The current debate about whether and how to apply merit pay principles to teacher compensation makes this a good time to think about the measuring tools that “No Child Left Behind” requires schools to apply to student “achievement.”
That word, “achievement,” in itself is misleading shorthand. It sounds as though there is some clearly measurable way to state what our children know and are able to do. But in reality, the federal law requires that schools make “Adequate Yearly Progress” toward one hundred percent proficiency in only two subjects, reading and mathematics, with science being phased in next.
Anyone who has spent time in public schools in this awful last decade knows that the pressure to do well on the tests is paramount. Teachers are “teaching to the test” from the moment students walk into school in August or September, until the tests are done by mid- to late April. The school and district budgets are deeply affected by student test scores in reading and math, and the public image of the school is at stake. No one wants to be branded a “failing” school.
Of course, as I may have mentioned before, the game is rigged. The NCLB law requires that all students, even students in “subgroups” like special education and English language learners, must reach 100% proficiency by 2014 at every grade level, or sanctions kick in. But that is a patently absurd if noble-sounding goal. How wrong is this?
- Each child learns at her or his own natural rate. Good teachers can be ready to assist that child when the child is ready to learn. But there is nothing about being six years old, or eight, or twelve, that will convey some magical ability to read or reason or work well with others. It is a process, and everyone walks that path at their own speed. Some children are ready to read at age four, and others won’t be ready until closer to seven or eight. One size does not even begin to fit all, but we get children who are praised for precociousness that is no more their doing than another child’s seeming slowness. Human learning cannot be forced or rushed; it happens, with effort, on its own time.
- But let’s play the game their way for a minute. Let’s assume that all second graders, regardless of socioeconomic background, first language, and possible clinical factors, could actually all reach a hypothetical target performance level on a written, standardized test. The question is, what does the test tell us about their understanding of the subject? Standardized tests live and die by computer scanning and numerical analysis. Where do important learning skills like brainstorming, using convergent and divergent thinking, making choices and decisions, listening, speaking, thinking and symbolically fit on the test? What about social skills like cooperating, working in teams, accepting responsibility, resolving conflicts, giving and receiving praise, and using appropriate nonverbal behavior? How can we tell if they know what it feels like to do a job well, to enjoy working, or to motivate themselves to excel? Even in reading and math, these tests can only give us a blurred image of student “achievement,” seen through a glass very, very darkly. Strike two.
- Let’s stay with the lawmakers one more step. Let’s pretend that all students of a certain age can be ready to score at a proficient level on a test that measures something important about their learning (in reading and math). How do we take the artifact of the actual testing process out of the equation? In scientific terms, the act of observation changes what is being observed. We know this in daily life: raising the camera to take a picture results in altered behavior in those who see the camera (goofy smiles, hiding, showing off, etc.). The act of testing, especially when the schools have made it abundantly clear to the children that this is deadly serious, creates its own artificial environment that may prevent many children from doing their best. When our brains go into “fight or flight” mode, no learning can go on, and facts formerly at the fingertips can vanish like smoke when needed on the test. So the method of assessment is incomplete, inadequate, and counterproductive. Strike three.
The real point of this post, all that being said, was to explore the choice of testing only reading and math for the first half or more of the NCLB law’s existence. Why was science shuffled down to third place and a later implementation? Why was social studies completely left out of the picture? Why are the other parts of language arts other than reading (writing, speaking, listening) not mentioned?
My theory is that the perpetrators of this law, from its genesis in the Texas backrooms of then-Governor Shrub Bush, had a couple of things in mind to serve their ultra-conservative agenda. They just needed to dress it up in the sheep’s clothing of concern for the educational well-being of our children, make it look like tough, principled reform, and skulk slowly off into the shadows while their little time-bomb ticked away.
Goal number 1: Increase profits for textbook manufacturers. Texas has a huge population to supply with textbooks, so it stands to reason that it is a very much sought-after market. We all know the robber barons of capitalism are the friends and beneficiaries of the political right, and they were not the least bit bashful about sending more business to the textbook companies. Why books? Well, the texts exist to teach the new, “tougher” standards, and by the way it is these same publishing companies that make and sell the standardized tests that so neatly mirror their texts. So it’s a tail-eating worm of greed at that point.
Goal number 2: Privatize American public education. Hey, it worked in Iraq, didn’t it? (No.) Well, never mind that. Private enterprise can always do the job better. (Hack. Kaff.) My contention is that the fact that the game is rigged, that all schools are destined to fail under the strict terms of the law, and that’s when the perps were going to step in and “save” education with vouchers and other ways of farming out education to money-making corporations. Probably owned by Halliburton.
Which brings us to Goal number 3: Take control of the content of education. Now, there is not much in mathematics for conservatives to object to, and everyone agrees it is important to learn, so full steam ahead. Almost the same with reading; the trick here is to be sure that the texts kids are reading are approved for all audiences. State boards of education (Hi, Texas!) could always go farther with censorship of certain texts than the federal law could do anyway, so reading was pretty safe.
Now, science, there’s a tricky one. How to test science without encouraging those commie socialist science teachers when they get into evolution, the age of the earth, and other sensitive subjects with the flat-earth set? I think they needed time to get enough Republicans onto the various state boards, and to raise enough money for things like the Creation Museum (http://creationmuseum.org/), a “state-of-the-art 70,000 square foot museum” that “brings the pages of the Bible to life, casting its characters and animals in dynamic form and placing them in familiar settings. Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden. Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers.”
Hey, if there’s a diorama of kids playing near dinosaurs just outside Eden, it must be true, right?
So now there’s a good-size group of nutballs (hello, Tea Party!) who can agitate to get creationism taught right alongside evolution – except they’ve recently found that creation “theory” doesn’t hold up to the scientific method. Kind of inconvenient, but not a real obstacle to the true believers out there. Meanwhile, though our kids don’t know squat about science, so we have to start testing it.
The rule is: if it isn’t tested, it isn’t taught.
Which brings us to our last little moment of wondering about choices of what to test and what to teach: social studies.
This was an administration that issued blanket rebuffs to any suggestion that we ought to look at history when pondering important decisions. The sad tales of other invaders in both Afghanistan and Iraq held many lessons that might well have saved tens of thousands of lives, had we listened to them. Our history with Europe and Asia was old news to these hot-to-trot neocons.
My theory is that they thought teaching all that history stuff was only going to confuse the populace. After all, what they needed was a blindly obedient public, not a critically-thinking, historically-aware future electorate that might object to their hubris. So I think they deliberately chose to push social studies to the side while they began a surprisingly public campaign of disinformation (i.e., lies).
I mean, the Texas Board of Education choosing to give the study of Thomas Jefferson the boot on the grounds that he was too firmly in favor of clear separation of church and state? The governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia proclaiming Confederate History Month while saying that slavery was an “insignificant” cause of the Civil War? If people haven’t learned about the Constitution in school, isn’t easier to claim that President Obama is “running roughshod” over it?
Otay, that’s my cheerful thought for the day. Schools have been set up to fail, and the curriculum has been dumbed down in critical places. And all children are being left behind.