Equity & Diversity Opinion

John Thompson: Time to Kill the Testing Vampire

By Anthony Cody — July 16, 2014 7 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

My three decades of experiences dealing with the crack and gangs era of the 1980s, and then teaching in inner city schools, taught me to have an even keel. I’ll never forget, however, the Friday night in 1993 driving home from our football game. Stunned, I wondered if we were witnessing the collapse of society as we knew it.

During the 1980s AIDS epidemic and after the “Hoova” set of the L.A. Crips street gang took over my part of Oklahoma City, I fell in love with children in my neighborhood who had endured trauma beyond anything that I could conceive, and I became a teacher. Virtually overnight, Supply Side economics spurred deindustrialization and wrecked families. Within a decade, almost every good-paying manufacturing job disappeared from our town. Our state had long been known for its tragic history of booms and busts, hopes raised and crushed. As an academic historian, I had documented some of the worst suffering in modern American history; now I saw the unfolding of the same type of tragedy.

Were we now experiencing a world historical collapse comparable to the Dust Bowl or the Okie Movement?

My memory may be playing tricks on one point. A couple of years later, I often drove over a hill on NE 23rdstreet, saw the smoke and rubble of the Murrah Federal Building and wanted to cry. That night, as I recall, I was briefly cheered by the distant beauty of that doomed edifice.

That evening, every five or ten minutes, I broke up a gang-related fight or a drug deal. I was part of a team of parents, police, deputy sheriffs, and teachers who just tried to get us through the night without a disaster. We sure didn’t try to restrain the dealers or the combatants. It was simply a matter of keeping the teens moving for 3-1/2 hours.

Briefly, during our team’s goal line stand, it looked like we could watch some of the game. There was no way, however, that the mayhem could pause for four plays.

I took some stray punches that night, but who cares? As long as we could get the combatants to run off into different directions, it was all good. A drug deal in the restroom brought a couple of grins. The gangbanger saw me enter, grabbed the money off the flour and started to dart away. Quickly, he thought to grab most of the loose “product” and, again, started to bolt. A look of recognition came across his face. It was not like we were in an environment where the law matters. So, the teen calmly got back down on his knees and scraped up the rest of the drugs. Pleasantries were exchanged as he moved on.

Our wonderful principal stood all night on her ever-present ladder, directing volunteers to the places where violence was brewing. As the stadium emptied, she said, “I’m going to break the rules.” My thanks was a kiss on the cheek.

I’ve recalled this drama since I started a critique of “Estimating the Effects of No Child Left Behind on Teachers and Their Work Environments and Job Attitudes,” by Jason Grissom et. al. It uses NCES polling data from 1993-94 to 1999-2000 to 2003-04 to 2007-08 to argue that NCLB did not undermine the professional autonomy of teachers. I argue that Grissom et. al did no more than present evidence that NCLB didn’t damage schools more than crack and gangs had. Almost all of their evidence was based on a poll of teachers in 2004, which was a time when the law had barely begun to spread toxic testing through the system. At that early time, it certainly had not inflicted extreme harm on the 3/4ths of teachers whose subjects weren’t tested. Also based on 2004 data, Grissom et. al discredit the journalism and studies of 2007 to 2012!?!?

Grissom et. al. basically argue that 2004 polling data indicates that teachers were gaining more control of their classroom and were more satisfied with teaching. I argue that the polling data probably was informed by the economic take off of the late 1990s. Real growth in wages increased by more than 12% from the late 1990s to 2002. Even more importantly for explaining teachers’ job satisfaction, during this era, student performance (as measured by the reliable NAEP tests) increased significantly according to three of its four main tests. There is no logical way that the opinions expressed by teachers in 2004 can be used to argue that reporters and other scholars, in 2007 to 2012, misinterpreted the opinions of the teachers who they communicated with.

This study was not designed to unfairly help reformers discredit opponents of bubble-in accountability, but it joins a genre that uses pre-NCLB increases in student performance to argue that a “meteor” or the magical era of pre-NCLB “consequential accountability” should be credited to the law’s test and punish regime. But, in this post, that is the last I will say on that misuse of evidence.

Instead, I would like us to recall the period during the first term of President Bill Clinton and mourn a lost opportunity. Yes, this was a time of Clinton’s “Sister Souljah” tactics of beating allies up, but doing so just enough to prove his toughness. This was the era of Clinton and Dick Morris borrowing the Lee Atwater scorched earth personal politics of destruction. High dollar publicists demonized teachers for political reasons, not as a legitimate education policy.

But, this was also a time when a new generation of young activists rushed to the rescue of inner city schools. They lacked the knowledge or experience to understand why the cheap shots on teachers and unions were not a viable path to school improvement. Having no experience with the social pathologies unleashed by the 1980s (which more privileged persons often knew as “Morning in America”), reformers were clueless about the forces that created the abominable conditions of so many 1990s schools.

Perhaps that saddest single aspect of accountability-driven reform is that its public relations campaign sought to drive a wedge between the generations. It cravenly pitted Millennials against Baby Boomers. It spun a tale where policies from seniority to our retirement benefits were pitched as threats to young teachers. Then, tragically, the failed test-driven reform movement morphed into corporate reform and an assault on the values of public education.

So, we need to mourn the lost opportunity that was the contemporary area of school reform. We need a public, cross-generational conversation so that lessons can be learned for guiding the next, very different, reform era. This post is an introduction to my upcoming contributions to the discussion we need.

Firstly, the worst case scenario did not occur. The economic boom of the Clinton second term gave us some breathing room. The obvious lesson, I will argue, is that education, alone, cannot cure our interconnected social and economic ills. School improvement must be a part of a larger, collaborative cultural effort.

Secondly, crack, gangs, violence, and AIDS declined. We can debate the reasons why our recovery occurred, but I emphasize one key factor - the moral consciousness of children. They prompted much of the change. Young people who had seen the demise of so many of their older siblings, cousins, and parents made a fundamentally different set of choices. We cannot say exactly how it happened, but youth propelled a change. They knew there is more to life than fear and retribution,

I believe a similar, though probably less dramatic, transition is due. Students and young teachers have endured more than a dozen years of test-driven reform. They know there is more to learning than punish and reward. A new day is coming.

Job #1 is finishing the job and driving a stake through the heart of the testing and privatization vampire. We Baby Boomers must share our experiences with younger generations, as we understand that they will choose their own paths.

What do you think? How long can something as intellectually dishonest as school “reform” continue? Corporate reform is still a threat, but isn’t it time to start a cross-generational discussion about an alternative? Isn’t it time for a backlash led by the generation that endured the brunt of testing mania?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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