Offered on Thursday at Arne Duncan's workplace:
We are engaged in a struggle to abolish high stakes standardized tests and to bring back local public control to a public school system that serves the needs of all children who choose it. Resistance is growing among teachers, parents, students, legislators, and unions (at least in Chicago). And though our numbers are still thin and our voices, perhaps, muted and our sprouting resistance sometimes subverted and coopted, that does not keep our actions from advancing, nor does it diminish the rightness of our cause. Let me share with you a little background on how we got here today at this tipping point.
The efforts during the 1960s to fix social and racial inequality relied largely on increased educational opportunity to get the job done. Increasing educational access, more financial assistance, more job training, federal monitoring—these were the routes chosen to change inequality, and they were chosen because they were less expensive, both monetarily or politically, than structural fixes. There was, for example, much less resistance to more job training than there was for a guaranteed minimum income for poor people, or for changes in the apartheid housing patterns that FHA had ensured since the 1930s, with its redlining maps. In short, more education funding and more access were less threatening to the powerful than structural changes like income redistribution, integrated housing initiatives and mandates, workplace requirements, mass transit systems, health care guarantees, etc.
As more federal money was funneled into Title I and other ed programs for equalizing the poor and the brown, there was more demand for a proper accounting of how that money was spent. There were liberal accountability advocates like Robert Kennedy, who wanted to make sure the money did something for poor kids, and conservative ones like Richard Nixon more focused on efficiencies, even though Richard Nixon today looks like a Marxist when compared to the proto-fascist Tea Party robots assembled by the Koch Brothers’ superpacs.
The more money that poured into public schools to end inequality and the more that this strategy did not bring desired results, the more disappointment grew and the more political pressure resulted to make it work. The social visionaries of Washington blamed the educational establishment for dragging their feet, and educators reminded the visionaries that educators, alone, could not end inequality without other structural changes. The social visionaries leaned on the technocrats to tighten the thumb screws with more tests, and educators responded by reminding Washington that you can’t fatten your cows by weighing them more often. And thus, the accountability arms race was born.
And though harsher sanctions have come to be attached to the testing accountability strategies over the decades, even the universal compliance and proficiency demands of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) have still not ushered in the compensatory outcomes promised to all those children of the 1960s or, now, to their grandchildren who remain left behind. And though each new reform decade promises greater rewards if only the implementors would implement and stop accepting excuses or looking for them, accountabilists and reformists have learned, if nothing else, that failure has its rewards. For until universal testing proficiency arrives, corporate reformists may continue to credit others for its non-arrival and to profit by its elusiveness all the while. By continually aiming their searchlight on the horizon for any slackers that can be spotted and blamed, whether teachers, students, or even parents, reformists are able to keep attention focused on who they see as failing, rather than whose decrepit policies have already failed.
Each successive generation of repackaged reform, then, has required new policing measures, tougher sanctions, and fresh targets of blame in order for the accountability searchlight to remain directed downward as the testing edifice proceeds upward. This is clearly illustrated in the present ad campaign by the world’s richest corporation, Exxon Mobil. Until U. S. international test scores climb to heights that American child poverty rates make impossible to scale, Exxon Mobil may continue its national advertising campaign that reminds us of U. S. students’ mediocre PISA rankings in math (25th) and science (17th), all the while ignoring America’s more impressive ranking (2nd) in child poverty rates among the “richest countries” of the world (UNICEF, 2012). Where child poverty is low in the U. S., there is ample evidence to show that American students are doing very well in international test achievement comparisons and that economic disadvantage accounts significantly for lower U. S. PISA scores when compared to other Western nations (Carnoy & Rothstein, 2013).
In U. S. schools, for instance, with poverty rates below ten percent, American students rank first in the world on PISA in both math and science, and where poverty is between 10 and 24.9 percent, American students score third behind Korea and Finland (Riddile, 2010). Failing to acknowledge this prominent feature of reality, while maintaining a studied disregard for structural changes required for poverty rates and segregation to be brought down and learning rates raised up, adds, then, a deep moral stain to the frayed and faded reformist banner, a stain that cannot be washed away with rhetorical balms like “Let’s Solve This.” The puzzle can’t be solved when you have thrown away some of the pieces or discarded the most important clues or excluded your best puzzle solvers from the process.
John Goodlad, writing over 20 years ago, turned his own high beam on some of the darker assumptions underlying the second generation of accountability testing getting underway in 1992. One assumption that Goodlad (1992) identified has led to some particularly regrettable outcomes:
The necessity of rigorously sustaining world-class standards (for fear of otherwise making a mockery of the whole system) will ensure a steady supply of test-failers (presumably accommodated by temporary job certificates), who will perform the plethora of mundane services that the more successful among us will increasingly require (p. 233).
Two decades later at the outset of Generation 3 of accountability testing, those “temporary job certificates” for test-failers are referred to as “certificates of completion,” and they are abundantly provided to students who have completed all high school requirements except for passing the high school exit exams that reformists would now make harder still. For with the implementation of the nation's next testing delivery system, the Common Core State Standards (CCCS), more and harder tests will be required than the ones that many poor children have consistently been failing now for many years. We may wonder, then, how many more students will find themselves giving up to “perform the plethora of mundane services that the more successful among us will increasingly require.”
There are reasons to believe that this outcome may be avoided if available evidence accompanied by public demand can continue to be mobilized. For the hurried, scientifically-dubious rise of value-added modeling since 2009 is based on a foundation that is incapable of supporting the structure that corporate reform schoolers are racing to build. Such heedless practices will increase the likelihood of an eventual collapse, and the added weight of more high stakes tests with validity and reliability pillars missing further weakens the structure. At the same time, warnings of possible collapse grow louder and have awakened concerns among parents who must send their children into this questionable edifice, as well as from the teachers who must work there, and even from the children, themselves, who have sensed the danger imminent in educational structures built by flimsy measures with hasty methods. As conservative social engineers scratch their heads and as politicians fret about the potential outcome, the corporate foundations issue orders to keep building without delay. A rickety version of the Tower of Babel proceeds, then, even as growing crowds encircle the construction, speaking many languages but with a single message of opposition. From Seattle to Portland to Long Island to Texas from North Carolina to Tennessee to Indiana, Pennslyvania, Colorado, Chicago and Brooklyn, too many examples to count here of angry crowds circling Duncan’s Tower of Babel that shudders even as it is built.
All these events and actions indicate a growing turbulence that, when expanded, will alter the power dynamics from the local to federal levels. The longstanding skepticism of professional educators to testing accountability measures has now been taken up by parents, students, school boards, state legislators, and experience tells us that successful politicians are always on the lookout for public issues with support on the rise, rather than on the decline.
The timing could not be worse for corporate education reform. With the predominance of corporate power to effect business-friendly education reforms reaching a zenith just after the Great Bank Heist of 2008, the widespread resentment toward Wall Street solutions from unaccountable billionaires has fueled a growing awareness that more of the same reforms now directed by corporations with little oversight will bring about another disappointing result. Too, taxpayers in cash-strapped communities have begun to bristle at the notion of corporate interests running public schools at taxpayer expense. Adding to the growing unease is the realization that most charter schools are worse or no better than the public schools they are replacing, and the ones that do have higher scores offer a lockdown, zero tolerance model that increases segregation and yields children who follow orders well but who think poorly. Additionally, total compliance boutiques like KIPP influence other urban schools to emulate their inhumane policies, which increases the numbers of dropouts and pushouts. With the school-to-prison pipeline having entered the mainstream of educational conversation nationally, policy makers are looking for any way to reduce dropouts, if for no other reason than the economic one. Finally, the threat of charter expansion to suburban school districts has awakened resistance among influential middle class parents who are becoming keenly aware of the economic drain to school budgets that comes with charter expansion.
With so many rational reasons to doubt another generation of the same reforms with a “New and Improved” stamped on the box, it should be expected, then, that the corporate ed initiatives would resemble a round-the-clock project that is hurriedly hammered into place by participants racing against a clock they cannot see, with little incentive or opportunity for reflection and none for self-evaluation by the project directors, themselves. Surely they have sensed that time is running out.
Last year when I was I here I said that I was not here to speak to truth to power any more. If those in this building over here cared then or now about the truth, or even the facts, we would find no need to be here. Arne Duncan and his hive of drones from the corporate foundations ignore the truth, defy the truth, pretend the truth does not exist. The documented failure of teacher performance pay schemes in Chicago, Nashville, and New York is ignored. The failed school voucher and charter schemes, documented by studies funded by corporate reformers, themselves, are summarily dismissed. Decades of research on the effects of early school retention on children who view school failure as equivalent to losing a parent—defied now by 14 states that have adopted this form of child abuse based on a single stupid test. The warnings of the National Research Council on the use of value-added scores, ignored. Fifty years of research on the value and need for socioeconomic diversity in schools put in the trash. So no, speaking truth to power no longer works—the power that has wrested control of the public school systems of America does not give a damn about truth, or even the facts.
The truth, rather, must be shared with more parents, grandparents, professionals, laymen, students, and, yes, teachers, many of whom are now mis-prepared to teach by corporate teacher training programs that make a mockery of the term, teacher preparation. Beyond the public shaming, mockery, and ridicule that Arne Duncan and his minions have earned, we must plan, share, and engage now in well-formulated attacks on the corporate reform school system of miseducation, acts that use any and all form of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance at our disposal. We must act to end high-stakes testing, for until that happens, our potential as an educated, free people remains in lockdown, captured within a corrupted caricature of accountability and made ignorant by a fixation on universal compliance and phony test measures.
Jefferson said those who believe they can be ignorant and free believe what never was and will never be. That remains as true today as it was when he said it. Education for democracy looks different from the regimented universal sameness required by the newest testing delivery system, the Common Core national curriculum, that is now being demanded by the addicted-to-testing proto-fascists and their corporate socialist sponsors.
It is no longer enough to sign petitions, write letters, or join the PTA. It's no longer enough to try to humanize our classrooms between the test prep for math and the test prep for reading. It is no longer enough to call your Congressman and to go vote every two or four years for either unveiled evil or the more mendacious variety. It is not enough to do these things as we try to make the plantation more comfortable for the slaves.
It is time for real demands and real action to bring an end the crimes against our children and our schools. Power concedes nothing without a demand, as Frederick Douglass knew so well. When Douglass joined up with unknown little 19th Century blogger by the name of William Lloyd Garrison, no one gave their cause to bring down America’s most valuable institution even the smallest chance in hell. But those long odds did not deter the abolitionists from their singular goal to end that most vicious crime against humanity. They organized, they spoke, they cajoled, they wrote, they protested, they defied, they castigated, they demanded, and they rebuked the law that was already broken. They hammered and they agitated, and during it all they never weighed the value of their struggle against the odds of success, but rather against the rightness of their cause.
Nor did the abolitionists compromise their aims, collaborate with slaveholders, or alter their singular aim to end slavery. They did not accept slavery over here in order to get rid of it over there. They rejected the notion that a little slavery was okay as long as it didn’t happen in their own neighborhoods. Nor did they eat at the slave masters’ table in order to gain strength for their fight. They did not oppose for-profit plantations while remaining quiet about the non-profit ones where masters there, too, grew fat and righteous in their depravity. They did not accept among their thin ranks those who advocated for slavery when it was convenient or profitable to do so, nor did they ally themselves with groups that did. They did not craft their message so as not to upset those who supported slavery directly or those who did so by assuming “neutrality” on the subject. They voted for no one who did not oppose slavery by deed and word. And they did not mute or obfuscate their message in order to attract financial support for their cause from collaborators and enablers of slavery. Maybe there is something to learn from the abolitionists’ example as we struggle to abolish the high stakes testing that keeps our children and teachers captive and working to make others rich.
Rather than sitting in your warm homes this weekend hoping that someone will do something to end high stakes testing, your coming here shows that you have made a conscious decision to defy the tyranny of Testing’s corporate profiteers, to stand against the billionaire fixated on social control, and to expose and ridicule their high-paid school overseers. Thank you, now and thank you for when you go back home where this guerilla war for publicly-controlled, humane schools without high stakes testing will continue. As historian David Tyack says, children are about 20 percent of our population, but they are a hundred percent of our future. Our choice to remain free people offers us but one course: to restore and renew public education for ecological sustainability and democracy, by whatever nonviolent means we can imagine.
Addendum Sunday April 7: To those critics of the abolitionist message, who insist on focusing toward "what we want in place of testing," I urge you to remain focused on what must be undone before anything new can be done: it is a diversion and a waste of energy to plan what you want to do with your 40 acres and that new mule as long as you are still a slave. Until high stakes testing ends, all the fine sounding plans remain pipe dreams.