Saturday, January 05, 2013

Adding Value to the Worthless?

Why Embrace 19th Century Assessments for the 21st Century?
Guest Commentary by Stephen Stollmack

Public education is part of the conceptual framework of this country. Most accept the basic format of a homeroom teacher keeping the younger children all or most of the day, phasing into different teachers, each one responsible for one of the menu of subjects laid out for every child based on his or her age.  Most probably recognize that their children are facing an environment much different from the one they grew up – with ‘high-stakes testing, on-line classes, entirely new Standards for developing classroom modules based on significant advances in the knowledge-base for most every subject and increases in class sizes due to budget cuts and the list goes on and on.  At the same time, college costs are going through the roof while we are hearing that approximately 25% of college graduates can’t find full-time jobs. Even parents who are aware of these changes are unsure of how education needs to change to ‘keep up with these times.’  

High dropout rates, budget cuts, and pressures being exerted by the government (to convince parents that the corporate owned or controlled school model is better) all combine to make taking sides difficult.  Further, with their jobs demanding more and more time and effort, most parents find it hard to keep informed on complex education issues, such as:  implications for teaching of what science has recently uncovered about how humans learn; the arguments for and against privatization; where to draw the line against further increases in class-size; the pros and cons of basing teacher pay and job security on how their students answered some multiple choice questions; or the use of computerized online course modules with technical assistants to replace teachers.  

Making all these issues more difficult is the fact, as stated by Robert Freeman,[1] that we still have not resolved the struggle between the two dominant education models:

One model views schools as a process of cultural birth, of bringing forth a new generation of children who will carry on - replicate - the culture. The other model views schools as a machine, an industrial process not unlike an assembly line. Its purpose is to mass produce "factors of production" -- well trained obedient inputs that can be used in the manufacture of wealth.

The government (at federal, state and district levels) is exerting pressures on schools to accept the latter model -- the Industrial Model view.  One’s judgment, among these two models, depends on how one views the future. For example, information that robots are going to do most of the ‘work’ (even diagnostic tasks) in the future has to affect how you feel about which education model is more appropriate.  With the cost of College being so high, people with moderate to low incomes have to consider whether the expense is worth it especially when the Bureau of Labor Statistics is reporting that most new jobs will not require a college degree.[2] One has to wonder; ‘what kind of jobs are they thinking about for the next generation of HS graduates and what will the future job market look like?’
The view (of the future) that I see includes:  

·       Further consolidation of companies which produce and distribute the goods (we feel to be essential for our lives) into internationally centered production and distribution centers;[3]

·       Growth of Human Resource (HR) management companies that ‘mine’ and manage the stream of HS and College graduates (directing them -- according to their grades and test scores -- to one or the conglomerates they contract with); these HR companies will also link to and network Post Secondary Schools with districts that feed them HS graduates and they will grow based on their reputation for obtaining and interpreting student test score data from state and district run databases (such as those being ‘rolled out’ by the about forty some Race-to-the-top (RttT) grant states).

·       Centralized multi-national banks with the conversion of all currency into a unified credit system;
·       Databases maintained by every state populated with test scores, classes taken, grades, health records, DNA profiles, incarceration and arrest records, and psychological and socioeconomic data for each student;
·       More and more collusion between the private sector and local school districts.

All this suggests how difficult it is to guess what our president is thinking about by supporting all this testing on one hand while admonishing teachers not to ‘teach to the test’ on the other. 

I have puzzled over this question for months going through periods where I would rant at his image and swear that I was not going to vote for him.  But I kept coming back to the feeling that he was a good person who must identify with the terrible plight of young black and brown k-12 students, who obviously (by virtue of his warnings of about not teaching to the test) knew that too much testing and the use of test results to evaluate teachers, at the very least, has and will continue to foster cheating, deterioration of student views of the value of their education, to high levels of tension and a to a general reduction in the likelihood of producing graduates capable of rational and logical problem-solving thinking or the confidence to voice or logically test their own intuitive solutions. 

Then I began to think that maybe he sees testing as a chance to level the playing field at least to the point where it might be easier (for the more challenged kids) to move on to the next level (relying on rote memory rather than the ability to reason, abstract and interpret relationships into the future or to different settings) and let the ones who want and can do better find their own way.  I tried but I could not put the words together and I kept falling into traps, and ending up questioning whether or not I was showing signs of ‘racist’ beliefs.

Then I read Deborah Meier’s December 26, 2012 piece[4] quoting material she had written 31-years ago:

“The task of returning testing to its proper place will be difficult….Our belief in democracy–that normal every day people can make sense of their world and learn to make decisions about it– is at stake…There…is arising a renewed interest in educational tracking…and in new legislative proposals to support private education… All these anti-egalitarian trends….are nourished by the renewed focus on testing.”

This wonderful quote continues:

“To the ideologues of the New Right, the focus on testing appears correct and proper, since the free play of market forces ‘naturally’ produces inequality.”

I repeated to myself; “free play of market forces ‘naturally’ produces inequality.”  

It sounded so ‘spot on’.  But then I asked myself, ‘would the ‘new right’ even have considered not endorsing a methodology for measuring teacher performance based on the fact that it might be detrimental to students’ mental growth?’ I don’t think so.  I think that most successful business people attribute their success to in-born capabilities more than to their teachers.  Furthermore, people who belong to organization like the BRT (Business Roundtable) must know that 25% of our college graduates can’t find jobs and be afraid, that even our better students will be getting beat out by those from other countries.  So, this suggests that they would favor reforms that they thought would make the upper half of the ‘bell-shaped’ curve score even higher and forget those at the lower end.  But this argument is also flawed because, in reality, they probably had no clue as to how more testing was going to affect the average student’s ability or apparent intelligence. Support for increased testing simply grew among business leaders because they viewed schools as production units in an industrial system; since they were putting so much money into the system, they wanted proof that those hired to produce the product were doing a good job. 

But, what opinions might Obama have formed while he was rising to power? Did he see an education system that had already been found guilty, in the court of public opinion, of producing an internationally inferior product and did he see the problem as the schools’ apparent inability to get rid of ‘bad’ teachers?  Surely, he would have seen that most of those scoring at the bottom of the ‘Bell-shaped’ curve (and dropping out) were from inner city black and brown families and he probably would have thought that anything that gave minority children a better chance of graduating would be acceptable (for starters) even if it did risk a little regression towards the mean in terms of, say, mental growth or the amount of material learned (if one could measure either).  But, I don’t think this is a good reason to blame him; he is not the problem. 

OK, at first, Obama probably sucked up the BRT-sponsored rhetoric and the themes in movies like ‘Waiting for Superman’ and assumed that the problem was caused by bad teachers and the unions that were protecting them but he also had to have been thinking of the disastrous situations black teenagers were finding themselves in, with approximately half of them either jobless (dropped out or not) or in the military with some sort of a criminal record.  He also had to see how unpopular NCLB sanctions were with states. So, when he saw the problems NCLB were causing, he jumped in with a discretionary funded program which gave states a chance to avoid NCLB sanctions in exchange for them to agree to upgrade their standards and change their tests to reflect those standards. One has to admit, this was a brilliant strategy. Unfortunately, the program also includes the ‘value added’ method for evaluating teacher, principal, and school performance. Anyway, he went for it whole hog and I give him credit for doing that because it jolted a lot of people up off of their chairs and deepened the radicalization of others. 

The value-added methodology is full of invalid assumptions, relies on data that are unreliable and force ‘teaching to the test’ as a survival tactic for teachers. The problem is that our economy forces us to view schools as production facilities.  The Industrial Revolution has entered a new phase which emphasizes the efficient capture and deployment of human resources.  The expansion of student-test data may be seen as necessary for performing cost-benefit analyses on decisions as to whether or not to retain a teacher, but the measure they intend on using is riddled with invalid assumptions and based on unreliable data.  Among a multitude of other problems is the fact that testing kills curiosity, causes a lot of tension and does not build up children’s confidence in trying out and defending an answer, traits that are among those most sought after by companies in their new employees.

[1] Competing Models for Public Education: Which Model is Best? by Robert Freeman
[3] While it is reported that 147 firms control 40% of transnational entities --, a recent study done by the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy -- --said that “60 to 80 percent of all new jobs (in the USA) come from small businesses.” This suggests that those who decide to invest in post-secondary education (and, particularly those intending to go for advanced degrees) would be wise to begin their job searches by getting to know which of the 147 hire in your intended study area and where in the world they operate.


  1. As someone who didn't even vote for Obama the first time, I bristle at the notion he's "a good person who must identify with the terrible plight of young black and brown k-12 students." If only this were true. This man raised by a white parent and grandparents and the product of private school education, has from the get-go formed strong corporate alliances. His first speech on education as a Senator set the tone for the firestorm he later sent down on public education, as did his speech before the 2008 AFT convention. I was in the audience--and one of the very few people there who did not join the throng in giving him a standing ovation. I remained seated and I voted third party.

    1. I unfortunately voted for him the first time but did not do it this time. I find what Obama has done to public education nothing more than selling out to Wall St. But why would we find this inconsistent with any of his other policies?
      As the first African-American President he has failed the African- American community. People like Cornell West, Harry Belefonte, and Glen Ford find him a sellout. he just discusts me.