Every time I write about Michelle Rhee, as I noted in a recent post, I feel like I should reenact the shower and wire-brush scene in Silkwood to purge myself of participating in the ceaseless media attention disproportionately afforded Rhee while the voices, daily efforts, and expertise of K-12 practitioners are not just ignored, but marginalized and even demonized.
So it is with a shared reservation (see Jose Vilson’s excellent post) that I once again wade into the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) debate—not to rehash my unequivocal opposition to the CCSS movement, but to offer a brief look at the picture revealed once all the pieces of the corporate/ “no excuses” reform movement puzzle are assembled. First, then, let me identify the primary pieces of that puzzle:
National high-stakes tests built on CCSS
Reformed teacher evaluation driven by VAM-based teacher ranking
Teach for America
These various pieces are an effective strategy with a common thread because separately each reform element creates a focal point of debate; for an educator or researcher to challenge any one of these policies is a seemingly endless task since the reform agenda is being set by those with political and financial power. Refuting the need for new standards, much less the flaws with implementing those new standards, immediately positions educators as reactionary and allows the self-appointed reformers to characterize those challenges as being for the status quo and against reform and accountability.
For example, teachers in my home state of South Carolina who have spoken against VAM-style teacher evaluation reform have been publicly labeled by the state superintendent of education, Mick Zais, as trying to avoid being held accountable for their work.
The picture these reform pieces show is not a patchwork of evidence-based and innovative strategies for improving public education, but a carefully unified process of infusing even more deeply the power of high-stakes standardized testing into the fabric of public schools. Look beneath any of the elements listed above and find the allure of new and better tests, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2010) celebrated himself:
“Today is a great day! I have looked forward to this day for a long time–and so have America’s teachers, parents, students, and school leaders. Today is the day that marks the beginning of the development of a new and much-improved generation of assessments for America’s schoolchildren. Today marks the start of Assessments 2.0. And today marks one more milestone, testifying to the transformational change now taking hold in our nation’s schools under the courageous leadership and vision of state and district officials.”
Duncan’s entusiasm doesn’t stop there:
“This new generation of mathematics and English language arts assessments will cover all students in grades three through eight and be used at least once in high school in every state that chooses to use them. In addition, the PARCC consortium will develop optional performance tasks to inform teachers about the development of literacy and mathematics knowledge and skills in kindergarten through second grade.
“I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education. For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know if students are on-track for colleges and careers–and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction. Yet that fundamental shift–re-orienting K-12 education to extend beyond high school graduation to college and career-readiness–will not be the only first here.
“For the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for– tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom.”
And what provides the basis upon which Duncan makes these claims?:
“Yet existing assessments are only part of the problem. An assessment system and curriculum can only be as good as the academic standards to which the assessments and curriculum are pegged. We want teachers to teach to standards–if the standards are rigorous, globally competitive, and consistent across states. Unfortunately, in the last decade, numerous states dummied down their academic standards and assessments. In effect, they lied to parents and students. They told students they were proficient and on track to college success, when they were not even close.
“The Common Core standards developed by the states, coupled with the new generation of assessments, will help put an end to the insidious practice of establishing 50 different goalposts for educational success. In the years ahead, a child in Mississippi will be measured against the same standard of success as a child in Massachusetts.”
Even if we account for the sort of soaring rhetoric associated with political discourse, Duncan clearly envisions policy that must include a staggering and unprecedented commitment to testing that rises to the level of parody. But for all stakeholders in public education, the results of all the policies linked to standardized testing must include a brave new world of testing that boggles the mind in terms of the amount of time and funding required to design, field test, implement, and manage pre- and post-tests aligned with CCSS for every single course and teacher year after year after year.
As Yong Zhao has detailed carefully in an exchange with Marc Tucker, commitments to education reform policy linked to CCSS and the high-stakes tests built on these new standards are not anything new, are not justified by any clearly identified problems or needs, and are not consistent with the larger democratic goals of universal public education:
“[L]et me restate my main point: it is impossible, unnecessary, and harmful for a small group of individuals to predetermine and impose upon all students the same set of knowledge and skills and expect all students progress at the same pace (if the students don’t, it is the teachers’ and schools’ fault). I am not against standards per se for good standards can serve as a useful guide. What I am against is Common and Core, that is, the same standards for all students and a few subjects (currently math and English language arts) as the core of all children’s education diet. I might even love the Common Core if they were not common or core.”
Classroom teachers, educational researchers, and educational historians have offered and continue to offer a clear and valid voice that Duncan’s claims and the resulting policies are deeply flawed, but as Brian Jones asks, “If all of this testing is so bad for teaching and learning, why is it spreading?” According to Jones, the answer detailed in the full picture is clear:
“As the tests spread and the consequences associated with them rise, absurdities abound….
“The shift toward using student data to evaluate teachers is part of a larger trend of restructuring public education to align it with the rest of the economy. As one of the last heavily unionized groups of workers in the country, teachers stand in the way of privatization. And to the extent that they are self-governed, self-motivated and enjoy professional autonomy, teachers are a ‘bad’ example for other workers.
“Even though it may not make for great teaching or genuine learning, high-stakes standardized testing is spreading because it is the perfect tool for controlling and disciplining teachers–and for training the next generation to internalize the priorities of the system.
“The attempt to quantify and track every aspect of an employee’s ‘performance’ is not new.”
Standardized testing—the inevitable consequence of commitments to CCSS, reformed teacher evaluation, and each piece of the corporate reform puzzle—combines the veneer of objectivity with the power of perpetual control over schools, teachers, and students, what Foucault characterized as “…entering the age of infinite examination and of compulsory objectification” (p. 200):
“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….
“[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….
“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….
““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.” (pp. 177, 170, 197, 199)
Now, in the context of whether or not the U.S. is committed to universal public education as a central element of a commitment to democracy and individual liberty, and then whether or not education reform is seeking that foundational goal, time has come to set aside the puzzle-piece-by-puzzle-piece dismantling of the corporate reform agenda and confront directly the central flaw with the picture itself, as Jones acknowledges:
“The solution to this dilemma is not to develop better tests, but to tear down the whole enterprise of high-stakes standardized assessment and replace it with authentic assessments that are organic to the process of real teaching and learning.
“In sum, the attempt to quantify learning and teaching in a standardized manner is extremely expensive; takes up weeks and, in some places, months of time in school; narrows the curriculum; undermines the intrinsic joy of learning; and leads to a culture of corruption and cheating. As a measure of student learning, standardized tests are an extremely limited instrument. As a measure of teacher effectiveness, they are even more flawed.”
Measuring, labeling, ranking, and then sorting students, teachers, and schools is an anti-democratic process, a dehumanizing process, and a mechanism for control. At the center of this process being antithetical to both our democracy and our faith in education is the fundamental flaw of high-stakes standardized testing.
Do many of the puzzle pieces of the corporate reform puzzle misuse standardized tests and the data drawn from those tests? Yes.
But we must not fall prey to the simplistic claim that the problem is how tests are used and not the tests themselves.
The ugly full picture of corporate reform shows that the problem is testing. Period.