Debating the Gates Moratorium, Or Life among the Roadbuilders

As a lifelong fan of science fiction (SF), I want to start by invoking a SF convention that never gets old: time travel (but I’ll spare you the whirlwind prestidigitation mastered by Kurt Vonnegut, who married time travel and non-linear narrative in Slaughterhouse-Five).

Once upon a time (well, I must confess, I enjoy a bit of genre-splicing also), Bill Gates, billionaire and burgeoning education hobbyist, began tossing his considerable expertise (read: money) at small schools projects. Low and behold, Gates eventually looked at the research his own foundation gathered, declared the project a failure, and scuttled away—only to decide that the greatest scourge on the planet was the enormous number of “bad” teachers failing our children everyday!

Since we are now back in time (and you may notice a pattern here about history repeating itself, and such), let’s look at that Gates/small school dynamic as I blogged about this in April and May 2011:

And, Gates’s small schools experiment? While Gates himself declared the experiment a failure, Marshak explains that Gates’ small school experiment actually exposes Gates’ own inability to understand the education dynamics he claims to reform. But ample evidence reveals both that Gates is inexpert and remains unsuccessful as an education reformer. See here, here and here – including his failure to understand statistics and the charts he enjoys using to make his points here. (Accountability? Start at the Top, OpEdNews 11 April 2011)

Let’s do some truly basic math.

First, consider that Bill Gates, a billionaire whose wealth and success have been built on computer innovation and entrepreneurship, has been an education reformer for many years now–stretching back to a small schools focus:

“Bill Gates used to believe that one of the solutions to failing schools was to create smaller ones with 500 students or fewer. His foundation spent $1 billion toward this; seeing the opportunity to bring in private dollars, districts started shifting to smaller schools. Small schools became the big new trend. But then the foundation conducted a study that found that, by itself, school size had little if any effect on achievement. The foundation dropped the project and moved on to teacher reform, but by then some urban districts throughout the nation had changed to small–and more expensive to operate–schools.”

So the first formula is:

Gates initiative + Gates funding = abandoned schools in the wake of failure (with no consequences for Gates)

As the Los Angeles Times reports above, Gates is now focusing on teacher quality–including calls for teacher evaluations tied to test scores measuring student achievement against the common core standards.

This suggests a new formula:

Gates money + common core standards + testing industry = profit for Gates and testing industry at the expense of students, learning, and public education. (If There Remains Any Question, Daily Kos 1 May 2011)

Let’s return now to the present where the Gates machine has called for a moratorium on all that Common Core and VAM stuff because his own people’s research appears to refute what Gates has been pontificating about in the compliant media gaze that only Gates seems worthy of receiving (I hate to beat this to death, but do any of you see a pattern here?).

I want to offer now that this call for a moratorium is another teachable moment—those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and all that—and therein we have at least two important lessons:

First, Gates/small schools, Gates/VAM, and Gates/Common Core are all the same flawed dynamic in which political leaders, the media, and the public confuse wealth with expertise. Remove Gates’s billions and he would have zero credibility in any of these ventures—and I still maintain that the small school debacle is the most telling part of this story [1] because Gates misread his own research, declared erroneously the commitment a failure, and simply walked away leaving others to hold the bag (roadbuilder he has always been, roadbuilder he will always be).

And this leads to the debate and discussion that has blossomed from the Gates moratorium announcement.

So our second lesson is somewhat positive: If we could ever set aside confusing wealth with expertise, we may come to recognize that among educators, scholars, and researchers we already have a wealth of expertise that could better serve our goals of education reform.

And thus, I maintain my stance that the Gates moratorium is a sham, but I want to highlight here that within the credible responses to that moratorium call, we see how education reform should be debated: by those who know the field:

And while I enjoy coming back to and finding new SF again and again, in education reform I am eager to step off the “Déjà vu all over again” merry-go-round.

Bill Gates, about that moratorium? No thanks. And while we are at it, no thanks to all the rest either.

If you’d stopped building your roads we never asked for right through the middle of our villages, we would have time to take care of business here, instead of constantly staying one step behind underneath the rubble of the disasters you create.

[1] Please read carefully Good Doubt and Bad Doubt from 2007 and Why Did the Gates Small-High-Schools Program Fail?: Well, Actually It Didn’t from 2010 for some really powerful time travel. And this is just must-read: Bill Gates should hire a statistical advisor.

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

Dear Journalists (especially those who write about education):

After posting my U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press, which represents a recurring effort in my public work to address the problems with journalism about education and education research/reports, I continued to interact with Juana Summers (NPR) and Stephen Sawchuk (Education Week) on Twitter. Those exchanges have suggested to me that I need to examine more fully what my concerns raised specifically about mainstream coverage of NCTQ’s reports mean to my wider call for a critical free press.

First, I think I need to establish the foundational context of my complaints about journalism/education journalism.

I believe journalists and teachers should be (must be) comrades in arms because a free press and universal public education are essential foundational institutions for a free people.

I am not, however, suggesting that this camaraderie is some sort of wink-wink, nod-nod collusion between the two professions in which we “cover” for each other, but that we are comrades joined by the same mission to build the free society that many claim the U.S. seeks. In fact, as comrades I expect we should be each other’s most vigilant and accurate critics to insure that we both stay the course.

And that builds on my second larger context for my concerns about journalism and my call for a critical free press. My use of the term “critical” is the source of my calls for reform of both education and journalism—two fields that reach their potential when critical, but fail when they are bound by traditional expectations of impartiality, calls that teachers and journalists avoid being “political.” Critical teachers and critical journalists are activists; they use their professions as mechanisms for change. Apolitical teachers and journalists are essentially defenders of the status quo (thus, the calls for impartiality are always loudest from those with power and wealth).

So I want to return briefly to my criticisms of mainstream media coverage of NCTQ’s latest report.

While Summers, Sawchuk, and I exchanged Tweets related to my post, Adam Bessie, whose important public work refuting the “bad” teacher meme is central to my points here, offered a Tweet that simply identified a fact about Gates funding among NPR, Education Week, and NCTQ:

This Tweet represents the central issue to my concerns: Among the New Media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), many critical educators have been confronting the disproportionate and inappropriate (because Gates has no credibility in the field of education, but nearly endless funds) influence of Gates on education reform—an influence that I have confronted often with a question: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one.

Also, Bessie’s Tweet about the ubiquity of Gates funding has finally begun to gain some traction in the mainstream press. But bloggers still carry the greatest weight for being critical about the influence of Gates on education reform. (The most common places now to find critical journalism is in the New Media, such as blogs at Education Week [see Anthony Cody and Nancy Flanagan] and The Washington Post [see Valerie Strauss] or alternative press such as Truthout and AlterNet.)

Despite Bessie’s Tweet only stating facts, Sawchuk immediately responded with this:

It is at “offensive” that I think we should all pause and consider carefully.

I do not in any way think Sawchuk is a careless, “bought,” or shoddy journalist. In fact, as I stated to him, I have interacted with Sawchuk because I respect him, his work, and his profession (I do not interact with others about whom I cannot say the same).

I must add that my concern with Sawchuk’s coverage of NCTQ (as well as the other coverage I identified) is that the work fails because it conforms to the flawed traditional convention of fairness that Sawchuk mentions directly.

The traditional view of fairness in journalism has been brilliantly skewered recently by John Oliver on his HBO show: Oliver exposes that being “fair” in the climate change debate—having one person for “both sides” debate the issue—actually greatly misrepresents the current understanding within the field of science for the lay public. Mainstream journalists committed to this sort of “fair and balanced” are doomed to fail the much more important goal of accuracy. As Oliver demonstrated, the ratio of for and against climate change within the sciences is not 1 to 1 as a “fair” debate implies, but about 97 for and 3 against (and while Oliver didn’t explore this, a careful look at the against shows that even those 3% are less credible within the field).

If we extrapolate the Oliver Rule, then, to education reform, we do not find an equal 1 to 1 ratio of research on using value-added methods (VAM) to evaluate and dismiss teachers because the field overwhelmingly refutes using VAM in highs-stakes situations (even pro-VAM researchers call for “modest” uses of VAM) and mostly ideological advocates and political leaders (without expertise) endorse VAM for high-stakes education policy. However, VAM advocacy garners primary coverage in the mainstream press with little attention paid to the more credible research refuting its high-stakes and disproportionate use.

So let me be very clear here about both Sawchuk being offended and the difference between critical journalists and fair journalists.

I’m sorry, but journalists and journalism will always look bad when money speaks louder than expertise (see again Gates).

Now, imagine, journalists, if every day your field was repeatedly and inaccurately trashed for all the public: U.S. public education is a failure because our tests scores rank poorly internationally (misleading), schools with impoverished students have low test scores because of low expectations by the teachers (untrue), U.S. public education is failing because of corrupt teachers’ unions (untrue and basically opposite of the evidence), to improve public schools we need to identify “bad” teachers and fire them (untrue), public school teachers are “bad” mostly because they have tenure (untrue) [1], and the list goes on.

I genuinely regret Sawchuk being offended because he doesn’t deserve it, but I must emphasize that Sawchuk is among the media who are complicit in offending teachers, teaching, and schools everyday because journalists are quick to assume the misguided pose of “fair” and unwilling to assume the needed position of critical.

Many issues simply do not have “sides” (rape, genocide), and to be honest, most issues do not have equally credibly sides.

Does teacher education/certification need to be reformed (full disclosure: I am a teacher educator)? Absolutely.

But NCTQ has no credibility and garners its influence through the impact of money and media endorsement, and not validity (just as Gates has done).

Louann Reid, Chair of NCTE’s Conference on English Education, has identified this problem perfectly in her rebuttal of NCTQ’s recent report:

The recommendations are, however, backed by considerable funding, which helps extend NCTQ’s reach. CEE doesn’t have that kind of funding, but we do have reliable researchers and educators who can mobilize to tell the true stories of effective English teacher education. And I believe we must do so.

And herein lies the problem. While I also spurred some offense by my use of “press-release journalism,” the inordinate and uncritical coverage of NCTQ by the mainstream press proves my point that mainstream journalists respond to press releases (funding) while the experts (NCTE/CEE) remain mostly ignored.

And that’s the problem with “fairness” as the journalist’s guide instead of “critical.”

As researcher and scholar Bruce Baker added to the Twitter discussion, critical journalism would have responded to NCTQ quite differently:

It may appear “fair” to respond to NCTQ as one perspective in the education reform debate, but it isn’t beneficial to afford an organization and a report without merit more credence (or even the same) as the contributions of those who have credibility.

And choosing to cover a topic is a political choice; coverage is never unbiased. And framing a topic is also a political choice (what perspective to present first, how to frame in the headline and lede, etc.). In truth, assuming a dispassionate pose is always dishonest since as humans we are always being political. I suggest we are all better off being openly and purposefully political instead of conforming to misleading norms of “neutrality.”

Yet, this is how the mainstream media carry on day after day—especially in the misguided assault on teachers, public schools, and now higher education.

Legions of hardworking and dedicated classroom teachers are offended daily by the mainstream media being complicit in a false story being told by those with money and an agenda—while that same mainstream media either offer secondary equal time [2] or ignore a powerful group of educators, researchers, and scholars who have the experience and expertise to reform education as it needs to be reformed.

Journalists, if you are ever offended, I would add that coincidentally you are now educators’ comrades for another reason.

As a lifelong teachers (31 years with 13 years teaching journalism to wonderful high school students), I am asking that you join us in the fight instead of taking your impartial stance that allows the well-funded but misguided reformers to keep on keeping on.

Any takers?

[1] How many mainstream journalists covering the Vergara ruling in California addressed that the judge issuing the ruling has job security himself?

[2] As “fair,” we are occasionally allowed to rebut the “reformers” somewhere in the middle or bottom third of the coverage, but even then we are framed as “critics.”

Gates Moratorium Another Scam: Beware the Roadbuilders pt. 2

The road to hell is not paved with good intentions. [1]

The road to hell in the U.S. of the 21st century is paved with the appearance of good intentions fostered by billionaires.

Billionaires are our roadbuilders, and in education reform the main roadbuilder is Bill Gates.

Gates is a billionaire education hobbyist who started a road to small schools, only to bail, but has since shifted his roadbuilding to value-added methods (VAM) for evaluating teachers and his tour de force superhighway, Common Core.

Now that Gates has issued a call for a moratorium on the intersecting roads to hell (VAM linked to next-generations high-stakes tests of the Common Core), we must return to two important points:

  1. I cannot stress or repeat often enough: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one–the same as who should listen to him now.
  2. Beware the roadbuilders.

To the first point, Gates has never had and does not now have any credibility as an authority on education or education reform. Zero. His commentaries linked to his huge bribes should be ignored when he advocates for policy, and his call for a moratorium should be ignored as well.

Delaying a road to hell still means we will have a road to hell.

To the second point, as Nettie and the Olinka learn in the Color Purple, the roadbuilders have an agenda to be done to those in their way and to benefit the roadbuilders. Words such as moratorium, philanthropy, and entrepreneur are thinly veiled code for not good intentions but the self-interests of the roadbuilders.

The roadbuilders are powerful because money speaks louder than words; however, the option before us is not a moratorium but a collective non-cooperation to end their roadbuilding.

[1] The best version of this cliche is in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when Bill responds to Jake with the wonderfully ambiguous nod to the corrosive power of materialism: “‘Road to hell paved with unbought stuffed dogs’” (p. 78). In a capitalist society, the consumer’s hell is all the fake crap that consumer does not or cannot buy. The consumer doesn’t need the fake crap, of course, and there is never an end to the fake crap dangled before the consumer.

Teflon, Fatalism, and Accountability

One legacy of Ronald Reagan’s presidency is his being tagged the Teflon president, as Patricia Schroeder explained:

As a young congresswoman, I got the idea of calling President Reagan the “Teflon president” while fixing eggs for my kids. He had a Teflon coat like the pan.

Why was Reagan so blame-free? The answer can be found in the label that did stick to him — “The Great Communicator.”

Reagan’s ability to connect with Americans was coveted by every politician. He could deliver a speech with such sincerity. And his staff was brilliant in playing up his strengths. They made sure the setting for any speech perfectly captured, re-emphasized and embraced the theme of that speech. And, let’s be honest, Reagan told people what they wanted to hear.

Teflon is, I believe, an apt metaphor for the protective veneer of privilege and power. As Mullainathan  and Shafir detail, individual behavior tends to reflect powerful contexts such as abundance and slack or scarcity, and thus, those living in abundance and experiencing slack live much as Reagan lead since nothing sticks to the Teflon of privilege and power.

Let me offer a brief example.

Since I hold a salaried position as a tenure professor (all of which have been attained from effort built on statuses of privilege), if I drive down the highway to work one morning and hit something in the road, resulting in a ruined tire, I simply call in, cancel class, buy a new tire with my credit card, and then go on with my day. As well, my next paycheck will not reflect that morning in any way.

If I were an hourly employee driving a car on its last leg and having no credit card (or more likely, one that is maxed out with little hope of paying more than the minimum next month), that same morning would be quite different, and once I missed work, my paycheck would be reduced as well—as my ability to get to work for days may be in jeopardy if I cannot somehow acquire a new tire.

The slack that comes with privilege and power (whether or not the person earns or deserves either) is a Teflon coating that allows many conditions that constitute the burdens of poverty to slip right off the privileged and powerful.

I want to transpose the Teflon metaphor onto another context, as well, related to the key figures leading the education reform movement built on an accountability/standards/testing model.

Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and a wide assortment of political leaders (notably governors and superintendents of education) have some important characteristics in common: most have no background in education, many grew up and were educated in privileged lives and settings (such as private schools with conditions unlike the reforms they promote), many with children send those children to schools unlike the reforms they promote, and few, if any, suffer any real consequences for their misguided claims or policies. This crop of education reformers are Teflon reformers.

When Gates poured money and his influence into small school projects and then pulled the plug (a project that proves more about misunderstanding research than education reform), all the schools and stakeholders were left holding the bag, but Gates just shifted into “blame the teachers” mode and is investing his money and influence with the same gusto as before [1]. Education is his hobby, and nothing sticks to Gates while he is playing the game because of the Teflon coating provided by his enormous wealth (built on his privileged background).

The narratives around Duncan and Rhee are little different; they thrive on serial political appointments (often irrespective of the quality of their performance at any position [2]) and that their “leadership” skills (which they argue trumps experience and expertise in the filed that are leading [3]) are transportable from venture to new venture. But neither suffers any real career consequences as Teflon reformers.

Who does suffer the consequences of narratives, claims, and policies coming from Teflon reformers?

Students and teachers—who also represent two levels of relative powerlessness, sharing, however, a state of scarcity created by the high-stakes elements of the reform movement built on accountability.

Students and teachers also share a similar response to that scarcity combined with their powerlessness, fatalism [4].

For teachers, the self-defeating characteristics of that fatalism are captured in the current implementation of Common Core, which, as with all the preceding waves of new standards and tests, are imposed on teachers, not called for, designed by, or directed by teachers.

SC represents how caustic Teflon reform and teacher fatalism are for effective implementation of policy and practices. As is typical across the U.S., administrators, teachers, professional organizations, and unions nearly universally and without criticism accepted CC as a matter of course (an example of professional fatalism).

The standard line was that no one in any of those groups could stop or change CC from happening, thus they all felt compelled to implement CC as best as possible—including professional organizations explicitly saying they could not challenge CC as they had a duty to help teachers implement CC, again because no one could stop the implementation.

Now that many teachers have been given a great deal of training and a tremendous amount of CC-related materials have been purchased, SC is taking a predictable Tea Party turn against CC. Governor Nikki Haley has identified dumping CC as part of her re-election campaign and Tea Party motivated parents have begun to challenge directly schools for implementing CC.

While some states are also seeking to drop CC, others are simply renaming the standards. But in SC, the consequences of this churn created by Teflon reform policies and partisan backlashes against CC impact primarily teachers—trapped within demands for them to implement CC—and students who are bridging the years between their being taught and tested under one set of standards and soon to be taught (although some may have to mask that the lessons are CC-based) and tested under yet another.

For teachers, their own fatalism against the power of Teflon reform has resulted in low morale and scattered CC implementation (directly contradicting a central call for CC as a way to standardize what is taught across the U.S.).

Both Teflon reform and teacher fatalism doom any reform efforts in our schools. Teflon reformers continue to prosper despite the credibility of their claims or the outcomes of their policies.

And at the bottom of this power chain are students, themselves fatalistic.

Rick VanDeWeghe, expanding on the work of Rick Wormeli, in 2007 confronted how the flawed accountability paradigm remains uncontested, but at the center of Teflon reform’s greatest failure:

This research is based on a basic and controversial assumption about accountability. Quoting from Wikipedia, Wormeli states that accountability “implies a concern for the welfare of those with whom one works” (“Accountability” 16 [5]). This definition carries the message that “I’m here to help you along, to help you grow.” It implies that teachers are learner advocates and have a responsibility to help students grow as learners, just as students have a responsibility to demonstrate their growth as learners: It’s mutual accountability. This form of mutual accountability focuses on achievement—that is, we practice accountability when we focus on actual achievement and not on nonacademic factors, and we teach accountability when we demand that students show their real learning and growth. It sounds simple, but it gets complicated.

In contrast to mutual accountability, Wormeli notes, an alternative and more familiar definition of accountability values threat over concern (i.e., advocacy) for others….This is the ‘caughtya’ and ‘gotcha’ mentality,” and grading “is one of the default tools teachers use to play the ‘gotcha’ game.” When we play the gotcha game, according to Wormeli, “There is no growth in accountability within the student that will carry over to the next situation” (“Accountability” 16). Students learn to do whatever it takes to get the grade. (pp. 74-75)

Teflon reform along with with teacher and student fatalism have combined to create the exact failed accountability exposed by VanDeWeghe and Wormeli.

The current accountability paradigm embraced and perpetuated by Teflon reformers ignores the importance of mutual accountability as well as investment by all stakeholders in both the policies and the consequences of those policies.

When Teflon reformers are neither mutually accountable nor personally invested, their policies create fatalistic, and thus, ineffective teachers—in the same way that students become fatalistic (and learn less or simply check out of the learning opportunities) when teachers are above the accountability and thus not mutually invested in learning with students.

For education reform to work, we need to reject Teflon reformers for the sort of leadership accountability highlighted by Wormeli:

There is an old story about ancient Roman engineers and accountability. It says that whenever they were constructing an arch, the engineer who designed it stood directly underneath the center of the arch as the capstone was hoisted into position. He had worked hard, took responsibility, and knew his competence was true. It was the ultimate accountability if his design failed. (p. 25)

And thus, Wormeli concludes:

Accountability by its nature requires the interaction of others in our work. Individually, we are not, but together we are, accountable. (p. 26)

Together must include those leaders who rise above the Teflon veneer of authority and stand beside us, investing and risking in collaboration.

[1] For those unfamiliar with the history of Gates’s small schools focus and then shift to teacher quality (and if you jump to the assumption that my comments above are mere ad hominem), I offer the following reader (and suggest this exact pattern will occur again after teacher quality and Common Core fall as flat as small schools appeared to do to Gates):

[2] Rhee has suffered little if any career fail-out from “eraser-gate,” and Duncan attained in part his appointment as Secretary of Education on a mirage, the Chicago “miracle” (replicating the same misleading rise of Rod Paige to Secretary based on the debunked Texas “miracle”).

[3] This is the inherent problem with Teach for America, which is primarily a leadership organization, not an education organization.

[4] See Freire.

[5] See Rick Wormeli’s Accountability: Teaching through Assessment and Feedback, Not Grading

Gates’s Cannibalistic Culture: Coming to a School Near You!

Bill Gates has adopted education as a billionaire’s hobby for many years—once supporting small schools projects, but more recently focusing on teacher quality.

Little attention, however, has been paid in the mainstream media to Gates’s struggles in business (Microsoft) or his complete lack of expertise, experience, or success as an educational entrepreneur.

Until this expose by Vanity Fair addressing the key practices at the foundation of Microsoft’s failures (“Today, a single Apple product—the iPhone—generates more revenue than all of Microsoft’s wares combined”). [1]

Gates has argued for a need to identify the best (and worst) teachers in order to control who teachers teach and how:

What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.

In effect, Gates’s plan to address teacher quality is shared among almost all education reformers, including the USDOE and Secretary Arne Duncan, and focuses on labeling,ranking, and sorting teachers—a practice eerily similar to the “Cannibalistic Culture” identified as central to the failures at Microsoft:

Eichenwald’s conversations reveal that a management system known as “stack ranking”—a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor—effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald writes. “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

“Competing with Each Other”: Students as Weapons of Mass Instruction

It all starts with a lie. A very compelling lie that has the weight of common sense reinforced by the proclamations of people with wealth, Bill Gates, and power, Secretary Arne Duncan: Teachers are the single most important element in the learning of a child.

The problem is, of course, this is factually untrue. Nonetheless, the follow up lie (when you base a conclusion on a false permise, that conclusion is also false) is also compelling: Teacher quality must be improved!

The balance of evidence shows that measurable student outcomes (itself a serious flaw in how we draw conclusions about both student learning and teacher quality) is overwhelmingly linked with out-of-school factors—anywhere from about 2/3 to well over 80% of that data correlated with out-of-school factors.

Even arguing that teachers are the single most important in-school factor in measurable student outcomes is problematic since the research on that claim is mixed at best (some evidence suggests that school leadership and culture are as important, if not more so, than teacher quality).

Gates and the USDOE, then, are making a foundational problem of seeking solutions to problems that haven’t been identified. In other words, no one has shown definitively that teacher quality is the primary or even one of the primary causes of low student outcomes.

Now, once we move beyond that problem, approaches to teacher evaluation and pay may need to be revised, but ample evidence shows that the proposals being offered by Gates and Duncan, as well as all across the U.S., are also without solid evidence to support them (disproportionate teacher assignment has been identified, but that reality is somehow often ignored since the privileged children are winning in that inequity [see Peske & Haycock, 2006]).

Incentive-based evaluation and compensation have a long record of being ineffective, counter-production, and not cost effective (see Hout & Elliot, 2011, and Kohn, 1993/1999). Yet, as with the compelling message about teacher quality and student outcomes, competition and incentives are almost universally embraced in U.S. culture without regard for the evidence (see Worthen, et al., 2009, regarding competition).

That leads to the revelations about the previously unexplored problems at Microsoft exposed by Eichenwald—the Cannibalistic Culture of stack ranking by which all workers are evaluated on an imposed scale of ranking in order to identify the elite workers.

If Eichenwald’s characterization of the ranking as corrosive is accurate, leading as it did to workers “competing with each other,” then we can anticipate a truly disturbing reality to occur when teachers are held accountable for their students’ grade as significant percentages of their evaluations and compensation: Teachers will begin to use their students as weapons of mass instruction to defeat the students of the competing teachers, either in their own school or within the district.

This is a debilitating and ethically corrupt outcome that cannot be avoided if we continue to seek incentive-based, VAM approaches to teacher quality.

Education and teacher quality absolutely need to be reformed, but increasing the Cannibalistic Culture for teachers and students is not the path we need as a free people seeking universal public education as a central institution supporting democracy.

Education is a collaborative venture; a culture of competition is poison in the teaching/learning dynamic. Labeling, sorting, and ranking teachers and students is inexcusable in any form as long as we are genuinely committed to fostering a culture of collaboration necessary for learning.

The Cannibalistic Culture has created the winners who call for expanding that game. The Cannibalistic Culture benefits only the winners as it forces the status of loser upon most people regardless—again consider the stack ranking at Microsoft.

Teacher evaluation and education need to be reformed toward a culture of collaboration, a culture that encourages human interactions that are not about winning or losing and not about fighting for ever-shrinking pieces of the pie.

Public education and teacher quality reform currently being pursued is certain to drive good people from teaching and to ask less and less of both teachers and students. We have ample evidence from the disturbing Microsoft story being revealed to us, but we also have the stories of generations of teachers who know how education and teaching need to be supported and reformed.

Teachers want all students to succeed. Teachers want to be treated as professionals. Teachers want school conditions that support their work as educators.

Teachers do not want to use their students to outperform some other teachers’ students.

A Cannibalistic Culture will certainly create students as weapons of mass instruction that will destroy universal public education.

[1] See also The Poisonous Employee-Ranking System That Helps Explain Microsoft’s Decline, which prompted this reposting from Daily Kos July 5, 2012.

The Bully Politics of Education Reform

America is a bully nation.

America is the embodiment of might-makes-right. When another country (USSR) invades Afghanistan, America is filled with righteous indignation, but when America invades Afghanistan, well, all is right with the world.

America has bred the bully tactic of vigilantism in the sanctified Petri dish of law (Stand Your Ground), and the result is the person with the gun is the law while the victim’s innocence is extinguished along with the person’s life.

To mask the bully culture of the U.S., bullying is confronted as a school-based problem among children (note the distraction of the R rating in the documentary on bullying addressed by Nancy Flanagan and Douglas Storm). Yet, the exact ruling class who denounces bullying among children are themselves bullies.

So there is no surprise that the current education reform movement is characterized by bully politics.

NCTQ: Teaching Teachers a Lesson

In the mid-1800s, public education was called a “’dragon. . .devouring the hope of the country as well as religion. [It dispenses] ‘Socialism, Red Republicanism, Universalism, Infidelity, Deism, Atheism, and Pantheism—anything, everything, except religion and patriotism,’” explains Jacoby (2004, pp. 257-258). Bullying public education, then, has long roots, at least stretching back to the threat of universal public schooling detracting from the Catholic church’s control of education in the nineteenth century.

From there, the bullying of public schools continued, judging the quality of our public schools based on drop-out rates (Get adjusted, 1947). We must recognize that the demonizing of public schools and the condemnation of school quality are the way we talk about and view schools in the U. S. as popular discourse and understanding, but this historical badgering of schools has evolved recently into a more direct and personal attack on teachers.

While it appears we cringe when children bully each other, we have no qualms about inexpert, inexperienced, and self-proclaimed education reformers bullying an entire profession.

While the bullying can be witnessed in the discourse coming from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former-chancellor Michelle Rhee, and billionaire-reformer Bill Gates, one of the most corrosive and powerful dynamics embracing bully politics is the rise of self-appointed think-tank entities claiming to evaluate and rank teacher education programs. A key player in bully politics is the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ).

NCTQ represents, first, the rise of think tanks and the ability of those think tanks to mask their ideologies while receiving disproportionate and unchallenged support from the media.

Think tanks have adopted the format and pose of scholarship, producing well crafted documents filled with citations and language that frame ideology as “fair and balanced” conclusions drawn from the evidence.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

NCTQ grew out of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Education Leaders Council (ELC), which is associated with the Center for Education Reform, securing in the process unsolicited federal funds (over $9 million under George W. Bush).

In short, NCTQ is not an unbiased and scholarly enterprise to evaluate and reform teacher education. NCTQ is a right-wing, agenda-driven think tank entity determined to marginalize and discredit teacher education in order to promote a wide range of market-based ideologies related specifically to public education.

Further, and powerfully connected to the bully politics of NCTQ, is the association between NCTQ and U.S. News & World Report. In other words, NCTQ lacks educational and scholarly credentials and credibility, but gains its influence and power through direct and indirect endorsements from government, the media, and entrepreneurs (re: Gates foundation and funding).

NCTQ has released one report on student teaching. and a self-proclaimed national review of teacher preparation programs is scheduled for June 2013.

How, then, is this bully politics?

In both reports, NCTQ contacts departments and colleges of education with a simple but blunt request: Cooperate with us or we’ll evaluate you however we can, and publish our report regardless. These requests demand extensive data from the departments and colleges, and then subject these programs to standards and expectations designed by NCTQ completely decontextualized from the departments and colleges being “evaluated” against those standards. In other words, the basis for NCTQ’s evaluations have not been vetted by anyone for being credible. A department or college could very well be rated high or low and that rating mean little since the department or college may or may not consider the criteria of any value.

In fact, the first report by NCTQ has been reviewed (most think tank reports receive tremendous and uncritical coverage without review, and when reviewed, those reviews tend to receive almost no media coverage), confirming that NCTQ produces biased and careless work. Benner’s review concludes, in part:

The NCTQ review of student teaching is based upon the assumption that it is not only possible, but also worthwhile and informative to isolate student teaching from the totality of a teacher preparation program. This notion is in direct conflict with the perspective that effective teacher education programs avoid the isolation of pedagogy and classroom management content, offering such knowledge and skills within a learning environment centered upon a clinical experience.

The sample of programs cannot be characterized as representative based on any statistical standard or recognized sampling technique. The problems include disproportionate samples, artificial restrictions, selection bias toward the weakest programs within universities, lack of clarity regarding sample size, and unsound selection procedures for the sample-within-sample. The problems with data collection include how the ratings were derived, how site visit destinations were selected and how the site visits were used in the data analysis, and how principals were surveyed and/or interviewed.

Limitations in the development and interpretation of the standards, sampling techniques, methodology, and data analysis unfortunately negate any guidance the work could have offered the field and policy makers. However, the fact that this particular review is ill-conceived and poorly executed does not mean that all is well in teacher education. The education of future teachers can be greatly improved by increased selectivity of the students admitted into teacher preparation programs, strengthened clinical experiences woven into the study of teaching and learning, increased demand for teachers to have strong content knowledge and understanding of content-specific instructional strategies, and stricter enforcement of program approval standards.

NCTQ, espcially in its relationship with the media, appears more concerned about creating an appearance of failure within tecaher education than with genuinely addressing in a scholarly way what works, what doesn’t work, and how to reform teacher education.

The bully depends on status—the weight of appointment, designation—and the threat of wielding that power regardless of credibility. The bully depends on repetition and volume of claims over the confirmation of evidence or logic.

The current education reform movement is in the hands of bullies and in the vortex of bully politics. Left unchecked, bullying is incredibly effective for the benefit of the bullies and detrimental to everyone else.

Calling out the bullies, however, is possible and even relatively simple since the bully has nothing genuine to stand on.

In the long run, truth trumps bullying, but truth cannot win in the cloak of silence and inaction.

The States: More Bully Politics of Education Reform

From South Carolina to New Jersey to Wisconsin—and all across the U.S.—universal public education is under assault by the bully politics of education reform.

In my home state of South Carolina, Governor Haley and Superintendent Zais, neither of whom have experience or expertise in education, are seeking to attack unions (although SC is a non-union, right-to-work state), increase education testing through adopting Common Core State Standards (CCSS), deprofessionalize teachers through new accountability and merit-pay schemes, and cripple public schools by endorsing expanded choice initiatives.

Tractenberg details a similar pattern in New Jersey:

Gov. Chris Christie wastes no opportunity to trash Newark’s public schools. His assaults continued recently at a national school choice conference, where he and odd-couple partner Mayor Cory Booker were featured speakers.

Aside from Christie’s well-known penchant for confrontation, there are two big problems with his attacks.

First, he insists on citing “facts” that are either flat-out wrong or cherry-picked to emphasize the worst in Newark’s schools. An education expert recently questioned why those promoting school choice often use the best charter schools to characterize all charter schools and the worst regular public schools to characterize all those schools.

The situation is even more grim in Wisconsin, home of the relentless Governor Walker:

Walker is the archetypical bully. He has plenty of insecurities as a possible suspect in a John Doe case and as a college dropout–which necessitates his attacks on the ‘liberal’ academics. Self-esteem issues explain his need to repeatedly remind us how ‘courageous’ he has been and how he is like Ronald Reagan. Walker, like most bullies, yearns for status—which explains his national speaking tour.  Most blatantly bullying is Walker’s ‘divide and conquer’ management style (openly advertised to one of his billionaire campaign donors).

No group is better skilled at handling bullies, like Walker, than public educators. Teachers have much experience managing bullies in schools. We are trained in anti-bullying tactics. We have intervened in bullying situations and we advise our students on how to counter bullying. It is now time for Wisconsin’s teachers to embrace what we teach our students.

Steve Strieker, then, calls for a response in Wisconsin that every educator should heed: “Public educators must not be bystanders to Walker’s bullying.” Part of the action educators must take is to identify the hypocrisy and lack of credibility coming from the current leaders in the call to reform schools along “no excuses” and corporate ideologies.

Bully Bravado Masks Inexperience, No Expertise, and Hypocrisy

Presidents, Secretaries of Education, Governors, and State Superintendents of Education historically and currently have used their bully pulpits to speak to and directly influence public education in the U.S. and in each state. In the twenty-first century, billionaires, millionaires, athletes, and celebrities have increasingly joined those political leaders by adopting education as their hobby. Among all of these elites, several patterns expose their combined failure to understand the problems facing and solutions needed for education—despite their elitist status that allows them power and prestige in the education debate. Those patterns expose these leaders’ hypocrisy and lack of credibility and include the following:

• Most of these leaders experienced educational advantages unlike the schools they hope to create by dismantling public schools. Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and Mitt Romney, for example, enjoyed the luxury of low student-teacher ratios, but claim class size doesn’t matter (although class size does matter). The hypocrisy of the “no excuses” reformers reveals that these people living in privilege have a different standard for other people’s children.

• Most of these leaders have never taught a day in their lives, and have no background in education other than their appointments and self-proclamations as educators. Sal Khan—like Duncan, Gates, and the governors across the nation—for example, has been anointed “educator” and “innovator” without having ever taught, without holding any degrees in education.

• Most of these leaders have either a weak or nonexistent grasp on the current knowledge and research-base for teaching and learning. Further, like Christie, when these reformers call on evidence, they either cherry-pick, distort, or misrepresent the data. Recently, Superintendent Zais (SC) discounted paying teachers for years of experience or advanced degrees since, as he claimed, those two characteristic do not correlate positively with higher student test scores. But Zais does endorse merit pay, value-added methods of teacher evaluation, charter schools, and vouchers/tuition tax credits—all of which have the same correlation with higher student test scores as his claim about experience and advanced degrees.

With these patterns in mind, educators must consider directly the situation in Wisconsin, where a recall highlights the power of action, and possibly highlights yet again the negative influence of passive educators.

Wisconsin, along with SC and New Jersey, is not just one state in the union, but a very real crucible of democracy. Educators and citizens across the U.S. must not ignore that an attack on public schools, public school teachers, and public school students is an attack on democracy.

Democracy is not just an ideal, it is an act of the individual fully committed to the community.

References

Get adjusted. (1947, December 15). Time.

Jacoby, S. (2004). Freethinkers: A history of American secularism. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Note

Reposting of two separate blogs from 2012—The Bully Politics of Education Reform and The States: More Bully Politics of Education Reform

The (Lingering) Bill Gates Problem in School Reform

In his Washington Post Op-Ed (28 February 2011), Bill Gates builds to this solution to education reform*:

“What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.”

Gates also includes his own foundation’s survey to give his claims the appearance of evidence-based reform (although he misrepresents even that), but this claim, as well as the continuing free pass Gates and other education hobbyists and celebrities receive from the media and the public (see the softballs tossed to Gates in an interview at Newsweek, for example), proves to reveal several ironic lessons in education reform:

Wealth and celebrity do not equal expertise. The United States is a celebrity culture, and we revere wealth because we aspire to wealth. Why do we listen to Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz? Because Oprah endorsed them—not because they offered the public credible expertise in their fields. The current education reform debate is being driven by wealth, celebrity, and life-long bureaucrats—not by the expertise and experience of millions of teachers, scholars, and researchers who have credible evidence about the problems that face our public education system and the likely solutions that would move us closer to the promise of that system in our democracy.

Calls for accountability tend to come from those outside and above that accountability. As I will discuss later, the role of evidence is interesting and disturbing in the claims made by the new reformers, including Gates. A central part of the push to hold teachers accountable is tying teacher pay to evidence, but when these claims are made, Gates and others are never required to show any evidence themselves about their claims. As well, billionaires, millionaires, celebrities, and politicians all exist in lives in which they are less often held accountable for their actions when compared to the vast majority of Americans.

Teaching and learning are not the simple transmission of a set body of knowledge from an authoritarian teacher and to a passive classroom of students. The smoldering charges that our schools are overburdened by “bad” teachers, and thus we need to improve our teaching core, has distracted us from considering first exactly what the teaching/learning process should look like in universal public education system built to support a free people and a democracy.

The new reformers have framed teaching as both the most important element in educational outcomes (although evidence refutes that simplistic claim) and a simple act of transmitting knowledge to a large group of students to raise test scores linked to national standards.

If we need the best and the brightest and if teachers alone can overcome the weight of poverty, then reducing teaching to a service industry contradicts internally an argument that is also easily disproved since both initial claims are false. Teaching and learning are messy, idiosyncratic, and nearly impossible to measure or trace to single points of causation.

The political and corporate elite as well as the general U.S. public simply do not respect teachers and do not value education. The United States, as the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of humanity, has and can make anything happen we want. We move forward with wars when we decide we should, we bail out failing banks when we feel we should, we make a whole host of celebrities wealthy when we want (and we never hold them accountable for their egregious lack of respect for anything), and we could eradicate childhood poverty and support fully a vibrant and world-class education system–if we wanted to. But we don’t.

Evidence doesn’t matter, but it should. As the first point above suggests, the public seems content with celebrity and wealth, but skeptical of evidence. I have had dozens of experiences offering public commentary on education, citing extensively why I hold the positions I do, but one of the most common replies I receive is, “Anybody can make research say whatever they want.” While I empathize with the sentiment, this belief is flawed because it oversimplifies the research debate in the same way that the new reformers oversimplify the education reform debate. The truth about research is that one study is interesting, but that one study proves little.

Once research has been peer-reviewed, while no guarantee, that study gains credibility. Then, as research builds to a body of peer-reviewed research with clear patterns, we reach safe ground for public claims and policy (see this about charter schools, for example). Neither cherry-picking studies to advance an agenda nor being cavalier and cynical about research is conducive to advancing humanity through our greatest gifts as human — our minds.

Poverty is the unspoken and ignored weight on education outcomes, and while U.S. public education needs significant reforms, education reform will never succeed without the support of social reforms addressing childhood poverty and income equity.

This final ironic lesson from a billionaire holding forth repeatedly on education reveals its problem by the obvious complexity of the statement itself. The sentence is too much for our sound-bite culture that politicians feel compelled to appease. While we revel in making international comparisons to demonize our schools (falsely), we fail to acknowledge international evidence of how to address school reform.

Let me suggest two international approaches we should be considering, both from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (UK)—a compilation of evidence on the impact of poverty on educational success and adetailed consideration of wide-scale social and education reform.

In 2013, again, U.S. political leaders and the public appear disgusted with a public education system, but this sentiment has been with us since the Committee of Ten declared education inadequate in the 1890s. We must, then, come to terms with two facts: (1) We must drop Utopian claims about education because education is not the sole key to overcoming social failures, but a single element in the larger working of our society, (2) claims of crisis in education are misleading since the problems we are considering (student outcomes and drop-out rates, for example) are patterns that have existed for over a century.

Many are arguing that the new reformers must be valued since they are creating a debate about education and rattling the cage of an entrenched status quo that is failing. I find this argument weak since we have no evidence that inexpert celebrity claims are resulting in a close consideration of what is truly wrong with our schools and what should be pursued to create the world-class schools we claim we want.

In fact, this current round of school bashing and calls for accountability and reform are an intensifying of the exact same failed solutions we have tried for three decades–all the while ignoring the genuine problems and the weight of evidence for what reforms would work

And this leads to a question I have: If Bill Gates had no money, who would listen to him about education reform? No one–the same as who should listen to him now.

* Reposting of original piece from The Answer Sheet (March 2, 2011). See why Gates remains a lingering problem at Jersey Jazzman.

“We Are Entering the Age of Infinite Examination”

In 2011, Jim Taylor entered the poverty and education debate, asking U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and billionaire/education entrepreneur Bill Gates a direct question*:

I really don’t understand you two, the U.S. Secretary of Education and the world’s second richest man and noted philanthropist. How can you possibly say that public education can be reformed without eliminating poverty?

Taylor’s discussion comes to an important element in the debate when he addresses Gates: “Because without understanding the causes of problems, we can’t find solutions,” explains Taylor, adding. “You’re obviously trying to solve public education’s version of the classic ‘chicken or egg’ conundrum.”

Here, recognizing the education/poverty debate as a chick-or-egg problem is the crux of how this debate is missing the most important questions about poverty—and as a result, insuring that Duncan, Gates, Michelle Rhee, Paul Vallas, and other corporate reformers are winning the argument by perpetuating the argument.

The essential questions about poverty and education should not focus on whether we should address poverty to improve education (where I stand, based on the evidence and the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.) or whether we should reform education as the sole mechanism to alleviate poverty (the tenant of the “no excuses” ideology found at Knowledge Is Power Program [KIPP] charters); the essential question about poverty is: Who creates and allows poverty to exist in the wealthiest and most powerful country in recorded history?

The Conservative Nature of Power

As a basic point of logic, any organized entity—a society, a business, a school—has characteristics that are either created or tolerated by those in power controlling that organization. All entities are by their nature conservative—functioning to maintain the entity itself. In other words, institutions and their norms resist change, particularly radical change that threatens the hierarchy of power.

In the U.S., then, poverty exists in the wider society and performs a corrosive influence in the education system (among all of our social institutions, our Commons) because the ruling elite—political and corporate leaders—need poverty to maintain their elite status at the top of the hierarchy of power.

While the perpetual narratives promoted by the political and corporate elite through the media elite have allowed this point of logic to be masked and ignored in American society, we must face the reality that people with power drive the realities of those without power. Yes, the cultural narratives driven by the elite suggest that people trapped in poverty are somehow in control of that poverty—either creating it themselves due to their own sloth, that they somehow deserve their station in life, or failing to rise above that poverty (and this suggestion allows the source of poverty to be ignored) from their own failure to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.

But that narrative has no basis in evidence—since those without power have control of that which creates the conditions benefiting the elite. The powerful allow those without power to have some token or artificial autonomy—as parents with children—in order to create the illusion of autonomy to keep revolt at bay; this is why the political and corporate elite use the word “choice” and perpetuate the myth that all classes in America have the same access to choice.

Poverty as Necessary for Current Hierarchies of Power

How does poverty benefit the powerful in the U.S.?

  • U.S. cultural narratives depend on the Utopian elements of democracy, meritocracy, and individual freedom. Those ideals form the basis for most of the cultural narratives expressed by the political and corporate elite in the U.S. Poverty works as the Other in those narratives—that which we must all reject, that which we must strive to avoid. If the Utopian goals, including eliminating poverty, is ever achieved, however, the tension between the working-/middle- class and those in poverty would be eliminated as well, exposing the artificial perch upon which the ruling elite sit. The necessity of poverty works both to keep us from attaining the Utopian goals and to make the Utopian goals attractive.
  • Poverty contributes to the crisis motif that keeps the majority of any society distracted from the minority elite benefiting disproportionately from the labor of the majority. Crises large and small—from Nazis, Communists, and Terrorists to the War on Drugs to teen pregnancy to the achievement gap and the drop-out crisis—create the perception that the average person cannot possibly keep these crises under control (crises that would plunge otherwise decent people into the abyss of poverty) and, thus, needs the leadership and protection of the elite. The majority of average people can only be carried to the promised land of Utopian peace and equality by the sheer force of personality held by only a few; these ruling elite are the only defense against the perpetual crises threatening the ideals we hold sacred (see below for how we identify those elite).
  • Along with Utopian promises and the refrain of crisis, the ruling elite need the pervasive atmosphere of fear—whether real or fabricated—in order to occupy the time and energy of the majority. [1] Poverty becomes not just a condition to be feared, but also those people to be feared. The cultural narratives—in contrast to the evidence—about poverty and people living in poverty connect poverty and crime, poverty and drug abuse, poverty and domestic violence, poverty and unattractiveness, and most of all, poverty and the failure of the individual to grasp the golden gift of personal freedom afforded by the United States.

Just as we rarely consider the sources of poverty—who controls the conditions of our society—we rarely examine the conditions we are conditioned to associate with poverty and people living in poverty. Are the wealthy without crime? Without drug abuse? Without deceptions of all kinds? Of course not, but the consequences for these behaviors by someone living in privilege are dramatically different than the consequences for those trapped in poverty.

The ruling elite have created a culture where we see the consequences of poverty, but mask the realities of privilege.

Winners always believe the rules of the game to be fair, and winners need losers in order to maintain the status of “winner.” The U.S., then, is a democracy only as a masking narrative that maintains the necessary tension among classes—the majority working-/middle-class ever fearful of slipping into poverty, and so consumed by that fear that they are too busy and fearful to consider who controls their lives: “those who are stuck at a machine and supervised for the rest of their lives.” [2]

In the narrow debate about poverty and education, we are being manipulated once again by the ruling elite, within which Duncan and Gates function, to focus on the chicken-and-egg problem of poverty/education so that we fail to examine the ruling elite creating and tolerating poverty for their own benefit. By creating the debate they want, they are winning once again.

And that success derives in large part from their successful propaganda campaign about the value of testing.

The Meritocracy Myth, Science, and the Rise of New Gods

Now that I have argued for shifting the discourse about poverty and education away from the chick-and-egg problem to the role of sustaining and tolerating poverty for the benefit of the ruing elite, let’s look at the central role testing plays in maintaining the status quo of power in the U.S. And let’s build that consideration on a couple pillars of evidence.

First, despite decades committed to the science of objective, valid, and reliable standardized testing, outcomes from standardized tests remain most strongly correlated with the socio-economic status of the students. As well, standardized tests also remain biased instruments.

Next, more recently during the thirty-year accountability era, the overwhelming evidence shows that standards, testing, and accountability do not produce the outcomes that political proponents have claimed.

Thus, just as the poverty/education question should address who creates and allows poverty and why, the current and historical testing obsession should be challenged in terms of who is benefiting from our faith in testing and why.

The history of power, who sits at the top and how power is achieved, is one of creating leverage for the few at the expense of the many. To achieve that, often those at the top have resorted to explicit and wide-scale violence as well as fostering the perception that those at the top have been chosen, often by the gods or God, to lead—power is taken and/or deserved.

“God chose me” and “God told me” remain powerful in many cultures, but in a secular culture with an ambiguous attitude toward violence (keep the streets of certain neighborhoods here crime-free, but war in other countries is freedom fighting) such as the U.S., the ruling elite needed a secular god—thus, the rise of science, objectivity, and testing:

[A] correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge; a genealogy of the present scientifico-legal complex from which the power to punish derives its bases, justifications, and rules; from which it extends it effects and by which it masks its exorbitant singularity. [3]

As I noted above, testing remains a reflection of the inequity gap in society and the high-stakes testing movement has not reformed education or society, so the rising call for even more testing of students, testing based on nationalized standards and used to control teachers, must have a purpose other than the Utopian claims by the political and corporate elite who are most invested in the rising testing-culture in the U.S.

That purpose, as with the necessity of poverty, is to maintain the status quo of a hierarchy of power and to give that hierarchy the appearance of objectivity, of science.

Standards, testing, and accountability are the new gods of the political and corporate elite.

Schools in the U.S. are designed primarily to coerce children to be compliant, to be docile; much of what we say and consider about education is related to discipline—classroom management is often central to teacher preparation and much of what happens during any school day:

The exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible. [4]

In education reform, the surveillance of students, and now the surveillance of teachers, is not covert, but in plain view in the form of tests (and even Gates calling for cameras in all classrooms) allowing that surveillance to be disembodied from those students and teachers—and thus appearing to be impersonal—and examined as if objective and a reflection of merit.

Testing as surveillance in order to create compliance is central to maintaining hierarchies of power both within schools (where a premium is placed on docility of students and teachers) and society, where well-trained and compliant voters and workers sustain the positions of those in power:

[T]he art of punishing, in the regime of disciplinary power, is aimed neither at expiation, nor precisely at repression….It differentiates individuals from one another, in terms of the following overall rule: that the rule be made to function as a minimal threshold, as an average to be respected, or as an optimum toward which one must move. It measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the “nature” of individuals….The perpetual penalty that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institution compares, differentiates, hierachizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes. [5]

The political and corporate elite in the U.S. have risen to their status of privilege within the “scientifico-legal complex” that both created that elite and is then perpetuated by that elite. As I noted above, the winners always believe the rules of the game to be fair and will work to maintain the rules that have produced their privilege.

The Expanded Test Culture—“The Age of Infinite Examination”

Foucault has recognized the central place for testing within the power dynamic that produces a hierarchy of authority:

The examination combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of normalizing judgment. It is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes possible to qualify, to classify, and to punish. [6]

Thus, as the rise of corporate paradigms to replace democratic paradigms has occurred in the U.S. over the last century, we can observe a rise in the prominence of testing along with how those tests are used. From the early decades of the twentieth century, testing in the U.S. has gradually increased and expanded in its role for labeling, sorting, and controlling students. In the twenty-first century, testing is now being wedged into a parallel use to control teachers.

Those in power persist in both cases—testing to control students and testing to control teachers—to claim that tests are a mechanism for achieving Utopian goals of democracy, meritocracy, and individual freedom, but in both cases, those claims are masks for implementing tests as the agent of powerful gods (science, objectivity, accountability) to justify the current hierarchy of power—not to change society or education: “[T]he age of the ‘examining’ school marked the beginnings of a pedagogy that functions as science.” [7]

Foucault, in fact, identifies three ways that testing works to reinforce power dynamics, as opposed to providing data for education reform driven by a pursuit of social justice.

First, testing of individual students and using test data to identify individual teacher quality create a focus on the individual that reinforces discipline:

In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of their being constantly seen…that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection. And the examination is the technique by which power…holds them in a mechanism of objectification. [8]

This use of testing resonated in President Obama’s first term as Secretary Duncan simultaneously criticized the misuse of testing in No Child Left Behind and called for an expansion of testing (more years of a student’s education, more areas of content, and more directly tied to individual teachers), resulting in: “We are entering the age of infinite examination and of compulsory objectification.” [9]

As Giles Deleuze confirms in “Postscript on the Societies of Control”:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family….The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….In disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)

Next, testing has provided a central goal of sustaining the hierarchy of power—“the calculation of gaps between individuals, their distribution in a given ‘population.’” [10] Testing, in effect, does not provide data for addressing the equity/achievement gap, testing has created those gaps, labeled those gaps, and marginalized those below the codified level of standard.

What tends to be ignored in the testing debate is that some people with authority determine what is taught, how that content is taught, what is tested, and how that testing is conducted. In short, all testing is biased and ultimately arbitrary in the context of who has authority.

And finally, once the gaps are created and labeled through the stratifying of students and teachers:

[I]t is the individual as he[/she] may be described, judged, measured, compared with others, in his[/her] very individuality; and it is also the individual who has to be trained or corrected, classified, normalized, excluded, etc. [11]

Poverty and Testing—Tools of the Privileged

Within the perpetual education and education reform debates, the topics of poverty and testing are central themes (poverty is no excuse, and better tests are always being promised), but we too often are missing the key elements that should be addressed in the dynamic that exists between poverty and testing.

Yes, standardized tests remain primarily reflections of social inequity that those tests make possible, labeled as “achievement gaps.”

But the central evidence we should acknowledge is that the increased focus on testing coming from the political and corporate elite is proof that those in privilege are dedicated to maintaining poverty as central to their hierarchy of authority.

Standards, testing, accountability, science, and objectivity are the new gods that the ruling class uses to keep the working-/middle-class in a state of “perpetual anxiety,” fearing the crisis of the moment and the specter of slipping into poverty—realities that insure the momentum of the status quo.

* Reposted and revised/updated from earlier publication at Truthout.

References

[1] Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books. See Foucault’s discussion of “perpetual anxiety” (p. 144) in “The Birth of the Asylum” from Madness and Civilization.

[2] Ibid., p. 177.

[3] Ibid., p. 170.

[4] Ibid., p. 189.

[5] Ibid., p. 195.

[6] Ibid., p. 197.

[7] Ibid., p. 198.

[8] Ibid., p. 199.

[9] Ibid., p. 200.

[10] Ibid., p. 202.

[11] Ibid., p. 203.

Revisiting Legend of the Fall Series

With the seemingly never-ending media attention paid to Michelle Rhee, I want to share my Legend of the Fall series first posted at Daily Censored during late 2010 and early 2011 (posts confront Rhee [see Parts II and III], Bill Gates, and Geoffrey Canada’s roles in corporate/”no excuses” reform). I regret that much of this remains relevant:

Legend of the Fall

Part I

Thomas, P. L. (2010, October 19). Legend of the fall: Snapshots of what’s wrong in the education debateThe Daily Censored.

Part II

—–. (2010, December 2). The education celebrity tour: Legend of the fall, pt. II. The Daily Censored.

Part III

—–. (2010, December 17). Fire teachers, reappoint Rhee: Legend of the fall, pt. IIIThe Daily Censored.

Part IV

—–. (2010, December 28). Wrong questions = wrong answers: Legends of the fall, pt. IVThe Daily Censored. 

Part V

—–. (2011, January 10). Supermen or kryptonite?—Legend of the fall, pt. VThe Daily Censored. 

Part VI

—–. (2011, February 27). Celebrity “common sense” reform for education–Legend of the fall pt. VIThe Daily Censored.

Part VII

—–. (2011, May 14). Maher’s “Real Time” education debate failure redux: Legend of the Fall, pt. VIIThe Daily Censored.