Federal Opinion

Is a High Stakes Moratorium Worth Embracing?

By Anthony Cody — June 21, 2014 6 min read
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Yesterday I carried a guest post by John Thompson which suggested we ought to accept as an olive branch the recent concession by the Gates Foundation, which has called for a two year moratorium on high stakes consequences for Common Core tests. We who have been building a movement to resist high stakes testing and the privatization of public education are facing a novel challenge - a small success!

This should not be too great a shock, as unfamiliar as it is. Movements for social change are often met with a combination of tactics designed to diffuse, distract and mollify. When a movement grew strong against the Vietnam War in 1968, presidential candidate Nixon announced he had a “secret plan” to end the war. Nonsense, of course, but it helped quiet the anti-war movement for a bit, and after he was elected the war raged on for six more years.

The movement against high stakes testing and corporate reforms has had a few victories in recent months. The Common Core tests have been a disaster in New York, compounded by official arrogance and unwillingness to respond to protest. The Gates Foundation’s $100 million data warehouse inBloom collapsed as a result of parental concerns about student privacy. This coming Thursday, there will be a teacher-led protest at the Gates Foundation’s headquarters in Seattle (disclosure - I will be among the speakers at this event.) Mayoral candidate Ras Baraka defeated a heavily funded rival in Newark, New Jersey, where corporate-style education reform was a top issue.

The response from the Gates Foundation needs to be looked at carefully. Does this mean that, as NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen suggests, they are looking at the evidence, and are truly considering the possible negative effects of the reforms they have been pushing so forcefully for the past six years? Or is this merely a tactic to diffuse opposition at a time when it is growing?

It won’t surprise any regular readers of this blog to learn that I am skeptical about this. If indeed the Gates Foundation were following the evidence, they would have abandoned VAM-based teacher evaluations several years ago, when researchers like Linda Darling-Hammond and Edward Haertel pointed out the terrible inaccuracies and cruel consequences of such systems. This evidence was directly brought to their attention two years ago on this blog, in an extended dialogue.

The key thing we need to look at regarding the moratorium the Gates Foundation has suggested is how it will impact our students. Does it relieve them of a test-centered education? Does it alter the path we are on towards an education system monitored by tests, increasingly delivered by technological devices, all aligned to a master set of standards? Or does it simply slow the pace slightly, in order to placate and silence critics?

Thompson himself makes this case:

Gates blames others for not getting test-based accountability right. Presumably, a two-year moratorium would give top-down reformers the opportunity to hold management accountable for improperly holding students and teachers accountable. Apparently, the Foundation would use the moratorium to tinker with precisely the amount of coercion - not too harsh but not too easy - that should be imposed on the systems that make teachers and principals toe the line.

As a thought experiment, what would it look like if the Gates Foundation truly was attending to the research and evidence that is showing how damaging the new Common Core tests and high stakes accountability systems are? Would they simply be calling to defer the worst effects of this system for two years?

A real appraisal of the evidence would reveal:

  • VAM systems are unreliable and destructive when used for teacher evaluations, even as one of several measurements.
  • School closures based on test scores result in no real gains for the students, and tremendous community disruption.
  • Charter schools are not providing systemic improvements, and are expanding inequity and segregation.
  • Attacks on teacher seniority and due process are destabilizing a fragile profession, increasing turnover.
  • Tech-based solutions are often wildly oversold, and deliver disappointing results. Witness K12 Inc’s rapidly expanded virtual charter school chain, described here earlier this year.
  • Our public education system is not broken, but is burdened with growing levels of poverty, inequity and racial isolation. Genuine reform means supporting schools, not abandoning them.

The fundamental problem with the Gates Foundation is that it is driving education down a path towards more and more reliance on tests as the feedback mechanism for a market-driven system. This is indeed a full-blown ideology, reinforced by Gates’ own experience as a successful technocrat. The most likely hypothesis regarding the recent suggestion that high stakes be delayed by two years is that this is a tactical maneuver intended to diffuse opposition and preserve the Common Core project - rather than a recognition that these consequences do more harm than good.

But meanwhile, the machinery of Common Core and associated accountability systems will continue to roll. We will continue to have tests aligned to these standards, which will yield terrible results for our students, especially those facing the greatest challenges in life and in school. We will continue to label these students, and the schools they attend, as failures. Vendors of technologically-based learning systems will continue to peddle their Common Core aligned “innovations,” diverting billions away from the classroom. Data from these tests will continue to flow to various vendors and developers. Our public schools will continue to be systematically undermined and replaced by charter schools. And we will continue to ignore the evidence that this model has failed.

Until there is a recognition that standards and tests are not vehicles for equity and civil rights, we are stuck in a failed paradigm. Until there is a recognition that market-based competition between schools is expanding inequities rather than repairing them, we are stuck. A two year moratorium on the most destructive uses of test scores is a tiny step in the right direction. But given that it is a step taken only for the preservation of a momentous shift in the wrong direction, it is hardly cause for much celebration.

We cannot become numb to the ever-growing influence of the Gates Foundation and other corporate philanthropies. The fact that non-profits and policymakers alike are awaiting directives from Gates officials, rather than responding to reality and their constituents is a huge indication that something is wrong in our democracy.

The way the fight over education has been framed is deeply problematic. This is not some fight between equally armed political factions. What we have is democratically controlled public schools being systematically overrun and dominated by federal policies that mandate how students, teachers and administrators are held “accountable.” These policies are being driven by a handful of large corporate philanthropies like the Gates Foundation. When we push back against this, we are advocating for participatory democracy, for a return to civil society based on the will of the people, rather than the purchase of influence. We want our schools controlled by locally elected representatives, not distant government or philanthropic bureaucracies.

There should be an immediate moratorium on all high stakes tests. But this is not a decision that should rest in the glass and steel offices of the Gates Foundation in Seattle. It should be made as part of a democratic process. We should have Congressional hearings into the overuse of tests, and the process by which Common Core came to be a vehicle for national standards. And voters should pay close attention to where policymakers are getting their marching orders.

There was a song that captured the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, “Keep your eyes on the prize.” In this case the prize is genuine education reform that restores democratic control of schools to our communities, resources and responsibility to public education, and supports teachers rather than vilifies them. That is where we need to keep our eyes focused.

What do you think? Should we accept as an olive branch the Gates Foundation’s recent suggestion that high stakes for Common Core tests be deferred? Or should we take a stand against their growing influence?

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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.