Continuing our recent conversation on the misguided work of education reform advocate Michelle “we can test our way to better schools” Rhee, I thought that I’d share this comment, which was sent out yesterday by our friend Bill Ayers in response to news that 27 former educators in the Atlanta public school system had reported to jail to face racketeering charges stemming from their widespread campaign to falsify students’ standardized tests in order show progress in line with Department of Education expectations.
The road to the massive cheating scandal in Atlanta runs right through the White House.
The former superintendent, Dr. Beverly L. Hall, and her 34 obedient subordinates now face criminal charges, but the central role played by a group of un-indicted and largely unacknowledged co-conspirators, her powerful enablers, is barely noted.
Beyond her “strong relations with the business elite” who reportedly made her “untouchable” in Atlanta, she was a national super-star for more than a decade because her work embodied the shared educational policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. In the testing frenzy that characterized both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top Dr. Hall was a winner, consistently praised over many years by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for raising test scores, hosted at the White House in 2009 as superintendent of the year, and appointed in 2010 by President Obama to the National Board for Education Sciences. When the Atlanta scandal broke in 2011 Secretary Duncan rushed to assure the public that it was “very isolated” and “an easy one to fix.”
That’s not true. According to a recently released study by the independent monitoring group FairTest, cheating is “widespread” and fully documented in 37 states and Washington D.C.
The deeper problem is reducing education to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a test score. Teaching toward a simple standardized measure and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes” both incentivizes cheating and is a worthless proxy for learning.
I recently interviewed leaders at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools—the school Arne Duncan attended for 12 years and the school where the Obamas, the Duncans, and the Emanuels sent their children — and asked what role test scores played in teacher evaluations there. The answer was none. I pressed the point and was told that in their view test scores have no value in helping to understand or identify good teaching.
Distinguished Professor of Education (retired)
University of Illinois at Chicago
And here’s a clip from the National Center for Fair & Open Testing press release which Ayers referenced:
(A) new survey reports confirmed cases of test score manipulation in at least 37 states and Washington, D.C. in the past four academic years. The analysis by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) documents more than 50 ways schools improperly inflated their scores during that period.
“Across the U.S., strategies that boost scores without improving learning — including outright cheating, narrow teaching to the test and pushing out low-scoring students — are widespread,” said FairTest Public Education Director Bob Schaeffer. “These corrupt practices are inevitable consequences of the politically mandated overuse and misuse of high-stakes exams.”
Among the ways FairTest found test scores have been manipulated in communities such as Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, El Paso, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, New York City, Philadelphia and the District of Columbia:
• Encourage teachers to view upcoming test forms before they are administered.
• Exclude likely low-scorers from enrolling in school.
• Drill students on actual upcoming test items.
• Use thumbs-up/thumbs-down signals to indicate right and wrong responses.
• Erase erroneous responses and insert correct ones.
• Report low-scorers as having been absent on testing day.
Schaeffer continued, “The solution to the school test cheating problem is not simply stepped up enforcement. Instead, testing misuses must end because they cheat the public out of accurate data about public school quality at the same time they cheat many students out of a high-quality education.”
The bottom line, as much as it pains the wealthy to hear it, is that decent education cannot be commoditized, and children cannot be taught like they’re cows being fattened-up on factory farm feedlots. The fact of the matter is that teaching to the test, even when cheating isn’t involved, does not create the kind of inquisitive young learners we need to solve the very serious problems that face the world today. Sure, it may be cheaper to pack kids in classrooms of 60, and have poorly paid script readers prepare them for tests between film strips of questionable educational value, but it just doesn’t work. What works, as we well know, is hiring great teachers, putting them in small classrooms, and empowering them to make independent decisions based upon their firsthand knowledge of the kids who have been entrusted to them. Unfortunately, our adversaries are the ones with all the money, and they don’t have any intention of giving up, as evidenced by their funding of Michelle Rhee and others.