Responding to NYT’s Editorial “Don’t Give Up the Gains in Education”

Today, the New York Times published an editorial asking that Congress keeps the yearly testing requirement that NCLB put in place.  I do not disagree.  A single yearly test can do much to guide a school, and as a teacher, I truly do value when I get good data on my students.  (Qualifier: Not all tests produce reliable or good data.)

I am, true to the title of this blog… Seeing Shades of Gray ( the name of which is, of course, problematic right now, thank you E. L. James trilogy and Universal Pictures movie).  I have written to my legislators to protest the Common Core and its testing, but I support the Common Core Standards as a goal (not a whipping post) and I yearn for a single, viable annual test for my students.  The problem is there is too much testing and the standards, produced without much educator input, appear unalterable and rigid.  But all that is fodder for more posts.

I have been angry all day.  All week.  Well, really, for about four years now.  Four years ago, Governor Walker did much to damage schools.  That damage continues as this year’s budget will decimate education here, regardless of “tools” that have demoralized and pauperized many teachers.  But my newest anger is that people like Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Assembly Education Committee Chair Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt argue “failing” schools in Wisconsin will face sanctions such as closing.  They are dismantling public education and ushering in privatization.  So that anger– and the four years of really trying to study education– fed this response.   (If it actually gets published, it will be shorter because of NYT rules.  This is the original draft.)

I can attest to the value of data from a yearly test.  In my roles as instructional leader/ department chair, I have valued data as a triangulation point to consider with teacher observations and classroom assessment success.  I bemoan when I don’t have consistent testing data to inform me.  I can also attest to the remarkable value in highlighting where a school is effective and where it is not.  Gaps were hidden until NCLB, and as the gaps are still ever-present, they must be scrutinized and attacked and tests can help.

But you point out a key element: sanctions led to over-testing, and dreadful overtesting at that.  Elementary students take expensive and high-stakes tests monthly in most places, and often twice a month.  This produces more data than can be effectively processed, creates remarkable anxiety for children, and lines the coffers of companies like Pearson, who, for example, was paid $32 million for a five-year contract with New York alone.  Schools pay dearly for tests in every way.  A bad test score is bad press.

As NCLB has progressed, all of this has seemed a subterfuge to privatize education.  Those test scores and sanctions often mean that schools are taken over and, quite often, turned into charter schools.  While charter schools’ original mission in the 90’s was to provide interesting and personalized alternatives to public ed, that mission has been twisted.  Now significant numbers of  charter schools are operated by for-profit chains that are more selective of their enrollees than public schools can be, more devious in dismissing students that may bring down scores, less transparent to oversight, and more removed from local governance.

NCLB was designed to label schools as failing.  Teachers are now denigrated daily.  Enrollment in teacher preparation programs is plummeting.  Viable and vibrant public schools are shuttered.  And the root cause of most failing public schools– the root cause goes unaddressed.  Poverty.  America has chosen fit to spend 1.7 billion (Brown Center on Educational Policy) on testing while cutting nearly every social program that fights poverty.  It is a true attestment to the dedication of teachers and the problem-solving of public schools in this nation that while those severe cuts have happened, the gaps have narrowed.