The War on Public Schools

The Chicago teacher strike may officially be about salaries, benefits, and procedures because of the city law that stipulates that these can be the only grounds for a strike, but it is more deeply about so much more. As Karen Lewis, president of the CTU, so powerfully points out, it is about the attack on public schools that has gone on for years under the cover of the concept of accountability. In an interview on Democracy Now, she put it bluntly: “The idea of the market approach for public education tramples on democracy.”

In the world of public education, the word “accountability” has come to strictly mean the results of student scores on standardized tests. Using the scores as a kind of currency, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation created a national system for blaming schools based on the capitalist vision of ever-expanding growth. Schools were mandated to show an Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on the scores so that all students would test above the cut scores designated as proficient by 2014. Impossible – this has never been done. It was a set up to show the failure of public schools so that the funding for them could be diverted to charter schools, vouchers, and other privatization schemes.

At this point, the very word “accountability” has been so corrupted by its identification with blame and punishment that it constitutes a form of bullying whenever politicians utter the word. In their spin and that of most of the mainstream media, the word conjures up images of widespread school failures, lazy or uncaring teachers, a system that has been running out of control and that now needs disciplining.

From its inception in the 1980s, the modern accountability movement has operated on the unfounded assertion that our schools are not keeping our country economically competitive in the world, using the fear-inducing metaphor that our neglect of schooling has been equivalent to an act of war that might have been waged against us by a foreign power.1 What has ensued has, in effect, been a War on Public Schools, brought to us by our own presidents, governors, and corporate executives. Like the so-called War on Drugs and War on Terrorism, initiatives have been framed around threats to our very civilization, using alarmist rhetoric and misinformation to garner public support and resources for the attack.

The so-called school reform movement that has evolved over the years has no more been about improving schools than our many imperial wars have been about making the world safe for democracy. Instead, it has been aimed at exerting centralized political power over public schools and shaping the purposes and processes of schooling to serve the interests of the corporate and military worldviews that have come to dominate our society and world.

Why this Accountability System?

It is hard these days to find any good news about our public schools. As test scores have become the only measure of school success used by the media and policymakers, what constitutes good news in the first place has been severely constrained. In the public discourse, good means that the numbers in the testing score sheet are going up; bad means the numbers are going down. Mostly and persistently, the numbers held up for us to see reveal the continuing failures of public schools. Just as increasing arrest statistics seem to tell us that crime is getting worse, so too do decreasing or stagnating test scores seem to tell us that student “achievement” is deteriorating. Numbers don’t lie, right?

Moreover, just as the country’s leaders do not question whether the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are warranted or even moral, but only whether the proper tactics are being used, so the official pronouncements about school reform never question the fundamental assumptions of the accountability system itself. It is a given that schools are failing because the scorekeeping system has told us so.

And so national and local education policymaking focus on tactics. The reauthorization of NCLB will likely abandon the automatic trigger mechanism of AYP, instead targeting the schools with the lowest 5% of test-scorers. It will also continue the priorities established in the competitive grants provided in the Race To The Top (RTTT) program: evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students, institutionalizing a national system of Common Core “voluntary” curriculum standards, and providing private market choices such as charter schools and vouchers as an escape valve for the schools found to be “failing.” The system will be redesigned to be more effective, more accurate, smarter. The technology will be upgraded. And the War on Schools will continue.

Never mind the continued well-documented casualties, in terms of real students and teachers as well as democratic values – the increasing numbers of dropouts, the narrowed curriculum, the focus on test-taking instead of thinking and problem solving, the deprofessionalization and demoralizing of teachers, the regimentation of following externally prescribed texts and tests.2 Collateral damage, all, in the interest of a higher purpose.

And never mind that the intelligence derived from test score data is itself suspect and unreliable, notorious for results that show a relentless bias against minorities, those who live in poverty, those who speak English as a second language, and those with disabilities.3 The numbers still serve the War’s purpose, especially because they give an aura of scientific credibility to an unsuspecting public.

What if policymakers were actually sincere in their rhetoric about improving schools? Would they not look at the actual damages of the testing approach and cease doing harm while they reconsidered what might be a better way? Would they not attend to the overwhelming data that shows that child and family poverty is the most influential variable related to test scores? Would they not listen to measurement experts who almost universally warn that student test scores do not accurately reflect the taught curriculum, provide sufficient information to support valid inferences about student learning, or allow for sound judgments about schools and teachers? Would they not hear and respond to the voices of educators and parents who decry the classroom effects of teaching to the test? Would they not learn from successes and innovations in other countries such as Finland, Sweden, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, and the United Kingdom?4

But these data sets, research findings, and public opinions don’t seem to have much effect on the lawmakers. Because the lawmakers are not accountable for maintaining a successful educational system. Just as they decide to vote for and fund wars against popular opinion or even common sense, bail out banks rather than provide jobs and secure mortgages, and continue to provide tax relief to the extremely rich in a time of unprecedented wealth disparity, so do they continue to press public schools with impossible measurement goals while reducing funding. The fact is that the lawmakers are responding to those who have paid to put them into office – the wealthy and the corporations. As if this should surprise us by now.

The accountability system in this country remains in place because it does, in fact, reflect the interests of the wealthy and the corporations. It serves to sustain the privilege and power of the “haves” versus the “have nots.” We simply have to look at who wins and who loses in the game of standardized testing.

It has long been understood that standardized tests are strongly correlated to socioeconomic status. As the saying goes, test results can be predicted by zip code. This is due to the residential segregation, by race and class, that is such an endemic part of our society. Standardized tests favor white students over students of color, suburban students over inner city and rural students, native English speakers over students who speak English as a second language, mainstream students over students with disabilities. It is no surprise to see which schools are identified as “failing schools” on the basis of testing. They are not the schools of the privileged.

What do you suppose would happen if suddenly all of the under-resourced schools of the inner city started to do well on the tests and the suburban schools did less well? Would we still “stay the course,” believing that the test was a valid measure of learning? Would our officials and media be pleased that the achievement gap was narrowing or would they be alarmed? We know the answer to that. The system is set up to maintain the existing hierarchy. It is a form of race and class hegemony.

To get a glimpse of how the system works, consider the way items are field-tested for the all-important tests. In an era where the claim is that all students can learn and that standards-based assessments are no longer beholden to the bell curve, testing companies still choose only those items that “behave” in a way that allows for a fairly normal distribution. This is because, by their very nature, tests are meant to discriminate winners from losers. If the responses to a field-tested item are mostly correct (especially by those who don’t do well on the rest of the test) or mostly incorrect (especially by those who do well on the rest of the test), it is thrown out. The distribution is what matters, and the results that we see should divest us of any illusions we might have about whether that distribution is fair and “objective.”

We also know that the ill effects in schools and classrooms from the ubiquitous and relentless testing fall very disproportionally on minorities. The curriculum that is narrowed only to those subjects tested, the drill-and-practice pedagogy of test preparation, the high student drop out and retention rates, the transient or under-qualified teaching staffs, the school climates that come to resemble the military – these are mostly seen in inner city schools like those in Chicago, not in suburban ones.5 And, of course, that’s where the school closings and consequent community disruptions occur as well.

This situation, where the schools of the poor and minorities are more and more debilitated by the test-based accountability system, leads some concerned parents to the natural conclusion that charter schools and voucher programs are good ideas. It begins to make sense to think like an individual consumer and try to do what’s best for one’s own child. Fighting for good public education no longer makes sense as one’s own public school is not only deemed to be failing, but is suffering through the consequences that come with that label, which may include closing. The responsible, informed, and enabled parent may reasonably look for an option out of the system. Having the choice to take the public money and use it to put one’s child into a private school or privately managed charter school can be a relief from a public system being systematically destroyed.

The dialectic of the existing test-based accountability system becomes obvious. Those who are able to opt into privatized schools will do so. Those who are left behind in the public schools will be further abandoned and relegated to the kind of rote schooling suitable for the lower class – essentially preparing those students to be compliant low-level workers or soldiers, perhaps prisoners.

The latter option is not just a future possibility. The school-to-prison pipeline of inner-city schools, coupling the effects of high-stakes testing with the zero tolerance policies that began with the War on Drugs, is already a reality.6 Is it coincidental that the United States imprisons more of its own population than any other country in the world and that those imprisoned are disproportionally people of color? Or that the prisons themselves are more and more privatized, operating for profit and in need of filling their vacancies? Again, what is happening to our schools can be seen in light of what is happening in the larger society.

It is also helpful and important to see that what is happening in the United States has been part of an ongoing and well-established global dynamic. For many years, at least since Milton Friedman’s “free market” ideology gained such prominence in the 1970s, privatizing education has been an integral part of the structural adjustments imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank on developing countries as conditions for loans. These conditions, together referred to as neoliberalism, call for open, unregulated markets that facilitate the domination and profits of multinational corporations and financial institutions; cheap labor and the disempowering of labor unions; minimization of local governments and taxes, elimination or privatization of social services and public infrastructure; and so on. This is the story of the neo-colonization of the third world. It is well-understood by those living in the countries who have been on the receiving end of this process. It is also understood, from tragic experience, that those governments who do not cooperate are subject to covert or overt overthrow or invasions from the U.S. military or its proxies.

The War on Public Schools in the United States, waged through its accountability system, is this very same neoliberal agenda now brought home to the U.S. What we are seeing is the colonization of our own public schools by the private sector. The testing works to differentiate the public schools of the privileged from those comprised primarily of students from minorities and the lower class. Once culled out, the schools of minority and lower class students are positioned for “reconstitution,” other forms of take over, or closure, as has been the case in Chicago since Arne Duncan was the CEO of schools there. They will be exploited for public resources and occupied, as befits colonies.7

Rights for Public Schools

What is needed is an alternative to the current accountability regime rather a new improved version of it. Rather than a discussion of tactics for holding schools accountable to the public, we should be talking about freeing them up from the process of colonialization that test-based accountability now serves. In order to disarm the current War on Schools, we need to directly address the issues of power that underlie the accountability system.

The central problem is the centralization of control in the hands of the corporations. The antidote is to call for community-controlled schools with adequate and secure funding, free of existing threats from high-stakes testing and other forms of external coercion. The exception to this local control is that there should be oversight on local schools to ensure that civil and human rights are maintained and an equitable opportunity for all to learn is provided.

Schools and teachers should be evaluated by their primary stakeholders – students, parents, and local community members – not by state or federal governments. And most certainly not by the extremely flawed, misdirected, and biased system of student testing now in place. Not 40%, not 30%. No percent. There are much better ways to assess what and whether students are learning and they don’t come from the world of corporate testing.

Expressed as rights, we might say that public schools have the right to:
Equitable and secure funding for schools, children, and families, adequate to ensure a fair opportunity for all students to learn and to be safe, healthy, and cared for;
Freedom from mandated and high-stakes testing and other external prescriptions related to curriculum, instruction, and assessment;
Teacher and school evaluation by students, parents, and local community members.

To be sure, we should also express certain responsibilities for schools. Some of these are nested in the rights above. This question, sometimes captured in the concept of “reciprocal accountability,” has been well addressed in various alternative models for school accountability and need not be repeated here.8 Suffice to say that it is possible and desirable to approach this subject through an open process and that it is best done at a local level, where democracy might still be possible in this country. But first, before we can have that meaningful discussion, we will need to decolonize our public schools. Let us unpack these proposed rights a bit.


The National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University reports that “nearly 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $22,050 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 42% of children live in low-income families.”9 A study of income data by the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center, shows that the number of U.S. households living on less than $2 per person per day — which the study terms “extreme poverty” — has more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, from 636,000 to 1.46 million and the number of children in extremely poor households also doubled, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million.10

Scholar Linda Darling-Hammond describes what has happened in California’s urban districts because of underfunding – a scenario much like what is behind the Chicago teachers strike:

In California, for example, urban school districts often spend less than the state average although their children have the greatest needs. With inadequate budgets, crumbling buildings, class sizes of more than thirty (in some cases nearing fifty) and not enough desks or books, many schools serving the neediest students have long ago canceled art, music and physical education, shut down libraries and fired librarians, nurses and counselors. They have lost reading specialists, science teachers and school psychologists. As they suffer cut after cut while they seek to meet the needs of children who are often hungry and homeless as well as shortchanged in terms of educational opportunities, these schools must decide how they will underserve their students, not whether they will.

These disparities in school funding also lead to disparities in salaries and working conditions, which create shortages of qualified personnel in high-need districts… Nationally, teachers in low-poverty districts earn one-third more at the top of the salary range than those in high-poverty districts. And the teachers who work in the neediest communities also manage larger classes with fewer books, materials and supports of all kinds.11

Money matters. Any claim to the opposite ignores the realities of millions of poor families whose children suffer through under-resourced schools and social services.


Zapatista subcommandante Marcos is reputed to have said: “To exploit us, they measure us. To control us, they measure us.”

Viewed as part of the War on Public Schools, the educational testing system in place in this country is about exploitation and control. High-stakes testing goes on and on because it is profitable and a relatively cheap means of categorizing winners and losers, produces quantitative data that can be managed at a centralized level, and has a public image as objective science. Testing is the stealth weapon of choice.

Standardized testing is thought to have first been used in sixth century imperial China as a means of selecting the best civil servants and subsequently used by the British colonizers in India for a similar purpose. In the United States, the form was further developed in the early twentieth century as an IQ test by people connected to the eugenics movement and widely used by the military to determine who was fit for what.12 It has been used for judging students, schools, and teachers in the past twenty years by state and federal governments that have been increasingly dominated by corporate influence. That is, standardized testing is a technology that has served imperial, colonial, and military purposes since its inception, and has its modern origins in an explicitly racist ideology.

Why would we expect the results of today’s testing to favor anyone other than the already privileged? In fact, the racial and socioeconomic biases of testing were already understood before testing was implemented as a high-stakes means of deciding which schools were successes and which were failures. The results were predictable. What better way to label the schools of certain people as failures and position them for being taken over or abandoned?

The continuing racial “achievement gap” and class disparities in test scores give ample evidence of how the tests function. They validate and exacerbate existing social stratification. If one believes that a fair and equal opportunity to learn is a basic human right, the current test-based accountability system is a violation of human rights.


It is a convenient untruth to blame schools and teachers for the problems we see in the education system. But it serves a purpose. It diverts attention from society’s responsibility and avoids the need to redistribute the wealth in order to provide the basic necessities of food, health care, housing, and employment. It also allows for bureaucratic control over the people who are closest to our children.

The control and replacement of teachers has been an underlying rationale for the evaluation of schools by test scores since the NCLB law was enacted. But now, with federal pressure, state laws are being retooled to focus more directly on teacher evaluation by student test scores, to be reinforced by merit pay based on the test scores. In these times of economic recession, the federal priorities established for competitive funding opportunities like Race to the Top have very successfully leveraged these state actions.

This is happening at the same time that we see a growing national political movement, notably led by Scott Walker in Wisconsin and now Rahm Emmanuel in Chicago, to attempt to disenfranchise teachers’ unions, supposedly because these unions care more about protecting “bad teachers” than they do about doing what is best for students. The attacks on teachers’ unions are, of course, more about power and control – and money – than it is about “bad teachers.”

If it were really about the small number of teachers who need to leave the classroom, that problem could be solved by devising widespread means of peer evaluation, as is done in other professions, or as is already enacted in a number of union-led efforts around the U.S.13 But the truth is, as with the attacks on other private and public sector unions, part of the purpose of attacking teacher unions is to reduce labor costs and exempt working conditions from negotiation. The other part is so that the non-unionized workers can be fired more easily for not complying with orders.

Compliance is at the center of the test-based evaluation measures of teacher. Compliant teachers make for compliant students. It’s another trickle down theory. What is intended is not to have a truly rich experience for students based on critical thinking, creativity, and student-centered explorations. What is needed for a test-based regimen is an army of teachers who will be trained and evaluated on their adherence to scripted curricula, teaching to the test, and obedience to authority. Technicians, not professionals. What is needed to produce compliant students for a low-level curriculum is compliant teachers, tightly managed and evaluated.

The response to this particular attack must be to protect teachers from the proposed test-based evaluation schemes, to engage unions more fully in peer evaluation processes, and to build on the confidence that parents continue to express in the teachers of their own students.14 The power of evaluation must be kept at the human and local level, not built into the centralized data-base of test scores. The CTU in Chicago successfully beat back the merit pay scheme and scaled back the percentage of teacher evaluation that would be based on the testing. Reason for hope!

A Call for Teacher Activism

What is so heartening about events like the protests in Madison and the strike in Chicago is that teachers are becoming activists – not in a self-serving way, but for the common good. They are taking a stand for their students in the face of an unrelenting attack. We can only hope that more resistance and consciousness-raising will continue. There are many ways for teachers to band together in solidarity with their students, families, and communities.

For example, many teachers already teach against the tide of the accountability system, in sometimes low-profile ways. Some teachers have learned to be “bi-accountable:” helping students do well on testing, while also helping them critique these tests and go beyond the prescribed curriculum. Some teach for social justice, deep understandings, and critical thinking, despite it all, letting the testing chips fall where they may. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner pointed out some time ago the value of “teaching as a subversive activity.”15

An increasing number of teachers are also affiliating with like-minded colleagues in national networks and movements that provide information and opportunities for exchange and public demonstrations of resistance.16

Save Our Schools (SOS), for example, is a national movement that is gaining prominence and momentum in organizing for resistance. Started on a grassroots level by education bloggers, SOS organized a conference, march, and rally in Washington DC in the summer of 2011; co-organized an Occupy the Department of Education event in spring 2012; and held a national conference in summer 2012. Its focus is to “save and transform public schools” and it provides research and position papers on assessment, civics, curriculum, equitable funding, family involvement, high stakes testing, unions and collective bargaining. The organization offers opportunities for people to get involved politically at many levels, virtually and otherwise.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, is another organization that more and more teachers and educators have come to rely upon for information and advocacy. It is the national advocacy organization working for reform of test-based accountability.17 The organization keeps abreast of current political and legislative developments, disseminates information virtually on a daily basis, maintains a comprehensive website, and participates in task forces and national discussions across both the left and right of the political spectrum. Funded meagerly by some foundations and many private donors, the organization – which has existed since 1985 – is constantly on the verge of going bankrupt. Such is the fate of an organization that works against the corporate control of education.

Rethinking Schools is a publisher, founded in 1986 by a group of Milwaukee teachers, that produces a periodical and resource books that focus on policy analyses and practical ways of implementing social justice curricula in the classroom. It tackles issues such as racism, poverty, gender identity, immigration, funding equity, testing, and the privatization of public schools. There is no better teacher voice providing critique and advocacy for a just educational system and society.18

As the War on Public Schools continues, it may well be that the only reasonable alternative is to simply disobey its dictated testing regime. The Opt-out movement, urging parents and students to refuse to take the accountability tests, has yet to take hold in this country.19 But imagine if and when it does. When thousands of people simply refuse to participate in the testing, will the system itself be put on trial? If the mechanism for enforcing an educational system of compliance and social stratification faces such bankruptcy, can there even be a way to bail it out?

Like all the other wars our country engages in, the War on Public Schools will not end on its own. The same people who propagate empire building, wealth disparity, and rapidly expanding security and surveillance systems carry their ideology with them as they manipulate the world of public schools to suit their own ends. Confronting them will take continued actions like the Chicago strike and strong teacher voices who do not allow themselves to be portrayed as self-serving and incompetent. And it will take the solidarity of teacher unions with other peace and justice movements.

The destruction of our public schooling is just one aspect of the destruction of the common good and natural world that is being brought about by the global neoliberal forces that are now in control. The mission for educators who can see this is anything but self-serving.

Ken Jones is an associate professor of education at the University of Southern Maine. He can be reached at kjones@usm.maine.edu

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