Posts by IEP406

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…

Economization of Education: Why We Like Tests

Remember back in the day when our relationship with the U.S.S.R. was so strained that it felt delicious just to cheer for Rocky Balboa beating the mess out of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV? Those Cold War days made it so euphoric to see the American underdog finally get the job done. Our current educational policy, believe it or not, could arguably be encapsulated in the dynamic relationship between the two titans in that film. The fear that the Russians could be number one in science and technology (or in boxing) is the same fear that drove our “star wars” programs in the 80s and 90s and it also the primitive ground for our frantic obsession with test scores. Phillips and Ochs (2003) call this anxiety “Sputnik Shock,” and use it to describe the fear that Americans felt when we suddenly realized that we weren’t as competitive as we thought and thus began in earnest to focus on education as the tool to fix it. And even though our current educational landscape is far different from what it was in the early 1960s, we still seem driven by the same fear that led to the production of books with titles like What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn’t. In essence, our current testing culture began with the “anxiety created by Soviet achievement” (Phillips, p. 458).
The American fear of being non-competitive has intensified with the rise in globalization, and reverberations are being felt throughout the educational system. We now know intimately more about our competitors and their potential and this knowledge leads to constant comparison. Who is performing better in math? Will we fall behind in engineering?! These expressions of self-doubt have had a mobilizing effect on our school system, but not in the way you might imagine. Rather than the government tightening up controls on schools and pushing for higher standards or better training for teachers, the opposite has happened. The government has relaxed policies around curriculum and school governance and made it easier for private sector management agencies and corporations to get involved. Essentially, the state has abdicated its educational throne.
Verger, Novelli, and Altinyelkin (2012) argue that governments who have lost their centrality begin to take direction from the market and economics, thus creating a private market of education and changing permanently their ability to respond to educational issues (p. 7). Now it may not be directed solely towards the former Soviet republics, but on a global scale, we are desperately seeking solutions to stay at the top. And in today’s globalized world it seems that our government is willing to bet on any plan that has enough money or prestige behind it. Verger et al. (2012) suggest that the motivation to be competitive economically has driven most countries in the world to try to become ‘knowledge economies.’ These countries “aim to raise their competitiveness and perceive education and knowledge as key assets for this purpose” (p. 14).
And that’s where testing comes in. How does a country know whether or not it will be effective in the economy? How does a country know how skilled its future citizens will be in developing the science and technology to keep it secure and competitive in a global economy? Well, the current crystal ball is student performance on internationally normed exams. And in the United States this translates to student performance on national exams that will provide the feedback that policy makers can use to make adjustments that will keep America sharp.
There are a lot of problems inherent in our current course of action if the above is indeed true. One of the biggest problems, as I’ve commented in a previous post, is that reliance on testing causes a shift in our curriculum. It prioritizes values and promotes content that was not intended to be the backbone of our educational system, and by so doing, it allows test making companies unprecedented access to set the agenda for our curriculum. This form of privatization is of grave concern, as the government has downsized its role in defining national educational priorities. Resources are no longer directed towards programs that will serve democratic ideals in providing quality education for all students, but increasingly test scores are used like the NFL combine to sort and group students into tracks where they remain.

And while this categorization doesn’t serve the individual citizenry, it does serve the interest of the market economy. For in a market economy, commodities are valued, and something has to determine which commodities have the most value. Alex Molnar (2006) argues that the market driven companies, “offer no guidance on matters of justice or fairness and cannot, therefore, represent the interests of all children. Turning children over to the market ensures that they will inevitably be treated as an expense to be reduced or as a resource to be harvested. In the process some children and their families will necessarily be considered more valuable than others. For the market to produce winners, it requires that there be losers” (p. 635).
Now, I don’t know about you, but as someone who has a stake in the quality of education that we provide in our schools, I have a hard time equating students to resources. And on the other hand, I believe that what Molnar writes is compelling – the more we allow corporations to run our schools, the less students are treated as valued clients. Instead, they become commodities that we produce to further our economic agenda. And that shift makes it much easier to test, track, and sort students without regard for the actual people in the system.
Some critics might ask, “What’s the problem with taking a few cues from the market to trim the fat in the school system? Introducing a little bit of privatization and competition should make everything a bit more competitive and ultimately get the public schools back on track, right?” Lots of researchers have documented that public versus private competition does indeed lead to greater efficiency. But efficiency does not equate with effectiveness when it comes to schools. The problem with introducing market strategy in schools is that schools have been operating on sub-adequate budgets for decades now. Redirecting additional funds (to consultants for testing companies, etc.) cuts funding and essentially leaves them high and dry. Schools operate on a skeleton crew without enough resources to be safe places for their students to spend the day.

The bigger problem is that increasing efficiency has very little to do with the end result of improving student performance. Our schools are incredibly diverse places, operating for a multitude of purposes. Market efficiency cannot reach the individual students and teachers in the way that they must be reached in order to reform the system. In fact, it is my contention that this system of privatization will never have the “intended” effect of increasing efficiency (or effectiveness) because (1) it never has worked (see Edison school systems) and (2) it is symptomatic of a greater problem in our political system, and that is a general apathy for education in general. It starts with our policy makers, and can be traced in pockets throughout the system. In the next two posts of this series, we’ll explore this concept in more depth, first through the new allocation of resources, and then through a critique of how current media devalues teachers.

School Cheating Scandals and Privatization

“Any time you’ve got cheating going on by adults, that’s egregious.” Michael A. Davis, general counsel to the Philadelphia school district. (New York Times)

Recently, Philadelphia school officials discovered a testing scandal in which and administrators at some schools were caught doctoring answer books and even re-writing the answers of their students. The school community was shocked. Parents were outraged. But, when it comes down to it, what’s the big deal?

In my opinion, the cheating that has become increasingly commonplace in our nation’s schools is no longer an abnormality but rather the new standard that reflects a distinct shift in values. This shift shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has read a headline about the recent financial crises that favored big corporations over individual citizens. Nor should it come as a surprise to anyone who has paid the least bit of attention to how frenetic the pace of school reform has become in the last decade. From charter schools, to scripted curriculums, to standardized tests, it seems that when it comes to improving our schools, there is a new flavor of the week, every week. And yet we find ourselves still asking how we will improve our schools, and why isn’t [insert current reform buzzword here] working?

The above quote by Michael Davis typifies an attitude that most of us would express over such a scandal. Schools, after all, are meant to be the conduit through which we reproduce societal values. Our democratic (American!) society values fairness and hard work, and it rewards individuals accordingly for their effort (ostensibly). As such, our schools have been set up to mold young citizens into this pattern. But if we take a closer look at the policy changes that have been heralded through schools in the last decades, we actually see that schools as meritocratic organizations have long been a thing of the past. Why is that?

Accountability. Everyone likes to know if something is working. And how do we know that schools are working? We look at test scores. These scores, as measured by various tests (MATs, PSSAs, CATs, etc.) aren’t a new concept. Performance indicators, such as these have been used for years for a variety of purposes. I remember looking at my test scores in elementary school and learning where I fell on a national scale. But standardized tests don’t just give students a window into their individual competitiveness anymore. Since the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed, they have been used as the go-to tool used to make decisions on what is now a grand and frightening scale.

Test scores now determine which students pass and which students fail. They also determine what passing and failing means. Test makers, not teachers, are now in charge of determining what the most important parts of the curriculum are, how much each topic should be emphasized, and how well students should know it. “Really?” you ask. Really. What used to be used as a comparative tool is now the machine used to steer national and state school agenda. Regardless of what the curriculum states or what might be in the textbook, teachers must ensure that their students have mastered the items that “could” be measured on a standardized exam. If students don’t grasp it, everyone faces dire consequences. Students will be retained in the same grade level or sorted into an educational track that perpetuates their current performance level through decreased curriculum depth and increased test preparation and basic skills instruction. Teachers in many districts can ultimately be dismissed for being “ineffective,” and “ineffective” is a label that is increasingly based largely on this sole measurement. Remember when someone asked you who your favorite teacher was? Doesn’t matter anymore. Your favorite teacher is now the one who gets you to pass the test. In fact, it no longer truly matters if teachers help students appreciate knowledge or learn to develop self-efficacy, because students are sorted, labeled, tracked, placed, and packed up for their future life based on the score they get on the MAT’s in third grade.

Wait a second, you say, this seems a bit unfair. Why do we rely on one test score to determine a student’s worth? In the next series of blogs on this topic, we’ll actually explore some compelling analyses of why the nation has turned to scores. But to wrap up this particular piece on the Philadelphia cheating scandal, I ask you to draw the line yourself. If we increase the importance we place on singular standardized tests, and these tests now determine the trajectory of a student’s career, and at the same time we remove the authority from teachers/schools/communities to define what is important to learn, then what do we expect to happen? Whose values are we reproducing in our students?

The pressure has been raised to a fever pitch – students, teachers, and schools are in a sink-or-swim game of survival. Meanwhile, we are relying on an incredibly small population to tell our schools (and us) what to think and what matters. And while our democratic (American!) values used to include hard work and individual effort, it now values something else. Efficiency. And what could be more efficient than teachers and principals taking matters into their own hands to pre-determine the next class of winners?