Let’s Not and Say We Did
Since we’ve handed over the education agenda to testing companies, we’ve also been told that relying on standardized tests and looking at accountability measures would help to increase equity. In fact, this was one of the major calling cards of the No Child Left Behind act – that if we keep better tabs on student performance, we’ll be able to use this information to close the achievement gap. Most of the evidence out there today, however, shows that this gap has not been significantly reduced. So if we are putting all of our resources behind a program to reduce poverty and reduce the achievement gap, why isn’t it happening? Enter the axis powers of education: testing companies, policy makers, and textbook companies.
Could it be that it never was the intention to close the achievement gap?
Here’s how it works. Policy makers write curriculum, such as the Common Core Standards. On its face, the review and establishment of a national set of standards might not be so bad. While some critics ask if it is ethical for all students to learn the same thing, it isn’t clear whether these standards will actually standardize education. What they do intend, however, is for all students to be reaching for the same high bar. The content may be adapted or adopted by region or district, but the goal was to get all students to have a vertically aligned curriculum that would challenge suburban and urban kids alike. Holding high standards across the board is, in my opinion, an integral part of improving equitable education. So far, so good.
The problem though is that the policy makers who write the curriculum do not have the power to enforce their plan. It’s like a difference between the legislative and executive branches of the government. The curriculum developers can put out any kind of utopian-unicorn plan, but unless the test companies align their test with those standards, the curriculum remains a wish. Students must then learn what the test determines to be important and the curriculum becomes secondary.
Test companies are the new gatekeepers, and policy and tests remain in their own vacuums. And because the two entities continually evolve – tests are exchanged for newer ones, curricula is redesigned to meet new standards (as influenced by the knowledge economy and our fears of Ivan Drago). Thus, those two industries prattle on, independent of one another, while schools scramble with meager resources to consolidate the pieces and teach a unified program that’s worthwhile.
To throw in one more complication, most content taught in schools is done with the support of one or more textbooks. Textbook companies produce the books for states based loosely on the standards of the policy makers. Loosely because they are a company, and it is much more efficient to produce broad spectrum books that can be used in the majority of the states without having to change too much. These books cannot effectively keep up with test standards that change frequently. Nor are they truly aligned with the current standards/curricula of the policy makers, because textbooks are expensive and most schools don’t purchase a set for a particular group more often than once a decade. Thus, at best teachers are working with a textbook that’s several years old and covers about 70% of the current curriculum. The other 30% of the content that students must learn (according to the curriculum) the teachers generate from independent sources and expertise. But old books and new standards, neither of which align to the subject matter and rigor of a brand new test, is a recipe for disaster.
Aligning the Stars
Let’s take this down to the classroom level. At the end of the year, students must pass exam X. They follow a program in which they learn the skills and knowledge dictated by the state policy documents Y. To get them there, teachers use the textbook Z as the main resource. Because none of these products communicate with each other, it’s a veritable maze to simply organize. Only skilled, experienced educators (usually working together with other skilled, experienced educators) have the capacity to develop a plan that adequately addresses the content and skills necessary while simultaneously ensuring that students don’t fall behind. And still, we don’t support our teachers in this endeavor. No. Instead, we give them a three-tiered labyrinth to navigate and demand that they do it for less pay or no benefits.
The scary part is that we didn’t see this happening. Policy and decision making in general aren’t rational. They are reactionary and incrementalist. Bit by bit, the policies are tuned towards some new magic potion (accountability!) or away from some old fear (Ivan!). But bit by bit, we’ve ushered in changes that privatize schools, use our students as resources for the globalized economy, and increased our reliance on numerical data (that may or may not be accurate but certainly isn’t holistically reflective of a student’s ability or potential ability). We find ourselves in a place where none of our systems (textbooks, curriculum, tests) align with each other and we’re wondering how we got here. We are now the proverbial frogs in the pot. The temperature is boiling but we only got the message just now.
What’s the danger of handing over our educational agenda to corporations? Stay tuned for the next post in this series…