This has been an interesting few weeks. On June 12, I was the keynote speaker at the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow-PUSH Coalition annual conference in Chicago. Rev. Jackson was gracious, warm, thoughtful, and concerned about the future of public education. I don’t think I have ever prayed so often in just a few hours, but the prayers were good: Prayers for the children, for their families, for lifting the burdens of poverty and homelessness and despair from them and for their lives to be better.
Two days later, I was in Washington, D.C. I went to the White House, where I was invited to meet with the highest-ranking members of the administration’s domestic policy staff. The conversation was off the record, so I can’t report anything specific. I stated my views, they stated theirs. We disagree on things like merit pay, high-stakes testing, evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores, and giving public dollars to privately managed charters. I think Race to the Top will turn out badly, they don’t. I don’t think I changed anyone’s mind, and they didn’t try to change mine
Then on June 15, I was guest of honor at a buffet dinner hosted by a member of Congress in her home. About 30 members of Congress attended, including key members of the House Education and Labor Committee and the administration. I explained what I believe will be the negative consequences of high-stakes testing, merit pay, and Race to the Top. The exchange was spirited and off the record. I felt that most of those present agreed with my concerns, but I concluded that the Democratic leadership will support President Obama’s agenda.
Here is my overall impression of what is happening in D.C. The federal government now controls education policy in the United States, thanks to No Child Left Behind, which caused an unprecedented expansion of federal power into every public classroom. As you know, I believe that NCLB did not raise standards, but actually caused a dumbing-down of American education through its accountability provisions, which emphasize only basic skills. When schools are incentivized to measure only basic skills, then everything else loses time and is de-emphasized: the arts, history, geography, civics, science, foreign languages, even physical education. When the test results are used to reward or punish teachers, principals, and schools, then there is even less time for anything that is not tested. When education becomes warped in this way, quality goes down. John Dewey’s mythical “best and wisest parent” would not enroll his or her child in such a school.
Perhaps I will be proven wrong. Yet I don’t see how it is possible to improve education while neglecting everything but basic skills. Even privately managed charter schools are affected negatively by high-stakes testing; to claim ever-rising test scores, they are prompted to avoid low-performing students, thus bypassing the very students that charters were originally intended to serve.
The Obama administration’s answer to the problem that I pose—the shrinking time for non-tested subjects in an environment of high-stakes testing—is this: Test everything. I recoil in horror at the thought. Imagine the cost and waste involved in designing and administering tests in history, civics, science, geography, the arts, foreign language, and so on. With so many tests and so much test preparation, would there be any time for instruction? Add to this scenario the burden that will be imposed by value-added assessment. To do it right in any subject, tests must be administered in September and again at the end of the school year: Twice as many tests as are now required by NCLB. Add to this the new data systems, with every teacher accountable for every individual score.
At some point, parents and teachers will rise up and say, “Enough. We are drowning in data. Turn off the computers that measure everything and treasure nothing. Education is getting worse, not better.” We must earnestly hope for that day. Indeed, borrowing a page from Rev. Jackson, I will pray for it.
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