes he’s been making with the new progressive school board, but he’s only doing what the public wants. And given this new report, a new direction is exactly what Pittsburgh Public Schools needs!

 

In the ivory tower of big media, they don’t see it this way.

 

In fact, the PG goes so far as to imply that Dr. Hamlet and the new board are somehow responsible for Roosevelt and Lane’s failures.

 

“It may be that they [Roosevelt and Lane] did not stay long enough for their efforts to take root,” writes the Post Gazette, “that the reforms became too cumbersome to manage or that they were unable to fully impose their will on a sprawling school district with many constituencies.”

 

Please. Dr. Hamlet’s presence has not halted Roosevelt and Lane’s march toward progress. This report demonstrates that they achieved very little. Moreover, Dr. Hamlet has only been in office since June. He hasn’t been in the district long enough to flush student test scores down the toilet – especially when for more than nine of those years he was working in Florida.

 

Neither can you blame the community for being fed up with corporate education reforms that apparently don’t work.

 

No. If this report by a consortium of the nation’s 70 largest urban school districts shows failure in ‘burgh schools, that belongs to the bosses at the top during the last 10 years. If this is a failure, it is Roosevelt’s and Lane’s, not Dr. Hamlet’s. Nor can you place it at the feet of school directors, most of whom are new to the board.

 

But the media mavens can be forgiven slightly for coming to such an odd conclusion, because it’s supported by the organization that wrote the report – the Council of the Great City Schools. After all, the Council suggested this push toward standardization in the first place.

 

 

In February 2006, this same Council advised Pittsburgh to “recommit to a standardized, districtwide curriculum to ensure that every classroom is focused on a common set of rigorous expectations for student learning.”

 

And now that same Council is saying that doing so resulted in a fat goose egg.

 

Great advice, Guys!

 

Pittsburgh residents spent $156,545 of taxpayer money to find that out.

 

Still, it’s not a total waste. It’s probably the most comprehensive look at the district in recent history and drew expertise from two dozen executives from eight different city school systems. It also included interviews with 170 staff and community members.

 

The third-party review was part of Dr. Hamlet’s transition plan and “acts as a blueprint” to transform the district, he said. It includes a detailed review of the district’s organization structure, staffing levels, instructional programs, financial operations, business services, disciplinary policies, and research and data functions.

 

Of particular interest is school discipline data showing that the district has an “extraordinarily high” suspension rate compared with other cities and that its disciplinary actions disproportionately affect students of color. In fact, this seems to justify moves by Dr. Hamlet to enact a restorative justice disciplinary program instead of a strict zero tolerance policy.

The report includes numerous suggestions for improvements across the board including revamping the district’s central office structure and updating the district’s outdated PreK-5 literary curriculum – initiatives that are already underway.

 

But when it comes to a repeated call for standardization and canned curriculum across the district, it should be ignored.

 

Put simply, we’ve tried that crap. It doesn’t help.

 

We’ve got to get beyond our love for standardized tests. We know that poor students don’t do as well on these types of assessments as middle class or wealthy students. It should be no surprise, then, that an urban district like Pittsburgh with a high percentage of impoverished students will also have low test scores.

 

It’s the poverty, stupid!

 

We need to do something to address that directly, not attack a district that’s lost almost $1 billion annually in state funding for the last five years.

 

Moreover, this obsession with Common Core is completely unfounded. It has never been demonstrated that aligning curriculum to the Core will increase test scores or increase learning. In fact, there is mounting research to show that these academic standards are developmentally inappropriate and actually prevent authentic learning – especially in reluctant learners.

 

The Council of the Great City Schools is enamored with these policies because the organization has taken millions of dollars in donations from the Gates Foundation and other organizations connected with the testing industry. Even many charitable foundations have aligned themselves with this lucrative business model where corporations cash in when students fail and then cash in again by selling them the remediation and Common Core texts they convince us we need to pass the tests.

 

The editorial board of the Post Gazette is likewise blinded by dollar signs and data.

 

Like far too many non-educators, they give far too much credence to a person’s bank account than her expertise. The same people pushing testing and new academic standards also benefit financially from them. They have created at least one PAC in the city with deep pockets looking to unseat unsympathetic board members and discredit Dr. Hamlet so that they can install their own representatives.

 

This is a battle with plain sense and logic. It’s also a battle for control of Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Don’t Be Fooled: Betsy DeVos Still Loves Common Core

screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-8-00-56-pm

Poor Betsy DeVos.

President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Education Secretary has spent her entire adult life advocating for Common Core, but now she has to pretend like she doesn’t like it.

In fact, if you point out any of the multiple projects that she supports boosting Common Core, the multi-billionaire Republican mega-donor will probably say you’re promoting “fake news.”

But facts are facts.

She’s a board member of Jeb Bush’s pro-Common Core think tank, Foundation for Excellence in Education, where she hangs out with prominent Democratic education reformers like Bill Gates and Eli Broad. But she says that somehow doesn’t mean she likes it.

She founded, funds and serves on the board of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), an organization dedicated to the implementation and maintenance of Common Core. But somehow that doesn’t mean she’s for the standards.

She’s even spent millions lobbying politicians in her home state of Michigan asking them NOT to repeal Common Core. But somehow that doesn’t mean she’s in favor of it.

It must be a hard position to be in.

Her entire nomination for Trump’s cabinet is contingent on convincing the public that she hates this thing that he explicitly campaigned against but she favored.

Rarely has an education policy been such a political hot potato as Common Core. Typically Republicans hate it and Democrats love it. However, little of this has to with its actual merits – or lack thereof.

Common Core is a set of academic standards saying what students should know in each grade. Nonetheless, these standards are deeply unpopular with teachers, students, parents and the general public. Part of this stems from the undemocratic way state legislatures were bribed to enact them by the Obama administration in many cases before they were even done being written and often circumventing the voting process altogether. Other criticisms come from the way the standards were devised almost entirely by standardized test corporations without input from experts in the field like child psychologists and classroom teachers. Finally, the standards get condemnation for what they do to actual classrooms – narrowing the curriculum, promoting excessive test prep, increased paperwork, the purchase of new text and work books and requiring new and more unfair standardized assessments.

As a Republican, DeVos must do everything she can to distance herself from this policy.

It’s just that her history of advocating for it gets in the way.

She even acknowledges it.

When she was nominated by Trump, one of the first things she did was publish a statement on her Website explaining how very much she hates Common Core – despite appearances to the contrary.
“Have organizations that I have been a part of supported Common Core? Of course. But that’s not my position,” she says on her Website.

And it makes perfect sense. How many times have you, yourself, given millions of dollars to a cause that you don’t support? Who hasn’t founded an organization called “I Love Apples” because of your deep hatred for the fruits?

It’s kind of like Colonel Sanders admitting that he doesn’t actually approve of people eating fried chicken. Or maybe Milton Hershey supporting a ban on chocolate.

Yeah… That’s not going to convince anybody.

What DeVos needs is a new narrative, a new story to tell people to convince them that she’s really and truly against Common Core. And at Trump’s victory rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Dec. 9, she tried it out on the crowd.

“It’s time to make education great again in this country…” she told the crowd. “This means letting states set their own high standards and finally putting an end to the federalized Common Core.”

Ah! So it’s not Common Core, per se, that she’s against. She’s against FEDERALIZED Common Core.

Shoddy academic standards designed by non-educators are just fine so long as they don’t come from the federal government? Academic standards that are developmentally inappropriate are okay if Big Brother didn’t force you to adopt them?

Well, apparently.

DeVos doesn’t want a world without Common Core. She wants one where the Core isn’t tainted with federalism. If the states somehow magically decided all by themselves that these exact standards were just peachy, that would be fine with her. It’s just that we can’t let the Feds tell us what to do.

In my book, that’s still being in favor of Common Core.

Moreover, it’s terribly disingenuous because not so long ago, DeVos’ organization, GLEP, was trying to convince people that Common Core actually wasn’t federal at all. In fact, that’s why the organization favors it.

According to GLEP’s Mission statement, one of its priorities is:

Implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)
This is a state-driven effort to create a strong and consistent framework which will make our students internationally competitive. 45 states (including Michigan) have adopted the CCSS.”

Which begs the question – if Common Core isn’t federal, what does DeVos think is wrong with it?

Answer: Nothing!

This is the kind of wordplay you expect from Democratic apologists. You hear the similar things from Gates, David Coleman or even Hillary Clinton. It’s political rebranding: We don’t support Common Core so much. We support “high academic standards” that will ensure kids are “college and career ready.”

It’s all just double speak and spin.

In reality, establishment Democrats AND Republicans support Common Core. It’s just regular folks like you and me who hate it.

You don’t believe me? Then ask yourself this: in the more than 30 state legislatures controlled by Republicans, why haven’t they repealed Common Core already?

Seriously. They could legally get rid of Common Core in more than half of the country tomorrow, but they don’t. Why? Answer: People like DeVos.

In Michigan, Republicans control the legislature. When lawmakers were debating if they should implement Common Core in the first place, DeVos and GLEP lobbied to move forward and won. Then in Spring of 2015, lawmakers considered two bills to repeal and replace Common Core. DeVos partnered with Governor Rick Snyder (a Republican) and the Michigan Coalition for Higher Standards to oppose both bills.

If that’s not being in favor of Common Core, I don’t know what is.

From my point of view, the rest of her educational ideas are little better. She supports school vouchers and increasing charter schools.

These are terrible ideas for reasons I have enumerated here and here. But even if you’re in favor of them, imagine what a pro-Common Core Education Secretary could do with a national school choice program.

If federal tax dollars are going to follow students to parochial and private schools, DeVos could make adopting Common Core a prerequisite to getting those monies.

Certainly she’ll call it something else, but it will be almost the same academic standards, freely chosen, because if you don’t, you won’t get any of this delicious tax money. Don’t forget, this is similar to why we have Common Core in the public schools – we were bribed.

That’s what the Department of Education has done for the last few decades. It tries to encourage education policy at the state level by offering tax money if you do its bidding.

If the federal government was offering money to do things everyone supports like expanding pre-K programs or after school tutoring, that would be fine. But the federal government has been pushing an agenda on our schools – I think that’s bad no matter which political party does it.

Common Core is big business. It has generated obscene profits for the testing and publishing industry. Likewise, school privatization is a great way to get rich – reducing regulations and offering free tax money to any private or charter school operator! It’s manna from heaven for every flim-flam man and con artist from here to Syria.

Trump knows something about defrauding students. He ran his own fake business school, Trump University. Just imagine how much money he and DeVos can make for themselves and their billionaire buddies with the education reforms being proposed!

And worst of all, at the end of the day we still won’t be rid of Common Core. It will just expand into new markets – I mean, schools.

So if you support DeVos, fine. But don’t delude yourself into thinking she’s against Common Core. She still loves it just as much as she ever did.


screen-shot-2016-12-11-at-8-25-59-pm

Why Teaching to the Test is Educational Malpractice

thumbnail_screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-12-20-50-pm

Malpractice is defined as “careless, wrong, or illegal actions by someone (such as a doctor) who is performing a professional duty.”

In some fields it can get you arrested. In most it’s at least frowned upon.
In education, however, it’s encouraged.

In fact, as a teacher, you can be singled out, written up or even fired for refusing to engage in malpractice. You are bullied, cajoled and threatened into going along with practices that have been debunked by decades of research and innumerable case studies.

Take the all-too-common practice of teaching to the test.

Not only do students and teachers hate it, but the practice has been shown to actually harm student learning. Yet it is the number one prescription handed down from administrators and policymakers to bring up failing scores on high stakes standardized tests.

Never mind that those same test scores have likewise been proven to be invalid, racially and culturally biased and inextricably linked with parental income. When the only goal is raising student test scores, what’s a little malpractice between friends?

In this article, I will explain the top five reasons why this policy is harmful. But first, we need to define our terms. There is a multitude of practices that are sometimes called teaching to the test. What exactly are we talking about here?

Assessment expert W. James Popham provides a helpful distinction: “curriculum teaching” vs. “item teaching.” Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions. For instance, if the test is expected to include questions about decimals, the teacher will cover the full range of knowledge and skills related to decimals so students understand what they are, know how to manipulate them, understand how to use them to solve more complex problems, and are able to communicate about them.

By contrast, item teaching involves narrowing instruction, organizing lessons around look-a-like questions that are taken directly from the test or represent the kinds of questions most likely to be found on the test. In this way, the teacher only provides the chunks of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on exams. For instance, item teachers might drill students on a certain set of vocabulary words that are expected to be assessed rather than employing instructional strategies that help students build a rich vocabulary that best contributes to strong reading comprehension.

To be clear, when we talk about teaching to the test, we’re talking about item teaching. I maintain that there is nothing wrong with curriculum teaching. In fact, that is the preferred method of educating. It is a best practice. The problem is when we resort to endless drills and give students innumerable questions of the exact type we expect to be on the test.

Here’s why item teaching is to be avoided:

1) It Makes the Tests Even More Invalid

As noted, standardized tests are terrible assessments. They do not properly or fairly assess intelligence or academics. However, whatever validity they have is further eroded when schools teach to the test.

The problem is this: if all you want to do is artificially raise test scores, teaching to the test is effective. It works. This is why middle class or wealthier families often pay to enroll their children in a test-prep course before their kids take or retake the SAT exam. It most likely will boost their children’s scores. However, it defeats the purpose of the test, which is to predict academic success in college. All it shows definitively is that these children come from families wealthy enough to provide private tutoring.

I say it “artificially” raises test scores because it is not connected with a similar increase in learning. Students don’t learn more about reading or math from test prep. They learn how to take the standardized math and/or reading tests.

There is even evidence suggesting that real, authentic learning may suffer under these circumstances. But more on that later.

2) It Steals Instruction Time

There are only so many days in the school year. Taking away class time to focus on test prep reduces the amount of time where students are authentically learning. We already take away weeks of class time for the actual assessments. Then many schools take additional time for practice tests. Now we’re losing even more time to teach students how to take the tests.

How much time is lost? According to a report by the American Federation of Teachers, public schools spend an average of 19 days to a month and a half on testing and test prep combined. However, some districts spend much more time on teaching to the test than the average. One school included in the study spent an average of 20 to 40 minutes a day on testing. Moreover, this time increases dramatically in the most highly tested grades and poorest schools.

Taxpayers compensate teachers to teach – not game the system. Students want to learn real skills, not advanced ways to jump through hoops. It can be argued that teaching to the test robs everyone of time that can be better spent.

3) It Dumbs Down the Curriculum

Teaching to the test is not real teaching. Students are not being taught authentic skills. Researchers Lauren Resnick and Chris Zurawsky call it a recipe for bad teaching. “When teachers match their teaching to what they expect to appear on state tests of this sort,” they write, “students are likely to experience far more facts and routines than conceptual understanding and problem-solving in their curriculum…. Narrow tests…can become the de facto curriculum.”

The modern economy is not crying out for the next generation of test-takers. Economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane warn that all kinds of jobs, but particularly higher paying jobs, increasingly require more complex critical thinking skills and much fewer rote and routine skills. Their 30-year analysis shows a steadily declining demand for workers who are able to do rote tasks and a skyrocketing demand for “expert thinking” skills. Employers want prospective employees with the ability to solve problems that require more than simply following rules or applying old knowledge to new situations. They need workers with complex thinking and communication skills.

In short, teaching to the test greatly reduces the depth of study and turns it into the same kind of mechanical process employers aren’t looking for at the expense of the kinds of skills they demand.

But that’s not all. An over-emphasis on the subjects tested, inevitably narrows the curriculum. Non-tested disciplines receive less attention during the school day. Time is diverted from subjects like physical education, music, and drama so that teachers can provide more instructional time on commonly tested areas like reading, writing and math.

The result is far less well-rounded students who are instilled with the false assumption that certain vital endeavors are meaningless or certainly subordinate to basic skills.

4) It Actually Hurts Learning

Not only does item teaching dumb down what’s being taught, it actually erodes basic skill development even in tested subjects. Explicit instruction in test taking strategies is not educationally neutral. It’s harmful.

For instance, researcher Monty Neill explained how test-taking strategies can erode authentic reading comprehension skills. Standardized reading tests often present students with a long passage followed by several multiple choice questions. One of the most common strategies is for students to read the questions first before reading the passage. In many cases you don’t have to read the passage to answer the question. Even if you do need to read it, the question provides students with a clue that they can look for when skimming the passage for the right answer. However, independent evaluators found that over-reliance on this strategy can lead to children who can find the correct answer on the test but cannot explain what the passage is about. The implication is that there may be a significant number of test wise students who lack the basic skills needed to be successful in higher education.

Additionally, even where tested subjects like reading and math are emphasized, the non-tested areas of these disciplines are underutilized. Reading, for example, isn’t just about passage comprehension. It includes listening and speaking skills that are not assessed on high stakes tests. So students can get advanced scores without having the requisite skills for mastery of the subject.

This is especially important for students going on to college. They will be expected to do many things they were not tested on such as making an oral presentation, conducting a science experiment, or writing a research report. For all the talk of Common Core aligned tests making students “college and career ready,” teaching to the test undermines this goal.

5) It Hurts Morale of Students and Teachers

And then we come to perhaps the worst part: motivation. Young children don’t need a reason to learn. They’re naturally curious and soak up knowledge like a sponge. However, as children mature and enter the higher grades, that natural curiosity can be damaged, dampened and even destroyed with long-lasting effects.

Teaching to the test turns school into a completely extrinsic exercise. It’s a game. Learn how to take the test so you can get a good score – don’t work hard to learn things you really care about. It should come as no surprise then that such emphasis has a negative impact on intrinsic motivation according to Edward Miller and Roberta Tovey’s Motivation, Achievement and Testing. In fact, though test prep gives students the tools to artificially raise their scores, it also can remove the motivation to get good scores in the first place. In short, it undermines the reason kids come to school at all: to learn and self-actualize.

And the damage isn’t limited to students. Item teaching also removes the joy of teaching for the teacher. It exacerbates feelings of frustration and disillusionment with the entire testing process. Wayne E. Wright (2002) documented the effects of high-stakes testing and the increased prevalence of teaching to the test in an inner-city California school. One teacher summarized her frustration with the schools test driven agenda by commenting:

“The most pathetic thing is that up until two years ago, I counseled young people, “Come into teaching. It is a wonderful profession.” Now I counsel them to find something else because this is not the profession I would choose for myself.”

(Wright, 2002, p. 28).

Recommendations and Conclusions

We’ve seen how damaging test prep can be. But does that mean it should never be utilized?

I don’t think there is definitive evidence to make that conclusion. Item teaching is not necessarily bad if done to best effect, under strict control and as minimally as possible. Doing this once or twice probably won’t poison the entire act of teaching, but it also won’t have a dramatic effect on the scores. Perhaps we should adopt a policy of cautious moderation and tread carefully.

However, it is clear that teachers should emphasize curriculum teaching over teaching to the test. Focus on student development of real critical thinking skills and the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. In this way students will be more likely to apply their new cognitive abilities and content knowledge in areas that extend beyond the confines of a particular test. In short, they’ll actually learn stuff – the important stuff – not just how to take a standardized test.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Administrators and policymakers often direct teachers to spend increasing amounts of class time doing item teaching. Almost every state includes hundreds of released test questions for just this purpose. An entire publishing industry exists to create and distribute item teaching materials. This is, in fact, one of the major ways the test companies make their money – make tests so hard kids fail and then sell schools the test prep materials to get students to pass.

What’s needed more than anything is to educate the educators – or at least their bosses. Teachers need to understand how harmful the policies are they’re being directed to undertake. Administrators need to understand that teaching to the test has diminishing returns in the long run. And our policymakers need to wake up and smell the coffee.

Test scores are neither adequate nor sufficient indicators of school success. Students cannot be reduced to numbers and evaluated as if they were produce.

Until we realize that as a bone-deep truth, we will continue to fail students as they continue to fail us. And our teachers will be continually forced to violate their deepest principles in order to stay in the classroom.


ENDNOTES:

Levy, F., & Murnane, R. J. (2004). The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Miller, E., & Tovey, R. (Eds.). (1996). Motivation, achievement, and testing. Boston: Harvard Education Press.
Neil, M. (2003b). The dangers of testing. Educational Leadership, 60(5), 43-46.
Popham, W. J. (2001, March). Teaching to the test? Educational Leadership, 58(6), 16’20.

Resnick, L., & Zurawsky, C. (2005, spring). Getting back on course: Standards-based reform and accountability. American Educator. Retrieved June 30, 2006, from http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/issues/spring05/resnick.htm

Wright, W. E. (2002). The effects of high stakes testing in an inner city elementary school: The curriculum, the teachers, and the English language learners. Current Issues in Education, 5(5). Online at http://cie.ed.asu.edu/volume5/number5.

Standardizing Whiteness: the Essential Racism of Standardized Testing

cookie_cutter_s

“As a method of social production, as well as social reproduction, standardized testing has had serious cultural implications, not the least of which has been the eternal question of American identity. Consistent with notions of American identity, standardized testing, as an opposition to a cultural other, represents the normalization of whiteness, richness, and maleness.”
-Andrew Hartman

“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
-Toni Morrison

We talk about standardized testing as if we don’t really understand what it is.

We say we want No child left behind!

And then we pass a law named after that very sentiment that ensures some students MUST be left behind.

We say we want Every student to succeed!

And then we pass a law named after that very sentiment that ensures every student will NOT succeed.

It would be absurd if not for the millions of children being forced to endure the harsh reality behind our pretty words.

It’s not these ideals that are the problem. It’s standardized testing.

Researchers, statisticians, and academics of every stripe have called for an end to high stakes testing in education policy. Parents, students and teachers have written letters, testified before congressional committees, protested in the streets, even refused to take or give the tests. All to deaf ears.

The federal government still requires all students in 3-8th grade and once in high school to take standardized tests.

But these assessments are graded on a curve. A certain amount of students are at the bottom, a certain amount are at the top, and most are clustered in the middle. This would be true if you were testing all geniuses or all people with traumatic brain injuries.

It doesn’t matter how smart your test takers are. There will always be this bell curve distribution. That’s how the tests are designed. So to talk about raising test scores is nonsensical. You can raise scores at school A or School B, but the total set of all test takers will always be the same. And some students will always fail.

But that isn’t even the worst part.

Standardization, itself, has certain consequences. We seem to have forgotten what the term even means. It’s defined as the act of evaluating someone or something by reference to a standard.

This socket wrench is a good socket wrench because it most closely resembles some ideal socket wrench. This McDonald’s Big Mac is good because it resembles the ideal McDonald’s Big Mac.

That’s what we’re doing to people – children in fact. We’re evaluating them based on their resemblance to some ideal definition of what a child should know and what a child should be.

But children are not socket wrenches nor are they Big Macs. It is not so easy to reduce them to their component parts and say this is good and that is bad.

When you try to abstract them to that point, it is impossible to remove various essential factors of their identity – race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. Nor would it be admirable if you could, because you would have abstracted to the point where the individual is no longer visible or valued. A child raised in poverty is simply not the same as a child from a privileged upbringing. A child from a culture that values cooperation is not the same as a child from a culture that values individual achievement. And that’s often a good thing.

But when you define a standard, an ideal, you make certain choices – you privilege some attributes and denigrate others. Since the people creating the tests are almost exclusively upper middle class white people, it should come as no surprise that that is the measure by which they assess success.

Is it any wonder then that poor kids and children of color don’t score as well on these tests? Is it any wonder that upper middle class white kids score so well?

We’ve known this for almost a century. Standardized tests do a poor job of assessing intelligence or knowledge. Those things are too complex and the tests are too simple. If you’re evaluating something equally simple like basic addition and subtraction, these tests can work alright. But if you’re trying to get at something complex like critical thinking or creativity, they end up doing little more than prizing the way some people think and not others. In short, they elevate the thought processes most associated with rich white kids.

It doesn’t mean poor and/or black children are any less intelligent. It just means rich white kids have the things for which the test designers are looking. Some of this is due to economic factors like greater access to private tutoring, books in the home, parents with more time to read to their kids, coming to school healthy and more focused. However, a large portion is due to the very act of taking tests that are created to reflect white upper class values and norms.

Think about it. Almost all the questions are field tested before they become a permanent part of the exam. Students are given a question that doesn’t count to their final score, but test makers tabulate how many kids get it right or wrong. So when most white kids answer a field tested question correctly and most black kids get it wrong, it still becomes a permanent test question because there are so few blacks relative to whites. Maybe it’s a question that references sun tan lotion, something with which darker skinned people don’t have as much experience. Imagine if a question referencing the hair care practices of  black people became a test item. White people would have difficulty with it because they can’t easily relate. But the field testing process doesn’t allow that because it normalizes whiteness.

So black kids stumble while white kids have an easier time. We even have a name for it: the racial proficiency gap.

Many well-intentioned progressive voices have bemoaned this problem and wondered how to solve it. But it’s not the scores that are the problem. It’s the assessments. They are doing exactly what they were designed to do.

That’s right. You cannot have such obvious, historical problems perpetuated year-after-year, decade-after-decade, and still think they are mere unintended consequences.

This is how the system was designed to work. This is how it’s always been designed to work.

If you were going to create a racist and classist school system from scratch, what would you do? How would you go about it?

You’d need the lower classes to have SOME mediocre education so they are able to do the menial work that keeps society running. But only so much. Education as a social ladder is all well and good as propaganda. But you don’t want that ladder to lead out of the basement for more than a few.

You need something that will create a hierarchy with people of color at the bottom and poor whites only slightly better off so they can feel ennobled compared to their darker subordinates.

You need a biased sorting mechanism – something that allows you to put students into privileged and unprivileged categories but that will look to all the world like it was doing so fairly. It would have to appear like you were choosing students based on merit.

You’d need something like standardized test scores.

This is how these assessments have functioned from their very beginnings.

When Carl Brigham and Robert Yerkes, U.S. Army psychologists during WWI, designed the alpha and beta intelligence tests to determine which soldiers deserved to be officers, they were creating a pseudoscientific justification for white privilege. They used biased and unfair assessments to “prove” that rich white folks were best suited to give orders, and the rest of us belonged in the trenches.

Brigham and Yerkes were drawing upon eugenics, also called “racial hygiene” or “scientific racism.” This was a radical misreading of Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin. Eugenicists thought positive traits such as intelligence were widespread in Northwestern European races and almost nonexistent in others. Moreover, negative traits such as laziness and criminality were common in nonwhites and almost absent in those same Northwestern Europeans.

“We should not work primarily for the exclusion of intellectual defectives but rather for the classification of men in order that they may be properly placed,” wrote Yerkes.

THIS is the basis of standardized testing.

After the war, Brigham took the same principles to create the Scholastic Aptitude Test or S.A.T. – in principle the same exam still taken by 2.1 million teenagers every year to ensure they get into their chosen college.

The test was further refined by fellow eugenicist Lewis Terman, Professor of Education at Stanford University and originator of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. Together these three men created the foundations for the modern field of standardized testing. And make no mistake – its axiomatic principle is still that some races are genetically superior and others are inferior.

Or as Terman put it:

“A low level of intelligence is very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among Negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come… They constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.”

After WWII, the eugenicist brand suffered from comparison to the Nazis who had been inspired by the findings of Brigham, Yerkes and Terman among others. In the post war years, we’ve discarded the overtly racist language but kept the assessments. Yet they still function the same way – sorting out blacks and the poor while prizing the rich and white.

This information is not secret. It is not kept under lock and key in some hidden military base somewhere. It’s accessible to anyone with Internet access or a library card.
We ignore it, because otherwise it would destabilize the current power structure – the corporate education policies that drive school practices in our country. We close our eyes and pretend it isn’t happening.

But it is.

“Standardized tests are the last form of legalized discrimination in the US,” said Education and Psychology Prof. Phil Harris.

With them you can give rich and middle class whites every advantage while withholding the same from students of color. And we don’t call it racism or classism because we pretend the whites earned their privileges by their test scores.

“We are using the testocracy as a proxy for privilege,” said civil rights theorist Lanni Guinier. Test scores are the excuse for prejudicial and unjust practices that would be impossible without them.

For instance, if you really wanted to help someone who’s struggling, you might offer extra help. But low test scores are used as the reason for withholding that help. We actually use these invalid scores as a means of demeaning and firing poor black kids’ teachers – as if anything they could do could completely overcome biased assessments and poverty. In this way, we not only remove those already in place to help these kids, we ensure few people will volunteer to take their place.

And when you have a teacher shortage in these poor urban neighborhoods, you can use that to justify further deprivations. Instead of teachers with 4-year education degrees, you can hire lightly trained Teach for America temps – college grads who’ve taken no coursework in education beyond a six weeks cram session.

And if the parents of these children complain, you can open charter schools to pull a quick bait and switch. Make them feel like they have a choice when really you’re pulling the rug out from under them. You provide them with a school with none of the safeguards of a traditional public institution – no elected school board, no transparency on how tax dollars are spent, little oversight, a right to refuse any student they wish, etc. And when the school goes belly up, these kids will be pushed back to their former traditional public school that has had to make due with less funding and now can provide even fewer  services than it could before students jumped ship.

Using standardized test scores to judge not just students but whole schools, you can destabilize the entire system of public education. Charter schools and traditional public schools fight over ever-dwindling funding, one required to prove everything it does, the other able to do whatever it wants until it closes with little to no consequences for charter operators who take the money and run.

The US Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs Board that we can’t have “separate but equal” schools because when they’re separate, they’re rarely equal. But somehow that doesn’t apply to charter schools.

Somehow we’ve stopped caring about integration – one of the central victories of the Civil Rights movement! This plays right into the hands of the corporate education reformers. They have done everything they can to increase segregation because it makes it so much easier to privilege rich white kids and crush poor black ones.

They don’t want an equal mix of black and white, rich and poor in our schools. That would make it much harder to select against one class of student while boosting another.

They need to keep the races and classes as separate as possible. Charter schools help in this regard, but they would be insufficient without the help from many white families who flee from these “other” darker complected kids. It’s just another way to send more funding to white kids and less to poor black kids. They say it’s based on local property taxes. That way they can pretend it’s all fair and above board. Rich folks have a right to be able to give their kids the best, and if poor folks can’t afford to do the same, who do you expect to pick up the tab?

Oh! And let’s not forget setting “high academic standards” while all this is going on. They throw out everything that’s been working and come up with a Common Core of knowledge that all kids need to learn. Don’t include black and brown history, culture or the arts – just the stuff the business community thinks is valuable because they know so much about what’s really important in life. And have the whole thing written up by non-educators and non-psychologists and don’t bother testing it out to make sure it works.

Your rich white kids will have no problem jumping through these hoops. But your poor black and brown kids will stumble and fall – just as planned.

This is what has become of our public schools.

This is corporate education reform.

This is our racist, classist school system.

And it’s all based on standardized testing – a perfectly legal system of normalizing rich whiteness.