As schools are shuttered, high-stakes testing is succeeding in re-entrenching the poor and people of color as a permanent underclass.
The Chicago Board of Education has approved a plan to carry out the largest mass school closing in U.S. history. Last Wednesday the board voted to close 50 public schools, most of them in Hispanic and Black neighborhoods. Together they account for close to 10 percent of Chicago’s elementary schools. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed for the closures, citing a $1 billion deficit.
Chicago teachers and parents have not been silent about these disclosures, but rather have led a vocal protest campaign, staging rallies and filing a lawsuit last week accusing the city of discriminating against students of color. In a statement, Chicago Teachers Union head Karen Lewis said: “Closing schools is not an education plan. It is a scorched earth policy.”
Our American educational system is in dire straits, and it’s not by chance that we find ourselves where we are today. There has been an orchestrated campaign to corporatize and de-unionize our schools across the country – while simultaneously making high-stakes testing the primary rubric by which student achievement is judged.
The failing grade of high-stakes testing
Advocates of standardized tests often wrap themselves in the language of high standards, but that’s not the issue. After all, who would champion low standards? The issue at hand is how we define higher standards, and how those standards are reached. The calls for more standardized tests have come, for the most part, from public officials who are eager to prove they are serious about school reform.
And yet there’s little, if any, evidence that links increased testing to improved teaching and learning. Instead of actually addressing that reality, many politicians have suggested more of the same: more standardized tests, especially “high-stakes” tests.
All over the country, states are forcing districts to administer these standardized tests with the belief that test scores indicate how much students have actually retained. As a result, teachers are compelled to “teach to the test.”
In other words, the actual processes of teaching and learning get lost in a maze of test question possibilities. The pressure for students to achieve a passing grade on a test, which may or may not address what the student has actually learned in the classroom, can be taxing.
An interesting piece in the Washington Post tells the story of a school board member who took the standardized test for his district and here’s what he found:
“The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62%. In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.
It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.
I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and onto the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.
If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.”
This isn’t a new rationale; it goes back to the development of IQ tests at the beginning of the twentieth century, which “surprisingly” validated all the prevailing preconceived notions of the time about race, class and privilege. High-stakes testing functions in the same manner.
Closed for business
Nationwide, 1,929 schools were closed in 2010-11, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Seventeen low-performing schools are slated for closure in New York City, while Philadelphia officials voted in March to close 23 schools they said were underutilized. A judge in Washington D.C. declined to halt the closings of 15 public schools that the district alleged were underutilized as well.
More often than not, the logic behind school closures is rooted in the notion that displaced students will be moved to higher performing schools, but this isn’t borne out in the research. An October 2009 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago found that only 6% of displaced students enrolled in high-performing schools, while 42% of displaced students continued to attend schools with very low levels of academic achievement.
I personally know of a family that opted to move to another state rather than have their children go through the arduous task of finding another equally or higher performing school in Chicago to enroll in. Sadly, many families are devoid of such options or resources.
School closures and cuts invariably hurt those who have the most difficulty in absorbing their impacts: the poor and people of color. Now, governors, mayors and school officials will say that these decisions have absolutely nothing to do with class or ethnicity — but what difference does the motive make when the result is the same?
A more perfect union-busting
The recent attack on teachers and teachers unions has been well documented from the (rather dramatic) beginning, from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s assault on collective bargaining to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brass knuckle approach to negotiating with Chicago’s teachers.
Teachers effectively have been made out as the boogeyman (or boogey-woman) that must be used as a scapegoat to explain the deplorable state of American education. Not the corporatization of the educational system, not the disparate funding of urban schools when compared to suburban districts, but the teachers, fundamentally, are forced to bear the greatest burden of blame.
To be clear, there are individuals working as teachers who should not be. None of this should be taken as an exercise in apologetics for the substandard teacher. Instead, this is a recognition that the smear campaign against teachers in general is part of an orchestrated effort to undermine and demonize teachers unions.
Another prong of the disinformation campaign is the plethora of anti-collective bargaining laws that have been passed – and are in the process either of being passed or crafted – by predominantly Republican state legislatures across the country.
Adam Bessie of Truthout explained it this way:
“This anti-teacher rage is focused on the mythical cartoon character the “Bad Teacher,” who — according to the recent explosion in press on education generated by the documentary “Waiting for Superman” — plagues our public schools. The Bad Teacher is no one specific, but rather, a sort of free-floating, ill-defined stereotype: He is an inept, uncaring, self-interested bureaucrat waiting for his pension, not only disinterested in students, but actively engaged in standing in the way of student achievement, rather than encouraging it.”
I know full well what if feels like to stand before a classroom, sometimes with upwards of 30 students, of varying abilities and gifts, while being handcuffed by a restrictive standardized test paradigm. And I know what it means to be one of the very first educators to arrive and one of the last to leave; to work with students in such a way that will never be revealed in a paycheck.
If we pay close attention to what the education faux-reformers (especially on the right) are doing, it’s a 180-degree departure from what kinds of reforms actually are needed. That’s not so dissimilar from faux-reformers’ positions on other issues: When talking about our foreign policy with regard to the perpetual war state that we’ve become, the solution is: Let’s continue to do that. When faced with fiscal policies and practices that decimated our economy and other economies across the world, the solution is: Let’s continue to do that.
Or sadly, when high-capacity guns, faulty background checks and gun show loopholes contribute to the death and destruction of lives — including those of students — the policy prescription for that, too, has been: Let’s continue to do that.
There are no easy fixes; there are no easy choices when it comes to repairing our oftentimes dysfunctional American school system. What isn’t the answer, however, is denigrating those who have answered the call to educate our nation’s children. What is also becoming clear is that high-stakes testing is succeeding in re-entrenching the poor and people of color as a permanent underclass from which the elite can draw an endless supply of low-wage workers.
The question for us as a society is this: Will we continue to let them do that?