June 7, 2020

Schools have 99 problems, but a test ain’t one


In a piece she wrote for The Hill Mary Catherine Ricker makes a good point when she says annual assessments of students are a “vital tool” to inform parents and communities [about] student progress.” Drawing on her time as an classroom teacher (before becoming executive vice president of American Federation of Teachers) she says annual testing of students helped her understand she needed “high-quality professional development to meet the needs of diverse students.”

The good sense in her article stops there.

She goes on to describe a pre-NCLB era where teachers had stellar mentorship, and they enjoyed “rich professional development” that taught teachers how to “incorporate books representing a wide range of cultures and experiences into language arts lessons” and how to address different learning styles. Then NCLB came along – she says – and fantastical era of educator magic ended.

Suddenly annual tests were so “high-stakes” that schools were forced to cut music, team sports, the arts, foreign languages, and physical education to accommodate an unreasonable fascination with reading and math. For the record, my children’s traditional neighborhood school still has all of those electives.

Ricker’s version of history serves an unionist agenda by spooking middle-class parents and stoking their animus against school reform. It also creates a false choice between the enriched schools that middle-class parents love, and the schools that use data to improve instruction to accelerate achievement and address educational disparities.

NCLB’s 600 pages of law lends itself to her purposeful misdirection, but its requirements can be easily understood as a handful of worthy requirements.

The law requires states to give one test per year 4 times in a student’s twelve years of schooling. It demands states disaggregate the test results by race so districts and their stakeholders can know how schools are doing in achieving racial equity. It makes school districts focus on providing high-quality teachers (as measured by academic preparation) to all students.

Finally, the law supports parent by making districts issue comprehensive report cards on their schools. The report card must tell parents the percentage of students who are proficient on state assessments, detail two-year trends in student achievement, and report high school graduation rates – among other things.

Students in underperforming schools aren’t trapped. If the report cards show their schools are failing they have the right to select another school. As a parent all of that that sounds like a justifiable level of government oversight and transparency.

Instead of supporting parent empowerment Ricker misleads her readers by falsifying connections between the requirements of NCLB with unpopular school closures in urban cities like Philadelphia and Chicago. She says test scores were used “as an excuse” for “mass school closings, which destabilized already disenfranchised communities of color and poor communities.” That dishonest and simplistic claim distracts from complex problems that have paralyzed these urban districts. The schools districts have suffered from declining enrollment, recession era politics, aging bureaucracies, bloated labor contracts, and management at all levels that is insufficient for their challenges.

The NCBL testing required on one day, once per year, in four school grades did not shutter schools. She knows better. In her former school district in St. Paul, Minnesota chronically failing schools have kept her members happily employed in a stable and low-stakes, low-achievement environment. Schools are failing and there are no stakes.

In my experience Ricker is a Midwestern master of the facile, Pollyanna variety of “progressive” happy talk. I once was on a panel with her where she told the audience standardized testing sprung from eugenics. When I countered saying educational testing as we know it today is part of educational science bolstered by President Johnson’s “war on poverty” she responded with the most earnest thousand acre Minnesotan stare – then said something like “well, I’m learning as we go.”

She continues this act in her Hill article by weaving together two popular and fatalistic white progressive talking points. She says “half of all public school students are poor” (which is actually inaccurate) and then she adds “two-thirds of the variance in the achievement gap is due to factors outside the classroom.”

Message: poor kids can’t learn. We can’t even expect the most amazing selfless white teachers to get these kids to the embarrassingly low standard of proficiency.

It might be easy to forget that NCLB was a watershed bi-partisan agreement that acknowledged schools needed more resources and accountability so they could help struggling students.  More than a decade later conventional wisdom made a turn for the worst. A well-funded effort by special interests on the left and right have distorted the record. The promising policies in NCLB are now falling victim to clever misinformation campaigns. While the debate looks like a fair discussion about the merits of testing, the role of government, racial equity in education, and pedagogical best-practices, it’s not. It’s about politics, jobs, and power.

Reasonable people who exist outside of the special interests will have a hard time making sense of the facts. For me, it’s important to remember NCLB has done some good. Even critics like Ricker admit that having disaggregated student achievement data has supported needed interventions to improve teaching and learning.

Additionally, NCLB puts $27 billion into supplemental aid to support the academic needs of poor students and English language learners; funding for educational technology, improving school safety, increasing teacher quality, and establishing community-based after school programs. As a whole NCLB is more liberal than not.

With all the problems our schools have educating children equitably it seems odd for any liberal to attack the very instruments we use to make inequity visible, and to apply interventions where necessary. For it to come from the highest levels in the teachers’ union is a double betrayal.

If only they would believe in the potential of our kids we wouldn’t need NCLB.

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