What We Can Know and When We Can Know It

Kevin D. Vinson & E. Wayne Ross

There are few surprises
in the sweeping education plan George W. Bush submitted to Congress his first
week in office. Bush’s plan carries important earmarks of conservative
education causes—vouchers and a phonics-based literacy program—and the
centerpiece of the plan is mandatory student testing. Bush’s national plan is
based on the education reform model used in Texas, with former Houston school
superintendent Rod Paige in control at the U.S. Department of Education to
ensure that the so-called “Texas Miracle” spreads.

while wary of Bush’s voucher plans, have heartily endorsed much of the new
president’s education package. The current Congressional bipartisanship on
education policy is to be expected. Of all important public policy issues,
education is the one on which Democrats and Republicans have most agreement,
vouchers notwithstanding. In recent years, politicians and education reform
advocates from across the political spectrum have rallied around education
policies that rely on as standards-based educational reform. Indeed, standard-
ization advocates are working to produce, promote, and implement a host of
standards-based policies, which coupled with mandatory, high-stakes tests
effectively police the classroom work of teachers and students (as well as the
involvement of parents in educational decisions). This standardization craze
poses a further threat to parents, teachers, students, and local community
members by undermining their efforts to define their own interests and


Liberal-Conservative Consensus

educational reforms should be understood both within the context of
neoliberalism and against the establishment of such present-day novelties as
the “compassionate conservative,” the “new Democrat,” and the Blair-Clinton
project of a neurotically “centrist” Third Way. In each case historically
liberal and conservative principles coalesce, morphing into a nearly
indistinguishable “muddle in the middle”—a singular caricature of democratic
political machinations and populist rhetorical ideals.

A hallmark of
the standardization craze is its remarkable capacity to unite seemingly
disparate individuals and interests around the “necessity” of national and/or
state educational standards—the standardization imperative. Ostensibly strange
bedfellows, including for instance E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Diane Ravitch, Chester
Finn, Gary Nash, Bill Clinton, IBM chair Lou Gerstner, the leaders of the
American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association
(NEA), most if not all state departments of education, and a majority of
governors (Democratic and Republican), join to support standards-based reform
and its concomitant “need” to implement systems of mandated, high-stakes

 In the past
two years the Education Excellence Partnership, which includes the AFT, NEA,
the Business Roundtable, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Alliance of
Business, Achieve Inc., National Governor’s Association, and U.S. Department
of Education, have sponsored over 50 full-page advertisements in the New
York Times
promoting the standards agenda and, in particular, the use of
high-stakes tests as means to both “motivate achievement” and retain children
in grade.

policy is being crafted in a milieu distinguished by the pro-standards
consensus among an array of both liberal and conservative players.
Accordingly, the commitments of the political-pedagogical right—public school
privatization, the reduction of national financial support for public
education, the promotion of U.S. global corporate hegemony, “creationism,”
socio-cultural homogenization around a few dominant “moral” themes,
anti-immigration, the assault on organized labor, school prayer, and so
on—blend with those of the left—equality, expanded democracy, economic
opportunity, social justice, diversity, and so on—to create a clever though
fundamentally confusing admixture of multiple contradictions and
inconsistencies. (Consider the mind-boggling implications of “standardized
diversity” within a setting of white-European Christian-Capitalist-centrism.)

    Nevertheless, the pro-standards bandwagon rolls on, though undoubtedly it
has been relatively more successful in some areas than others—compare, for
example, the broad-based and generally favorable cohesion of educators around
the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ math standards to the
deep-seated and heated divisiveness of the national history standards. The
tendency among the educationally powerful has been to rally around a few key
official pronouncements by professional education groups, academic societies,
and teacher unions, and by such “reform- minded” states as Maryland, Virginia,
Ohio, and New York. Over time these various frameworks (and the textbooks with
which they develop a mutually reinforcing relationship) fuse so as to
constitute  a nationally standardized curriculum.

    At its core
the pro-standards consensus can be characterized by its commitment to a
relatively few defining principles. Advocates argue first that standards-based
reform is necessary vis-à-vis school improvement because the current
educational “crisis” is rooted in the inability or unwillingness of “failing”
schools to offer the same “high quality” programs provided by more
“successful” schools. Since the identified purposes, selected content,
teachers, and modes of evaluation must be better in some (usually wealthy and
majority white) schools than in others (usually less wealthy and majority
Latino/a and African American), the implications are unmistakable. Elite
educational leaders and policymakers are saying that “other” schools can
indeed improve, but only to the extent that they become more like “our”
schools. Hence, the one-sided standardization imperative and the subsequent
normalization of whiteness, wealth, and exclusionary forms of knowledge.

standardization alliance argues, in most cases without any evidence, that: (1)
today’s students do not “know enough” (no matter how know enough is defined);
(2) curriculum and assessment standards will lead to higher achievement
(although arguably many students achieve highly now—they just do so
differently or in ways not easily quantified); (3) national and state
standards are crucial in terms of successful U.S.-corporate-global economic
competition; (4) standards-based reform should occur with federal guidance yet
to be implemented under local control (thus keeping both big government
liberals and New Federalist conservatives happy); and (5) “higher”
standards/standardization will promote equal educational, thus economic and
political opportunity.


Race, Class,
Test Scores, and the
Myth of the “Texas Miracle”

The primary
justification for the imposition of standardized curricula and/or the seizure
of local schools by the state/corporate alliances (such as occurred in
Detroit) has been poor test scores and high drop out rates, even though both
are less a reflection of student ability or achievement than a measure of
parental income. For example, Peter Sacks’s book Standardized Minds
presents data showing that students taking the SAT can expect to score an
extra 30 points for every $10,000 in their parents’ yearly income. A study of
the state testing program in Michigan (MEAP) conducted by the Detroit Free
found that as the level of poverty goes up in school districts MEAP
scores go down. In addition, the Free Press study found a number of
other factors impacting MEAP scores: the percent of single parents in a
district; the local unemployment rate; school funds per pupil; the percent of
students who speak English as a second language; and the percent of households
with no high school graduates.

Last year, Ohio
became the 35th state to institute classroom “accountability” based on student
test scores. To determine who will move from fourth to fifth grade and who
will graduate from high school, officials will use a single test score—a
practice long condemned by testing experts and reiterated recently in a report
by the National Research Council. Based solely on the Ohio Proficiency Test
(OPT) scores of fourth-, sixth-, and eighth-graders, Ohio officials have
concluded that 5 percent of the state’s school districts deserve top grades,
while fully a third have been declared in academic danger. A study of the OPT
results by Randy L. Hoover, a professor at Youngstown State University,
suggests that OPT scores are so significantly related to social-economic
living conditions and experiences of students that the test has no validity as
a measure either of academic learning or teacher effectiveness. As the
Cleveland Plain Dealer opined, the OPT determines “whether state
officials applaud an individual system, or prepare to invade it.”

    George W.
Bush and other standardists (both Democrat and Republican) have claimed that
introduction of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test in
1990-1991 produced a near miraculous turnaround in educational achievement in
the Lone Star State, reducing dropouts, increasing student achievement and
reducing the test score gaps among white, African American and Latino/a
students. Recent studies by researchers at the University of Texas, Boston
College, the Rand Corporation as well as Rice, Rutgers, and Harvard
Universities, however, have raised serious questions about the validity of the
reported test score gains in Texas.

    A study by
Walt Haney, professor of education at Boston College and senior research
associate in the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational
Policy, found that the TAAS actually contributes to retention in grade and
dropping out. He reports only 50 percent of minority students in Texas have
been progressing from grade 9 to high school graduation since the initiation
of the TAAS testing program (and evidence suggests that slightly less than 70
percent of all students in Texas actually graduated from high school in the
1990s). Across the past two decades, there has also been a steady rise in the
rates at which African American and Latino/a students in Texas have been
required to repeat grade 9; by the late 1990s nearly 30 percent were “failing”
grade 9. Grade retention rates for African Americans and Latinos/as in Texas
are nearly twice as high as for white students.

    As test
scores on the TAAS have soared, researchers have failed to find similar
improvements in other, more reliable, measures of Texas students’ achievement
(e.g., SAT scores and the National Assessment of Educational Progress or
NAEP). Indeed, as measured by performance on the SAT, achievement of Texas
high school students has not improved since the early 1990s; SAT-Math scores
have deteriorated relative to students nationally, reports Haney. The Rand
study found that the dramatic reading and math gains indicated by TAAS results
were not reflected in the NAEP. Instead, NAEP results indicate only small
increases, similar to those observed nationwide. Moreover, according to the
NAEP the test score gap between whites and students of color in Texas is not
only very large but also growing.

    There is an
expanding consensus among researchers that the miracle test score increases on
the TAAS are the result of intensive test-prep activities that undermine
substantive teaching and learning. In Contradictions of School Reform: The
Costs of Standardized Testing
, Linda McNeil, a professor of education at
Rice University in Houston, reports that many schools in Texas are devoting
tremendous amounts of time to highly specific “skills” intended to improve
students’ scores on the TAAS. McNeil reports that after several years in
classes where “reading” assignments were increasingly TAAS practice materials,
children were unable to read a novel intended for students two years younger.

    The other
way Texas schools have improved TAAS scores is by increasing the number of
students excluded from taking the test. In 1999, Texas tested 48 percent of
its special education students, down from 62 percent in 1998—that is an
additional 37,751 students not taking the test. Those exemptions include 13
percent of Latino/a, 12 percent of African American, and only 5 percent of
white students. The Haney study reports that a substantial portion of
increases in TAAS pass rates in the 1990s is due to such exclusions and
prompts him to conclude, “The gains on TAAS and the unbelievable decreases in
dropouts during the 1990s are more illusory than real….”


Education and the Economy

is clear that scores on high-stakes standardized tests as well as dropout
rates are directly related to poverty, and none of the powers demanding school
standardization or seizure appears seriously prepared to address this
condition. Paradoxically, though perhaps unsurprisingly, states instead have
increasingly sought to punish low-scoring (read less wealthy) schools and
districts by cutting funding that might help them raise their all-important
test scores and become more “like” (via smaller classes, greater resources,
increased staffing, modernized facilities) wealthier (read high-scoring)
schools. Bush’s plan for U.S. schools would use vouchers—tax money to
reimburse families for tuition at private, including religious, schools—as a
punishment for “failing” schools.

the established pro-standardization position has been hit with at least some
criticism (notably both from the Right, which sees standards-based reform as
imposing on local school district autonomy, and from the Left, which sees it
as racist, sexist, and classist), one fascinating feature of the consensus
view remains its willingness to take such criticism seriously yet still
maintain that it can satisfactorily be accommodated by and/or assimilated
within the prevailing framework. Thus while particular positions may differ
marginally on the specifics (the devil is in the details), the demand for
standards-based reform—the standardization imperative—goes unchallenged, at
least among the alliance of conservative and liberal politicians, corporate
elites, chief school officers, and teacher union leaders.

within this alliance is an insidious move on the part of elite stakeholders
toward the corporate/state regulation and administration of knowledge, a move
that enables what Noam Chomsky calls “systems of unaccountable power” to make
self-interested decisions ostensibly on behalf of the public when, in fact,
most members of the public have no meaningful say in what or how decisions are
made or in what can count as legitimate knowledge. This, of course, is
purposeful and involves the coordinated control of such pedagogical processes
as goal setting, curriculum development, testing, and teacher
education/evaluation, the management of which works to restrict not only what
and who can claim the status of “real” knowledge, but also who ultimately has
access to it.

these consensus elites are among the same powerful few who make decisions
about and promote such neoliberal policies and institutions as GATT, NAFTA,
and the WTO as good for the American public. What exists here is an
unambiguous, power-laden connection between the regulation of knowledge on the
one hand and the regulation of the economy on the other, a joint effort by the
politically, culturally, and economically powerful (nominally on behalf of the
public) designed to stifle democracy while simultaneously enhancing the
profits of multinational corporations and the ultra-rich. It is a reproductive
and circular system, a power-knowledge-economics regime in which the financial
gains of a few are reinforced by what can count as school (thus social)
knowledge, and in which what can count as knowledge is determined so as to
support the financial greed of corporations.

conspicuous example is the social studies curriculum where, as John Marciano
in Civic Illiteracy and Education argues, “students are ethically
quarantined from the truth about what the U.S. has done in their name.” This
is particularly true with regard to U.S.-perpetrated and sponsored aggression
abroad, which is most often represented to students as unfortunate or
accidental by-products of essentially humane policies that serve the “national
interests,” while what constitutes the latter remains unexamined. Those who
administer the economy in their own self-interests are those who regulate the
production and dissemination of knowledge and vice versa, all the while
working superficially in the public interest but intentionally excluding any
authentic public involvement.

and local school communities are left without the authority to bring their
collective resources to bear on a matter as important as the education of
their children. The people who know children best—families and teachers—must
give way to tighter control over what happens in classrooms by people who are
not in the classroom or even from the community. Despite rhetoric linking
standards-based reform to benefits for all within the vast constituency of
public schools, the cold fact is that those who regulate both knowledge
(through standardization) and the economy are working for their own political
and economic agendas, acting as though the public extended no farther than
their privately secured office buildings and comfortably gated communities.

    From a
progressive perspective standards-based reforms fail on a number of related
levels. Inherently anti-democratic, standards-based education reforms are also
oppressive, illustrating in practice not only the late radical educator Paulo
Freire’s widely read and influential concepts of “banking education” and
“prescription,” but also contemporary political theorist Iris Marion Young’s
notion of the “five faces of oppression” (namely exploitation, margin-
alization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence). In sum,
standards-based reform privileges certain images of education (for instance,
those media critiques of schooling based upon test scores, which David
Berliner and Bruce Biddle so effectively debunk in The Manufactured Crisis)
over the authentic experiences of everyday classroom life. Too frequently such
images end up promoting the “corporate good” at the expense of any reasonable
understanding of the “collective good,” particularly problematic since the
extension of the collective good is why we have public schools in the first

    By not
vigorously resisting standards-based reform concerned citizens capitulate to
the government-sponsored corporatization of public knowledge. Still, one might
be optimistic given that in many states and school districts students and
teachers themselves have spearheaded the opposition. Student-led and
teacher-supported protests in Michigan, Massachusetts, California, and
Illinois, for example, involving organized boycotts, walkouts, refusals to
take tests, faking and accepting intentionally low scores have demonstrated
the potential effectiveness of subverting the demands of the powerful in favor
of those of the apparently powerless. The standardization craze in education
is a cause for either optimism or pessimism, depending, of course, upon how we
ultimately make sense of the potential for concerted public action. We are
optimistic.              Z


Kevin D. Vinson is a professor of education at the University of Arizona. E.
Wayne Ross is a professor of education at SUNY Binghamton.