Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How "No Child Left Behind" Unleashed a Nationwide Epidemic of Cheating

By Daniel Denvir

On the 10-year anniversary of No Child Left Behind, the school-reform movement is in crisis.
 On Thursday, Mitt Romney made a visit to a West Philadelphia charter school to tout his education platform, which, as it happens, looks pretty similar to President Obama’s: more privately managed schools and a reliance on high-stakes standardized tests to evaluate teachers.
But on the 10-year anniversary of No Child Left Behind, the school-reform movement that both candidates have embraced is in crisis. Rampant and widespread cheating on high-stakes standardized tests has been uncovered in districts nationwide. The first big scandal erupted in Atlanta, where teachers and administrators are suspected of erasing wrong answers and filling in correct ones, or simply giving students the right answers, at nearly half of city schools. In Philadelphia, one in five district schools is now under investigation, including 11 of the city’s top-tier Vanguard Schools. Cheating or score inflation is suspected in cities including Houston, New York, Detroit and Washington, D.C.
How did cheating become normal in America’s schools?
“No Child Left Behind has created a culture in which people will do anything to keep their jobs,” says Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University and a leading critic of corporate-inspired school reform. “There are states that have gamed the systems, there are districts that have gamed the system, there are people who have gained the system.”
President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind in 2002, spelling out a reform movement blueprint and unleashing an escalating set of benchmarks compelling teachers to deliver ever-better student scores. NCLB mandates high-stakes standardized testing to monitor student achievement and aggressive intervention into schools that fall short: making Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, became a matter of a school’s — and increasingly teacher’s — survival.
Test results have been used as the pretext to fire teachers and force schools into becoming privately managed charters, even though research has shown that corruption-prone charters are not, as a whole, better, and are often much worse than traditional public schools. And the testing mandates have proven to be a bonanza for for-profit education companies like Pearson and Kaplan (the latter is owned by the Washington Post Co.), which produce tests and materials to drill students in preparation.
And the pressure to raise scores continues to build. NCLB requires districts to achieve the impossible goal of demonstrating that all students are proficient in reading and math by 2014. Unsurprisingly, school districts nationwide are set to fail this mandate. The Obama administration, meanwhile, isn’t offering much of a helping hand. Its Race to the Top initiative uses billions in federal dollars to encourage states to incorporate “student achievement” in evaluating teacher quality. And Obama has conditioned waivers for NCLB’s 2014 deadline on implementing more Race to the Top reforms — such as removing barriers to charter school growth and, once again, evaluating teachers based on student test scores.
This year alone, Washington, Colorado and Connecticut have passed laws requiring the inclusion of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations. In March, New York legislators acceded to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to base 40 percent of a teacher evaluation on “student achievement.”
In Los Angeles, one well-regarded teacher at a low-income school committed suicide after the Los Angles Times posted his low “value-added” score online. The New York Times, though it faced widespread criticism and acknowledged the data’s shortcomings, followed suit in February and published individual teacher test score data online. The New York Post, for its part, did what could be expected and personally attacked one teacher, by name and photo, as “The Worst Teacher in the City.”
Major figures in the corporate school reform movement — like erstwhile New York chancellor and current Rupert Murdoch advisor Joel Klein and former D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee — have built their gold-plated resumes atop spectacular test score gains that closer inspection has shown to be, potentially, illusory.
In Washington, USA Today uncovered possible widespread cheating that took place during Rhee’s tenure. Rhee, who basked in the klieg light glow of the docu-propaganda film “Waiting for Superman” and invited PBS NewsHour to tape her while she fired a principal, has refused to speak to its reporters.
According to New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip, Washington’s investigation has been a superficial one: “Investigators spent five days at eight schools.” In Atlanta, the nation’s canary in the test-cheating gold mine, “the state deployed 60 investigators who worked for 10 months at 56 schools.”
Indeed. The full extent of cheating nationwide is hard to gauge. In both Atlanta and Philadelphia, it was aggressive reporting and not government oversight that brought bubble-test malfeasance to light. There is often little government regulation at the state or school district level. And the federal government, for its part, requires testing but does not require any oversight to identify cheating.
The recent spate of scandals began in 2008 when the Atlanta Journal Constitution uncovered suspicious, and nearly statistically impossible, levels of improvement at a few Georgia schools. In 2010, Gov. Sonny Perdue finally ordered an in-depth investigation: Cheating was alleged at nearly half of Atlanta’s schools.
The Philadelphia Inquirer first uncovered potential cheating at Roosevelt Middle School in May 2011. One month later, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook discovered a 2009 state study suggesting that cheating could be far more widespread: 89 schools statewide, including 28 in Philly, had been identified for suspicious test scores. More schools have since been identified.
In March, the Journal Constitution went on to expose cheating nationwide in a stinging, in-depth  investigation: About 200 school districts, it discovered, have “test scores … [that] resemble those that entangled Atlanta in the biggest cheating scandal in American history.”
Cheating was concentrated in urban and rural districts, which tend to educate a high number of poor students. 
A tainted and largely unpoliced universe of untrustworthy test results underlies bold changes in education policy,” they found. “Some school districts and states have taken an apathetic, if not defiant, stance in the face of cheating accusations in recent years.”
Poverty and the underfunding of poor schools are the greatest obstacles to academic achievement. No Child Left Behind, while doing nothing to alleviate poverty and too little to direct extra funding to poor districts, put these systems under the heaviest pressure to show testing gains.
Never before have so many had so much reason to cheat,” writes Winerip.
Likewise, (almost) never before have so many private interests had so much opportunity to profit. Testing has — much like privately managed charters (and certainly cyber charters such as the one owned by Mike Milken), vouchers and myriad unproven but expensive “learning technologies” that have proliferated over the past decade — alchemized an enormous pile of taxpayer dollars into generous contracts with private education firms that produce tests and prep students.
The profiteering from the high-stakes test regime is, it seems, also tinged with corruption: corporate education behemoth Pearson, Winerip has reported, pays for public school officials nationwide to attend lavish conferences in Helsinki or Rio de Janeiro, “meeting with educators in these places” and “with top executives from the commercial side of Pearson, which is one of the biggest education companies in the world, selling standardized tests, packaged curriculums and Prentice Hall textbooks.”
Testing companies even make money from trying to make sure that no one cheats on their tests: New York state has a $3.7 million contract with Pearson to examine test results for irregularities.
These local scandals are fueling a national movement to overturn the high-stakes testing regime, as the Wall Street Journal reported last week. Four hundred Texas school boards adopted a resolution asking the state to deemphasize testing and 500 Everett, Wash.,  students refused to take state exams in protest. And in the nation’s largest protest against corporate education reform, thousands in Philadelphia are protesting a plan to close schools and privatize management of those that remain open in the cash-strapped district. Groups nationwide, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and National Education Association, have signed a resolution calling on Congress to reduce No Child Left Behind’s testing mandates.
Prophets of accountability, however, have so far blamed unethical educators and proposed technocratic solutions rather than taking on NCLB.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who demands testing gains but not testing oversight, told the Journal Constitution that the “findings are concerning.” He was, however, oblivious to the investigation’s indictment of the high-stakes test regime.
States, districts, schools and testing companies,” he told reporters, “should have sensible safeguards in place to ensure tests accurately reflect student learning.”
In New York, the New York Board of Regents in September 2011 recognized that schools rely “more than ever on state exams – to measure student achievement, to evaluate teacher and principal effectiveness, and to hold schools and districts accountable for their performance,” and so “we need to be absolutely certain that our system is beyond reproach.”
Their bold solutions? Universal exam dates for grades 3-8 and a requirement that “all teachers and administrators certify that they have received and will follow all security protocols.”
High-stakes testing imperils far more than educators’ ethical integrity. The pressure to do well on standardized tests has also eviscerated the curriculum, as I reported for Salon last fall: Arts, science, music, physical education, literature and even recess are on the chopping block as teachers are forced to spend an ever greater amount of time on test preparation. This degrades classroom learning — and, once again, the fundamental value and accuracy of the test.
There was once a time,” says Ravitch, “when test prep was considered a form of cheating.”
The test lobby has also monopolized the national conversation about public education for the past decade, successfully changing the subject from what research demonstrates to be two central causes of poor students’ poor academic performance: the systematic underfunding of poor and property-tax reliant school districts and, of course, poverty. It’s now more clear than ever that the high-stakes standardized testing regime cheats our children in more ways than one.
Daniel Denvir is a staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper and a contributing writer for Salon. You can follow him at Twitter@DanielDenvir.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Charter School Initiative - Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor,

The May 22nd editorial "Advocacy Groups File Initiative for Charter Schools" prompts me to ask why?

Charters schools were created to provide for experimentation and innovation, but . . .

1. If the object is to reduce bureaucracy and have more innovative teaching, name one innovation that has been developed in a charter school?
2. If the object is to save money, name one charter school effort that saved taxpayers money?
3. If the object is to improve the academic achievement of average or below average students, name one charter school that takes those students and makes them academically superior students?

What are the motives of the pro-charter school advocacy group?
1. If the object is to create a special, separate or elitist schooling experience, at public expense, then charter schools have done that.
3. If the object is to separate your child, at public expense, from those children who are different ethnically, socially, economically, the charters schools have done that too.
4. If the object is to take the best students out of the public schools and leave the rest – the kids of poverty, the less physically or mentally able kids, and the minority kids – the charter school movement has done that too.

Charter school initiatives are a way to avoid the major issues facing our state legislators and the US Congress – providing adequate resources to deal with the effects of childhood poverty.  Ask the teachers, the school administrators, and health care professionals, and others knowledgeable about learning. They will all agree that health care, nutrition, and early childhood educational programs are the means to student achievement – not charter schools.

Jack McKay

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

How the Conservative Worldview Quashes Critical Thinking -- and What That Means For Our Kids' Future

The education of our children is a core cultural and political choice that reflects the deepest differences between liberals and conservatives.

By Sara Robinson - Alternet
Photo Credit: ShutterStock.com

The Conservative War On Education continues apace, with charters blooming everywhere, high-stakes testing cementing its grip on classrooms, and legislators and pundits wondering what we need those stupid liberal arts colleges for anyway. (Isn't college about job prep? Who needs to know anything about art history, anthropology or ancient Greek?)
Amid the din, there's a worrisome trend: liberals keep affirming right-wing talking points, usually without realizing that they're even right wing. Or saying things like, "The education of our children is a non-partisan issue that should exist outside of any ideological debate."
The hell it is. People who say stuff like this have no idea what they're talking about. The education of our children is a core cultural and political choice that reflects the deepest differences between liberals and conservatives -- because every educational conversation must start with the fundamental philosophical question: What is an education for?
Our answers to that question could not be more diametrically opposed.
A Question of Human Nature
Our beliefs about the purpose of education are rooted in even deeper beliefs about the basic nature of humanity.
All conservative politics springs from one central premise: they believe that human beings are essentially fallen and deeply flawed. Human beings are swayed by uncontrollable passions, we make consistently bad choices, and we are incapable of governing ourselves. Given our basic depravity, civilization can only work if we submit ourselves to the external guidance of society's appointed authorities; and stay on the straight and narrow path our betters have clearly marked out with rules, oversight and punishments. Without those constraints, we cannot be trusted: our own perverse natures will inevitably lure us into ruin.
George Lakoff pointed out that in this worldview, children are born evil, and it's the duty of the Strict Father to beat it out of them. For their own good, kids must learn to accept the boundaries and order imposed by the authorities who've magnanimously consented to take on the responsibility for their wretched and unworthy souls. The main imperative of education is to break the child's will, force him to conform to society's expectations, make him an obedient and compliant employee, and prepare him to survive in a hostile and competitive world that will cut him no breaks. Nobody's going to protect you; for good or bad, you'll only be given what you earn. What kids need most from school are hard skills and marketable credentials that will enable them to find a stable place in the hierarchy, thus securing their futures.
Libertarian education critic John Taylor Gatto has pointed out that the "hidden curriculum" of public schools is designed from the ground up to reinforce these deeply authoritarian lessons. According to Gatto, the student is trained to eat, sleep, excrete, and think by the bells -- no daydreaming about history during math class! She also learns to accept the judgment of the teachers, peers and other worthies who are entitled to evaluate her worth; it's beyond her pay grade to assess her own performance or value. This lesson fosters a lifelong dependence on external authority, and further quashes self-assessment and critical thinking. High-stakes testing is an artifact of the conservative belief that education is about acquiring a required body of knowledge that's been determined by experts. If it's not in the book, you don't need to know it. And the ultimate outcome -- the purpose of this whole process -- is to graduate with a credential that will certify your acceptability to the established hierarchies of the economic world.
In the conservative model, critical thinking is horrifically dangerous, because it teaches kids to reject the assessment of external authorities in favor of their own judgment -- a habit of mind that invites opposition and rebellion. This is why, for much of Western history, critical thinking skills have only been taught to the elite students -- the ones headed for the professions, who will be entrusted with managing society on behalf of the aristocracy. (The aristocrats, of course, are sending their kids to private schools, where they will receive a classical education that teaches them everything they'll need to know to remain in charge.) Our public schools, unfortunately, have replicated a class stratification on this front that's been in place since the Renaissance.

Do Our Public Schools Threaten National Security?

A review of he book US Education Reform and National Security by Diane Ravitch

US Education Reform and National Security   by Joel I. Klein, Condoleezza Rice, and others. 

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning book,Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter characterized writing on education in the United States as

a literature of acid criticism and bitter complaint…. The educational jeremiad is as much a feature of our literature as the jeremiad in the Puritan sermons.
Anyone longing for the “good old days,” he noted, would have difficulty finding a time when critics were not lamenting the quality of the public schools. From the 1820s to our own time, reformers have complained about low standards, ignorant teachers, and incompetent school boards.
Most recently, in 1983, an august presidential commission somberly warned that we were (in the title of its statement) “A Nation at Risk” because of the low standards of our public schools. The Reagan-era report said:
Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.
Our national slippage was caused, said the commission, by “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” This mediocre educational performance was nothing less than “an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”
Imagine the peril, the threat of national disaster: “our very future as a Nation and a people” hung in the balance unless we moved swiftly to improve our public schools. What were we to do? The commission proposed a list of changes, starting with raising graduation requirements for all students and making sure they studied a full curriculum of English, math, science, history, computer science, as well as foreign languages (for the college-bound), the arts, and vocational education.
It also proposed more student time in school, higher standards for entry into teaching, higher salaries for teachers, and an evaluation system for teachers that included peer review. Nothing was said about the current fad of evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores. The federal government distributed half a million copies of the report, and many states created task forces and commissions to determine how to implement the recommendations. Many states did raise graduation requirements, but critics were unappeased, and complaints about our educational failures continued unabated.
Somehow, despite the widely broadcast perception that educational achievement was declining, the United States continued to grow and thrive as an economic, military, and technological power. As President Barack Obama put it in his 2011 State of the Union address:
Remember—for all the hits we’ve taken these last few years, for all the naysayers predicting our decline, America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs. We are home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any other place on Earth.
How is it possible that this nation became so successful if its public schools, which enroll 90 percent of its children, have been consistently failing for the past generation or more?*
Now comes the latest jeremiad, this one from a task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and led by Joel I. Klein, former chancellor of the New York City public schools (now employed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to sell technology to schools and to advise Murdoch on his corporation’s hacking scandals), and Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state during the administration of President George W. Bush. This report has the cumbersome title US Education Reform and National Security and a familiar message: our nation’s public schools are so dreadful that they are a threat to our national security. Once again, statistics are marshaled to prove that our schools are failing, our economy is at risk, our national security is compromised, and everything we prize is about to disappear because of our low-performing public schools. Make no mistake, the task force warns: “Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk.”
Despite its alarmist rhetoric, the report is not a worthy successor to the long line of jeremiads that it joins. Unlike A Nation at Risk, which was widely quoted as a call to action, this report is a plodding exercise in groupthink among mostly like-minded task force members. Its leaden prose contains not a single sparkling phrase for the editorial writers. The only flashes of original thinking appear in the dissents to the report.
What marks this report as different from its predecessors, however, is its profound indifference to the role of public education in a democratic society, and its certainty that private organizations will succeed where the public schools have failed. Previous hand-wringing reports sought to improve public schooling; this one suggests that public schools themselves are the problem, and the sooner they are handed over to private operators, the sooner we will see widespread innovation and improved academic achievement.
The report is a mishmash of misleading statistics and incoherent arguments, intended to exaggerate the failure of public education. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, introduces the report with this claim: “It will come as no surprise to most readers that America’s primary and secondary schools are widely seen as failing.” Many scholars of education would disagree with this conclusion; they would probably respond that the United States has many excellent public schools and that the lowest-performing schools are overwhelmingly concentrated in districts with high levels of poverty and racial isolation. Haass then writes, “High school graduation rates, while improving, are still far too low, and there are steep gaps in achievement between middle class and poor students.” He does not seem aware that, according to the latest federal data, high school graduation rates are at their highest point in history for students of all races and income levels. Certainly they should be higher, but the actual data do not suggest a crisis.
Of course, there are achievement gaps between middle-class and poor students, but this is true in every nation where there are large income gaps. While the task force points out the problems of concentrated poverty in segregated schools, exacerbated by unequal school funding, it offers no recommendations to reduce poverty, racial segregation, income gaps, or funding inequities. It dwells on the mediocre standing of American schools on international tests, but does not acknowledge that American schools with a low level of poverty rank first in the world on international tests of literacy.
The task force has many complaints: American students don’t study foreign languages; American employers can’t find enough skilled workers. Too many young people do not qualify for military service because of criminal records, lack of physical fitness, or inadequate educational skills. Not enough scientists and engineers are trained “to staff the military, intelligence agencies, and other government-run national security offices, as well as the aerospace and defense industries.” Thus, the public schools are failing to prepare the soldiers, intelligence agents, diplomats, and engineers for the defense industry that the report assumes are needed. This failure is the primary rationale for viewing the schools as a national security risk.
To right these conditions, the task force has three recommendations.
First, the states should speedily implement the Common Core State Standards in English and mathematics and add to them national standards in science, technology, foreign languages, and possibly civics.
Second, states and districts “should stop locking disadvantaged students into failing schools without any options.” The task force proposes an expansion of competition and choice, for example with vouchers—meaning that states and districts should allow students to attend private and religious schools with public funding. The task force also favors charter schools—privately managed schools that directly receive public funding. If all these private schools get an equal share of public dollars, the task force opines, this will “fuel the innovation necessary to transform results.”
Third, the United States should have “a national security readiness audit” to determine whether students are learning the necessary skills “to safeguard America’s future security and prosperity,” and “to hold schools and policymakers accountable for results.”
None of these recommendations has any clear and decisive evidence to support it.
The Common Core State Standards in reading and mathematics were developed over the past few years by groups representing the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, and funded largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Obama administration encouraged adoption of these standards through its Race to the Top program. To be eligible for a share of the billions of dollars in competitive federal grants, states were expected to express willingness to adopt the standards, and forty-five states have done so.
They may be excellent standards, or they may not be. They may help improve achievement, or they may not. But no one knows, because the Common Core standards have never been implemented or tried out anywhere. If they are sufficiently rigorous, they might increase the achievement gap between high-performing students and low-performing students and might leave students who struggle with English even further behind than they are now.
Tom Loveless, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, recently predicted that the standards will have no impact on student achievement, but perhaps he is wrong. Until they are implemented somewhere, their value cannot simply be assumed. It must be demonstrated. Thus, the task force goes out on a limb by claiming that these untried standards are the very linchpin of defending our nation’s borders and securing our future prosperity.
Certainly the task force is right to insist upon the importance of foreign-language study, but it is wrong to blame the nation’s public schools for a shortage of specialists in Chinese, Dari, Korean, Russian, and Turkish. Although some American high schools teach Chinese, these languages are usually taught by universities or specialized language programs. It is peculiar to criticize public elementary and secondary schools for the lack of trained linguists in Afghanistan and other international hotspots.
Students who sign up to study a language this year have no way of knowing in which region or nation we will need linguists five or ten years from now. How are students or schools to know where the next military action or political crisis will emerge? Furthermore, the effort to expand foreign language instruction in K-12 schools requires not just standards, but a very large new supply of teachers of foreign languages to staff the nation’s 100,000 or so public schools. This won’t happen without substantial new funding for scholarships to train tens of thousands of new teachers.
Similarly, there is mixed evidence, to be generous, to support the task force’s recommendation to increase competition and choice. Although it cites a few studies that show higher test scores for some charter schools, most studies of charters show no difference in test scores between charter students and students in public schools. Vouchers have generally produced results no different from regular public schools. Milwaukee has had vouchers for twenty-one years, intended to allow disadvantaged students to escape from failing public schools, but on average the students in voucher schools achieve the same test scores as those in regular public schools. And Milwaukee, which has a very competitive environment of charters and vouchers, is, according to federal assessments, one of the nation’s lowest-performing urban school districts.
The task force’s claim that charter schools will be beacons of innovation rests on hope, not on any evidence presented in the report. The most “innovative” of the charters are the for-profit academies that teach online—a fast-growing sector that recruits students to take their courses by computer at home. These virtual academies have been the subject of negative stories inThe New York Times and The Washington Post, criticized both for their focus on profits and for their poor academic results. The Task Force’s enthusiasm for charter schools is not surprising. As chancellor of New York City’s public school system, Klein enthusiastically supported charter schools and opened one hundred of them, regardless of community opposition. Another member of the task force was Richard Barth, the chief executive officer of the KIPP charter school chain.
The task force asserts that charters will lead the way to innovative methods of education. But the charters with the highest test scores are typically known not for innovation, but for “no excuses” discipline policies, where students may be fined or suspended or expelled if they fail to follow the rules of the school with unquestioning obedience, such as not making eye contact with the teacher or slouching or bringing candy to school or being too noisy in gym or the lunchroom.
Some of the high-performing charter schools have high attrition rates, and some have achieved high scores by excluding or limiting students who are apt to get low test scores, such as students who are English-language learners. There is no evidence that charters are more likely to teach foreign languages and advanced courses in science than public schools. The schools with the most extensive range of courses in foreign languages, advanced science, and advanced mathematics are large comprehensive high schools, which have been in disfavor for the past decade, after the Gates Foundation decided that large high schools were a bad idea and invested $2 billion in breaking them up into small schools. This program was abandoned in 2008.
The task force’s proposal for “a national security readiness audit” is bizarre. It is not clear what it means, who would conduct it, or who would pay for it. Will schools be held accountable if they do not produce enough fit candidates for the military, the intelligence agencies, the defense industry, and the foreign service? Some high school graduates do join the military, but no high school prepares its students for the diplomatic corps or the defense industry or the Central Intelligence Agency. Who will be held accountable if colleges and universities don’t produce an adequate supply of teachers of Turkish, Russian, Chinese, Korean, and Dari to the high schools? Should every high school offer these languages? Should universities be held accountable if there are not enough physics teachers? What will happen to schools that fail their national security readiness audit? Will they be closed?
Three big issues are unaddressed by the Klein-Rice report. One is the damage that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which rely on standardized testing to measure the worth of teachers and schools, have caused to public education. The second is its misleading economic analysis. And the third is its failure to offer any recommendation to improve the teaching profession.
Instead of criticizing the ruinous effects of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind policy (NCLB), the task force praises it. This is not surprising, since Margaret Spellings, the architect of NCLB and former secretary of education, was a member of the task force. The task force chides public schools for losing sight of civics, world cultures, and other studies, but never pauses to recognize that NCLB has compelled schools everywhere to focus solely on reading and mathematics, the only subjects that count in deciding whether a school is labeled a success or a failure. NCLB has turned schooling into a joyless experience for most American children, especially in grades three through eight, who must spend weeks of each year preparing to take standardized tests.
In pursuing its policy of Race to the Top, the Obama administration has promoted the teach-to-the-test demands of NCLB. Most of America’s teachers will now be evaluated by their students’ scores on those annual multiple-choice tests. Students will, in effect, be empowered to fire their teachers by withholding effort or will bear responsibility if their lack of effort, their home circumstances, or their ill health on testing day should cause their teacher to lose her job. NCLB and Race to the Top have imposed on American education a dreary and punitive testing regime that would gladden the hearts of a Gradgrind but demoralizes the great majority of teachers, who would prefer the autonomy to challenge their students to think critically and creatively. This dull testing regime crushes the ingenuity, wit, playfulness, and imagination that our students and our society most urgently need to spur new inventions and new thinking in the future.
In its economic analysis, the task force is surely right that we need more and better education, though it does not propose—in this era of widespread cuts in budgets for education—that we must be willing to pay more to get it. Instead it offers a chart showing that the median annual earnings of high school dropouts and high school graduates have fallen since 1980. The same chart shows that the earnings of college graduates are higher than those with less education but have been stagnant since 1985. It is not clear why this is so. The task force report occasionally refers to income inequality and poverty, which surely depress academic outcomes, but never considers their causes or proposes ways to reduce them.
Surely the economy will need more highly educated workers and everyone should have the chance to go to college, but the task force does not adequately acknowledge the costs of higher education or suggest how they will be paid. Nor does it discuss projections by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics that the majority of new jobs for the next several years will require on-the-job training, not a bachelor’s degree. According to the BLS, the economy will need 175,000 computer engineers, 582,000 nurses, 461,000 home health aides, 400,000 customer service agents, 394,000 fast food workers, 375,000 retail sales clerks, 255,000 construction workers, and so on.
While the report laments the inadequacy of current efforts to recruit and prepare teachers, it offers no recommendation about how to attract better-qualified men and women into teaching and how to prepare them for the rigors of the classroom. The only program that it finds worthy of endorsement is Teach for America, whose recruits receive only five weeks of training and agree to teach for only two years. This is not surprising, because Wendy Kopp, the founder and chief executive officer of Teach for America, was a member of the task force.
Without the added comments at the end of the report, signed by seven of its thirty members, the task force report might be perceived as an essentially urgent appeal for more testing of students, more top-down control, and more privatization of the public schools, that is, more of what the federal government and many state governments have been doing for at least the past decade. But two of the dissents demolish its basic premises.
In her dissent, Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University takes apart the claim that competition and privatization will produce great improvement. She points out that the highest-performing nations in the world (Finland, Singapore, and South Korea)
have invested in strong public education systems that serve virtually all students, while nations that have aggressively pursued privatization, such as Chile, have a huge and growing divide between rich and poor that has led to dangerous levels of social unrest.
Charter schools, she notes, are more likely to underperform in comparison to district-run public schools when they enroll similar students, and they are more likely to enroll a smaller proportion of students with disabilities and English-language learners. Darling-Hammond, who advised President Obama during his 2008 campaign, takes issue with the report’s praise of New Orleans, where nearly 80 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools. Charters in New Orleans, she observes, have not only been criticized for excluding students with disabilities, but New Orleans “remains the lowest-ranked district in the low-performing state of Louisiana.”
Whatever credibility remains to the report is finally shredded by task force member Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University. Walt faintly praises the task force for its “effort to draw attention to the issue of public education,” but then delivers a withering critique of its claims and findings. He does not see any convincing evidence that the public education system is “a very grave national security threat” to the United States. Walt writes that “the United States spends more on national security than the next twenty nations combined, has an array of powerful allies around the world, and remains the world leader in science and technology.” Walt is unimpressed by the task force’s indictment of public education. Not only do American schools rank among the top 10 percent of the world’s 193 nations, he writes, but
none of the states whose children outperform US students is a potential rival. Barring major foreign policy blunders unrelated to K–12 education, no country is likely to match US military power or overall technological supremacy for decades. There are good reasons to improve K-12 education, but an imminent threat to our national security is not among them.
Walt’s critique leaves the task force report looking naked, if not ridiculous. If the international tests are indicators of our national security weakness, should we worry that we might be invaded by Finland or South Korea or Japan or Singapore or Canada or New Zealand or Australia? Obviously not. The nations with higher test scores than ours are not a threat to our national security. They are our friends and allies. If education were truly the key to our national security, perhaps we should allocate sufficient funding to equalize resources in poor neighborhoods and make higher education far more affordable to more Americans than it is today.
If there is no national security crisis, as the task force has vainly tried to establish, what can we learn from its deliberations?
Commissions that gather notable figures tend not to be venturesome or innovative, and this one is no different. When a carefully culled list of corporate leaders, former government officials, academics, and prominent figures who have a vested interest in the topic join to reach a consensus, they tend to reflect the status quo. If future historians want to see a definition of the status quo in American education in 2012, they may revisit this report by a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations. It offers no new directions, no new ideas, just a stale endorsement of the federal, state, and corporate policies of the past decade that have proven so counterproductive to the genuine improvement of American education.

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