The Schools We Want


 

One month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, corporate executives and state governors descended on IBM’s Executive Conference Center in Palisades, New York to devise the next round of “standards-based” reforms at the 2001 National Education Summit. As with the three prior summits—in 1989, 1996, and 1999—no students, teachers, or parents were invited. The goal of the latest summit was to increase pressure on states to expand testing for high school graduation, grade promotion, and “accountability.” This summit (largely ignored by the media) and its predecessors are key elements in the bipartisan strategy of elite stakeholders to achieve more direct means of corporate/state regulation and administration of knowledge in public schools.

The National Education Summits have played a major role in fostering the test-driven educational reforms supported by Democrats and Republicans, the past three presidential Administrations as well as a coalition of groups that include teacher union leaders, the National Governor’s Association, the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Previous summits succeeded in pressing nearly every state to write standards for what students should know and implement tests to assure that teaching and learning were aligned to state standards.

Held 30 miles north of the rubble of the World Trade Center, the 2001 education summit was sparsely attended. Only 15 of the expected 25 state governors attended. The notable no-shows included California’s Gray Davis and Florida’s Jeb Bush, whose states have been at the forefront of the movement to reward and punish public schools based solely on standardized test scores. Several top corporate executives were also absent, including Stephen M. Case, the chair of AOL Time Warner; C. Michael Armstrong, the chair of AT&T; and William Harrison, Jr., the CEO of J. P. Morgan Chase.

Organized by IBM and Achieve Inc. (an organization established at a previous national education summit to promote state standards and testing programs), the summit’s primary aim was to fine-tune the test-driven educational reforms that have been adopted by 49 states. The summit was also intended as a response to the so-called “pushback” of parents, students, teachers, and educational researchers, who in increasing numbers are resisting standards-based educational reforms that have produced substantial negative effects on teaching and learning.

Describing terrorists as external enemies, Michigan governor John Engler (R) likened the work of summit participants to fighting a war against the internal enemies of “ignorance, lack of knowledge, and poorly developed skills…work that needs to be done to make America stronger.” Georgia’s governor Roy Barnes (D) said that in times of crisis people are more open to change so the summit came at a “good time to set correct priorities.” Summit participants approved three sets of principles that are closely linked to the federal educational bill currently being negotiated in a House-Senate conference committee: (1) measuring results (e.g., expanding the already unprecedented level of high-stakes testing in the U.S.); (2) strengthening accountability (e.g., linking school funding and test scores); and (3) improving teaching (e.g., insuring that curriculum and teaching is “aligned” with mandated standards). Distracted by the terror attacks and the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, summit leaders wrapped up the meeting a day early.

    Summit discussions were dominated by the Bush administration’s education bill. After passing the House and Senate by wide margins in the spring, the main federal law for kindergarten through 12th grade education has been bogged down in a congressional conference committee.

Both versions of the bill call for the annual testing of all students in grades 3 through 8 and for students and teachers to be held accountable for results. The legislation proposes that schools that do not make sufficient progress be partially privatized, completely shut down and reopened with new staff, or converted to charter schools. The main sticking point in negotiations on the bill is concern over the cost of developing and administering new tests and the method of defining a failing school. Because only a few states currently test students in even half of those grades, the new requirement would impose an enormous financial burden on states. The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) estimates the testing plan could cost as much as $7 billion over 7 years for states to design and administer, only a small portion of which would be financed by the federal government.

Undoubtedly the new federal testing requirements would divert money from the delivery of educational programs and services and there is significant resistance to the plan at the state level. Rhode Island’s commissioner of education, Peter McWalters, described the testing plan as “tragic.” McWalters told the New York Times that the federal testing plan is “going to divert money from early childhood reading programs.” The 7,500 member National Conference of State Legislators called Bush’s testing plan “fatally flawed.” Washington Governor Gary Locke (D) said, “we are the ones who are going to have to administer this law. What might work for a few states might not work in many others.”

 

 

More Than Test Scores

A sophisticated and well financed public relations machine—known as the Education Excellence Partnership (a collaboration of the national teacher unions, the Business Roundtable, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Alliance of Business, Achieve Inc., National Governor’s Association, and U.S. Department of Education)—has promoted the high-stakes testing/curriculum standardization agenda as means to “motivate achievement” and retain children in grade, both of which are proven educational malpractices. Widespread public protests during the spring “testing season” and recent poll results both indicate that the PR efforts are failing as educators and the public are increasingly questioning the national education summit agenda.

In late August, the American Association of School Administrators released a national poll conducted by Jennifer Laszio and Frank Luntz that showed that more than half of the American public believes “high parental involvement” and “children who are happy and like school” are the best indicators that schools are providing a high quality education. Only 18 percent of the poll respondents believe that “high scores on statewide tests” were the best indicator of school quality.

The poll results prompted AASA Executive Director Paul Houston to write an open letter to Congress urging that the new legislation to measure school improvement should include an evaluation model based on multiple measures instead of a single test. Houston told Congress schools “need to concentrate on more than just test scores. A test score cannot be the single determining factor in the educational progress of our children. When you go to see a doctor, he doesn’t just take your temperature to assess your overall health.” Houston noted that focusing on end-of-the-year test scores is not what parents want from schools and that it is not what students need.

In September, on the heels of the AASA poll, the Teachers’ Insurance Plan released a new national survey that reveals that public school parents have their own agenda that runs counter to government-backed corporate interests expressed at the national education summit. When given the choice, 65 percent of public school parents would rather see more money go to public education than toward a tax cut. That preference had wide support within virtually all demographics of those surveyed, including parents of children in private schools, of whom 55 percent agreed.

When asked to set priorities for schools, Americans ranked class size (29 percent) and teacher salaries (26 percent) at the top of their lists. Those two items beat out all other education priorities by substantial margins. The survey also revealed that some of the high-profile solutions promoted by the participants at the National Education Summits and currently being considered in Congress lack public support. The majority of public school parents believe standardized testing forces teachers to narrow the curriculum to the detriment of a broader education. Rather than punishing schools with low test scores, 54 percent of parents believe underachieving schools should receive increased funding to “bring up the quality of the education.” Just 35 percent of Americans support the creation of voucher programs to improve education, with 56 percent of respondents believing voucher programs would reduce funding for public schools.

Support for standards-based educational reform is also eroding among teachers. A recent poll conducted by the one million member American Federation of Teachers found that just 55 percent of its members support standards-based reform, a decrease from 73 percent in 1999. The AFT leadership has been a major proponent of curriculum standardization and high-stakes testing, but rank-and-file members believe that students are being tested too frequently, with few of the tests based on the curriculum taught in schools; that they are forced to teach to the test; and that test results are being used to punish schools, teachers, and students, rather than pinpoint problems that need to be fixed.

 

 

Resisting the Testing Steamroller

Test-resisters are concerned about the standardization of school curriculum and the subsequent loss of academic freedom in public schools as well as the catastrophic failure rates of African American, Latino, and low-income students on high-stakes tests. Grassroots groups were out in force this past May as part of a “month of resistance to testing.” While the rallies against the agenda of the 2001 National Education Summit were small, the response from the testing establishment indicates that the message of test-resisters is getting through and shaking up the test backers who have previously ignored or merely scorned dissenters.

About 25 students, teachers, and parents rallied against high-stakes testing policies outside the IBM Conference Center during the summit. The rally was organized by Students Against Testing (www. nomoretests.org) and with support from the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (known as FairTest, www.fairtest.org ). In Columbus, Ohio, Mary O’Brien, a parent activist and member of the Rouge Forum/Whole Schooling Consortium (www.pipeline.com/~rgibson/rouge_forum), lead teachers and parents in picketing the Ohio Business Roundtable office in a parallel demonstration. O’Brien charged that test-driven education reform is about “engineering kids to be good compliant workers instead of good democratic citizens.”

Educational Testing Service (ETS), the half billion dollar a year test publishing company issued a harshly worded statement attacking FairTest and anti-testing activists in an effort to show support for the 2001 National Education Summit. In what Bob Schaeffer, the Executive Director of FairTest, described as a “near libelous” new release, ETS President Kurt Landgraf described FairTest and other activists “as throwing rocks from the sidelines,” and decried the unwillingness of the anti-testing activists to support the agenda of the summit they were excluded from. In his statement, Landgraf—a former marketing executive at an international pharmaceutical company, not an educator—misrepresents FairTest as an “anti-measurement organization” even though the organization is widely known as an advocate for fair and open testing. Landgraf also claims that the American public “is solid in its support for” test-driven reforms, despite the findings of recent polls that indicate otherwise. Schaeffer noted that Landgraf’s rant against FairTest is a good indicator of the effectiveness of grassroots advocacy and encouraged test-resisters to escalate the pressure.

Summit participants are out of step with what a growing number of researchers, test-resisters, and even standards-based education reform advocates know and continue to discover—that placing an emphasis on testing, rather than learning, harms students and fundamentally corrupts the already difficult processes of education. High-stakes tests have been the key element of education reforms enacted in 49 states, even though the results are proving disastrous for students who have been unnecessarily retained in grade, denied diplomas, and subjected to a lowest common denominator education in the name of higher standards. Both commonsense and educational research findings support those who believe the parents, teachers, and students should have a meaningful role in decisions about what is taught in public schools and how.                                         Z
 

E. Wayne Ross is a Distinguished University Scholar and Chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Louisville. Kevin D. Vinson is a professor of education at the University of Arizona.