Federal Opinion

A Perfect Storm Hits Public Schools

By Anthony Cody — February 22, 2012 5 min read
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Guest post by Steven Sellers Lapham.

Note: Steven Sellers Lapham and Jack Hassard worked together on this post.

Public schools in America are under attack from many directions, and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) seems bent on delivering a lethal one-two-three punch. This decade will likely witness more neighborhood schools shutting down, crowded classrooms, excellent teachers fired, and children fobbed off to “online learning programs.” Let’s recall that Prince Edward County, Virginia, closed its schools 1959-64, creating a “lost generation” of children who were hobbled, as adults, by years of missed education. Today, a school district in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, cash strapped and unable to pay its teachers, is being kept open only by a federal court order.

We now face the prospect of a school closing because the local tax base has withered, the state government is under water, and the federal government has deemed the school to be unworthy of aid due to lackluster scores on high-stakes student tests. The federal Department of Education, which should be the strongest defender of public schools, is making the problem worse.

Punch #1: Punish the Poor.

The slogan “Race to the Top” is social Darwinism at its most ugly: Reward those who are doing well (inevitably, schools in wealthier neighborhoods) and punish those who are struggling (predictably, schools in America’s poorer neighborhoods). A child in Oklahoma, Mississippi, or North Dakota should not have to rely on a state administrator’s clever grant-writing skills in order to receive a good education. Certainly, some grant monies should be available for innovation and experimentation in schools. But to make “success” the guiding star of educational policy is wrong.

Punch #2: Death by Paperwork.
States might avoid the draconian punishments of the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) by applying to ED for a “waiver.” The mad rush is on. To date, eleven states have submitted a “flexibility report.” Georgia’s is 249 pages long. California estimates that enacting all of the waiver requirements (unfunded mandates) would cost at least $2 billion and has declined to apply. ED could make the waiver process useful by placing a 1,000-word limit on applications (a bit longer than this essay) and asking only for a brief description of a state’s educational goals. This would free up teachers and administrators to do real work.

Punch #3: Absurd Metrics.
Teacher evaluations will be based on “student growth.” There is, however, no scientific basis for doing this. The practice contradicts a 2011 National Academy of Science report, “Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education.”

Using test scores to measure the efforts of teachers is a pseudoscience akin to phrenology of the 1800s, which purported to measure one’s intelligence according to the shape of one’s skull. It also brings to mind journalists and social scientists of the 1920-60s who misued prison statistics to “prove” that black people are genetically inclined toward criminal behavior. In his Harvard University Press book, Khalil Gibran Muhammad established how a racial and racist, ‘scientific’ discourse promoted this idea. Today, we use high-stakes test scores to “prove” that embattled schools are “failures,” and that hard-working professionals aren’t working hard enough.

There are many reasons why student test scores might not mount endlessly upward, such as an influx of non-English speaking immigrants; a rise in divorces; the town’s factory closes; family transience; a rise in home foreclosures; a sad absence of parents, who are serving in Afghanistan; etc. Or maybe the for-profit company that created the test got a little sloppy when it wrote the test questions, skewing the results. These powerful influences cannot be adequately controlled in a statistical analysis on the small scale of a single school district, a single school, and least of all, a single teacher.

Pushing Back
We must ban the use of standardized tests to make high-stakes decisions of any kind. Standardized test scores might be used ethically as a diagnostic tool (“Apply first aid here!”), but never as an excuse for punishment (“Bleed the patient dry!”). As a study by Fairtest has revealed, the system has placed an inhumane burden on teachers and administrators on the ground, resulting in cheating scandals in 32 states and the District of Columbia. Valerie Strauss reports that the “misuse of standardized tests mandated by public officials has created a climate in which increasing numbers of educators feel they have no choice but to cross ethical lines.”

Of course, teachers, like any professional group, should be evaluated and held to high standards. Experienced teachers and administrators in the school itself have personal knowledge of the teacher, students, local community and curriculum. Peer observation and evaluation have been a part of healthy educational settings for centuries. There are rigorous protocols for teacher evaluation provided by professional and subject-discipline associations. Let’s use those.

In New York State, 1,359 principals (and even more teachers) have signed a letter protesting the use of students’ test scores to evaluate their job performance. California, with more public school students than any other state, has jumped ship. So has Pennsylvania, apparently. “The emphasis on testing under the waiver plan is as heavy-handed as it has been under NCLB,” said educational historian Diane Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education.

Replacing NCLB with a new law could propel our nation’s educational standing. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s most cherished goal is to return the United States to first place in the percentage of the population who graduate from college. To do that, let’s provide every child who could benefit from daycare with free admission to Head Start, which is the most powerful predictor of success for children born into poverty. Then we can strive to make every school in every neighborhood in America a center of excitement and excellence, not just the chosen few.

Until Congress passes a new federal education law, ED can write its rules and marshal its resources to assist students, teachers, and schools - and stop punishing them. And it can adopt a new slogan to match this new ethic. How about “Raise All Boats!”

Have the Federal Government’s education acts (No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top) created conditions that have led to the “perfect storm” hitting American education? What do you think?

- Steven Sellers Lapham is an editor at a nonprofit educational association. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.