You open your local, regional, state, or national newspaper of choice on your laptop or tablet to see a headline such as We need great teachers.
Well, you went to school and you pay taxes on schools, and you either had teachers you loved or loathed—so, sure, you read the Op-Ed.
My career in education has included almost two decades teaching public high school and coaching, another decade-plus as a university professor in teacher education, and more than two decades writing scholarship and public pieces on education. Thus, I want to suggest reading that Op-Ed on education isn’t as simple as it may seem.
Step one is to scan down to the information about who wrote the piece and how she/he is connected to the topic of education.
In our example above that is key because the Op-Ed is just another propaganda piece out of StudentsFirst, a collection of people who smile a great deal so maybe you won’t notice that the organization is about self-promotion and political ambition and not students. StudentsFirst was founded by Michelle Rhee, discredited former TFA recruit who has formed as many organizations as she can on the backs of students in order to market her brand: her.
“We need great teachers” is penned by Bradford Swann, smiling a bit less ambitiously than Rhee. Swann, you see, has no background in education, but a series of partisan political stops that are pretty clearly a way to build a political resume—not put students first.
Swann cranked out “better teacher” Op-Eds while working at StudentsFirst Georgia also.
And while we must never stoop to ad hominem attacks—you may be asking, so what about his arguments and claims?—at the very least, Op-Eds coming out of StudentsFirst deserve a great deal of scrutiny if not skepticism since there is now a long track record of Rhee’s organizations shoveling manure and claiming it is roses.
Swann’s single and brief nod to proving his claim about the importance of “great teachers” is this:
According to a recent study published in the Economics of Education Review, an excellent teacher can produce up to a year and a half of student learning in a single school year—a phenomenal result!
Along with wondering about the juvenile use of an exclamation point, we must ask two important questions: (1) What is this journal?, and (2) does this study represent in any way the body of research on teacher quality?
The Economics of Education Review is an open-access journal that seems to have a review process for publishing work. But I cannot find the research Swann mentions because he fails to give us enough information. I don’t know if the study is credible or if any outside reviewers have investigated the claims or methods.
What is an excellent teacher, even?
In my work as a scholar on education, I can note that the research base on making claims about “great teachers” is one that is mostly hokum. The race to prove high-quality teacher impact on measurable student outcomes is at the very best a jumbled mess.
One paragraph with one cryptic nod to a single study (with an exclamation point!) does not an argument make—but it does signal someone is hoping no one pays attention.
The rest of this is about the hollow sham that is the business mantras of “innovation!” and “outside-the-box thinking!”—more red flags that there is nothing to see here; please move on.
Educational researchers, teacher educators, and K-12 classroom teachers know about teacher quality, and can offer a wealth of complex arguments about how to identify and cultivate teacher quality. Why are almost all the Op-Eds, then, by people who have never taught or done any real research or studying of the field of education?
When you read an Op-Ed on education, then, take note of who is making the argument and for whom.
Education over the last 30-plus years has become a playground for people with partisan political aspirations.
StudentsFirst is one such organization, and the Op-Eds they crank out are about their political resumes, not children or education.
Just a Reminder
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 . 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 ) and that their “leadership” skills (which they argue trumps experience and expertise in the filed that are leading ) 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 .
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.
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 ). 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.
 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):
- Bill Gates And His Silver Bullet (2008)
- The Small Schools Myth (2010)
- Why Did the Gates Small-High-Schools Program Fail? Well, Actually It Didn’t (2010)
- Bill Gates’ School Crusade (2010)
- Bill Gates’ troubling involvement in school reform (2010)
- The Bill Gates problem in school reform (2011)
 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”).
 This is the inherent problem with Teach for America, which is primarily a leadership organization, not an education organization.
 See Freire.
 See Rick Wormeli’s Accountability: Teaching through Assessment and Feedback, Not Grading
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).
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.
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.
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.
Get adjusted. (1947, December 15). Time.
Jacoby, S. (2004). Freethinkers: A history of American secularism. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Reposting of two separate blogs from 2012—The Bully Politics of Education Reform and The States: More Bully Politics of Education Reform
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.
The erosion of support for the Commons is most distinct in the failure of foundational support for universal public education in favor of the more powerful interests of corporate America. Just as public schools and teachers have no political party, the so-called liberal media have also abandoned public education and America’s workers, teachers.
Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert have fallen into the corporate education reform trap by buying into and thus selling the “bad” teacher myth, the charter school scam, the Michelle Rhee self-promotion tour, and the Teach for America masquerade. NBC and MSNBC, along with CNN, have long been marginalized by the Right as shining examples of the liberal media, but all have fallen in line with the corporate education reform agenda through programming such as Education Nation—corporate reform propaganda pretending to be investigative media.
This week, PBS (certainly the gold-standard of liberal media, if we believe public perception) ran an episode of Frontline examining once again Michelle Rhee: “The Education of Michelle Rhee.”
Teachers, scholars, and education activists—including education historian Diane Ravitch—held onto the slimmest glimmer of hope that the unmasking of Rhee would finally come in the form of genuinely democratic media, free of corporate agendas.
However, the program with the tagline “FRONTLINE examines the legacy of one of America’s most admired & reviled school reformers” left educators and public school advocates saying, “Et tu, liberal media?”
On balance, PBS provided Rhee yet more media coverage, satisfying her self-promotion, but leaving a tremendous vacuum of things unsaid as well as truly accurate and confrontational responses to Rhee on the cutting room floor.
John Merrow and American journalism have once again failed the democratic purposes of public media and the promise of universal public education.
Merrow, however, has chosen to run a much more detailed and enlightening piece online, in writing, about Adelle Cothorne, leading many to wonder: Why offer the larger and more powerful TV audience Rhee propaganda-lite and bury something closer to Rhee confrontation in an online blog?
The answer is ugly.
The Commons in the form of journalism and education have been consumed by the consumer culture that feeds the Corporate Greed pooling America’s resources in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.
Public education, its students, and its teachers have no political party and have no media to fight for the truths that must be revealed if democracy, and not corporate interests, is our goal.
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
Thomas, P. L. (2010, October 19). Legend of the fall: Snapshots of what’s wrong in the education debate. The Daily Censored.
—–. (2010, December 2). The education celebrity tour: Legend of the fall, pt. II. The Daily Censored.
—–. (2010, December 17). Fire teachers, reappoint Rhee: Legend of the fall, pt. III. The Daily Censored.
—–. (2010, December 28). Wrong questions = wrong answers: Legends of the fall, pt. IV. The Daily Censored.
—–. (2011, January 10). Supermen or kryptonite?—Legend of the fall, pt. V. The Daily Censored.
—–. (2011, February 27). Celebrity “common sense” reform for education–Legend of the fall pt. VI. The Daily Censored.
—–. (2011, May 14). Maher’s “Real Time” education debate failure redux: Legend of the Fall, pt. VII. The Daily Censored.