Authoritarian Spray: How the Spread of Standardization is Damaging Public Schools With Its Canopy of a Common Core, High-Stakes Testing and Market-Based Hooey

A picture is worth a thousand words. Please accept apologies because my title is nearly a picture. I just couldn’t pinch the title to a few words. That said…

The authoritarian spray of standardization has spread harm and inflicted damage to America’s public schools during the last two decades. The profits from standardized tests and teaching materials associated with the Common Core have overwhelmed the nature of learning in public school classrooms that one wonders if  this goliath, which has trampled on the very heart of education in a democratic society, can be brought down.

This post, and a forthcoming eBook will explore this conundrum, and point to ways that the mischief and misery of standardization might be overcome.   We’ll explore two fundamental paradigms of thinking, & learning, and family & politics that I think will shine a light on the dilemma of standardization.  Let’s get started.

The Root of This Dilemma

The conservative world-view is at the root of standardization, not only in the United States, but in most countries around the world.  This world-view has set in motion the reform of education based on a common set of standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability metrics that demoralize not only students and their families, but the educators who families regard as significant and positive others in the lives of their children.

The Gates Foundation has invested more than $3 billion into standards-test-based reform.  Did you know that since 1999, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (technically founded in 2000) has made over 4,000 grants in its US Program, one of the major categories of funding for the Gates Foundation?

The 4,000 grants were distributed among 16 categories such as College-Ready Education, Community Grants, Postsecondary Success, Global Policy & Advocacy, etc.  About 2,000 of these grants were made to carry out the Common Core State Standards, the use of student test scores to test teachers, and support technology that would increase the surveillance of students, parents and teachers to create sets of “big data” that can be mined by private companies to find behaviors and personal information of customers and clients that would fit profiles for their products.

Another way to understand the reform promoted by Gates and other billionaire people, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the National Governors Association (NGA), and conservative foundations, especially the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is to look at the work of educators and scholars such as Pasi Sahlberg.

Sahlberg emphatically states that the worst enemy of education and creativity is standardization. In his book, Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? (Library Copy), Sahlberg writes:

Curriculum development, student assessment, teacher evaluation, integration of information and communication technologies into teaching and learning, proficiency in basic competencies (i.e., reading and writing), and mathematical and scientific literacy have become common priorities in education reforms around the world. These changes in schools and classrooms are then ensured by employing management models from the business world, such as test-based accountability, merit-based pay and data-driven administration. I call this the Global Educational Reform Movement  (Sahlberg, Pasi (2011-11-01). Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? (Kindle Locations 2376-2380). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.)

Subversive Thinking

I think of standards-based education reform as a kind of “spray” analogous to how we used DDT as an agricultural insecticide.  We stayed it everywhere to stamp out disease carrying bugs.  For example, from 1940 – 1972, more than 1.3 billion pounds of DDT were released into U.S. communities indiscriminately.  This indiscriminate and relentless spray would eventually be shown to be harmful and a serious threat to the basics of ecosystems.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (Library Copy) explained how the release of DDT into the environment caused havoc and great harm to the affected ecosystems, as well as human health.  Even though the bio-chemical industry tried to subvert Carson’s work, she was eventually vindicated of the criticisms being leveled by this industry, and the US Congress went on to pass legislation banning DDT.   Later the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established.

Carson had started the environmental movement, and many leading ecologists and environmentalists from around the world looked to her work as an inspiration.

Rachel Carson, in the word’s of Mark Hamilton, one of Carson’s biographers,  was a “gentle subversive.”

There is a vanguard of gentile (and not-so-gentile) subversives who are leading the way to uncover and expose the damage that is being done to educational ecosystems, as well as  student  health (social, emotional, intellectual) by standardized, test-centered and market-oriented reform spreading like a virus with global implications.  This vanguard is composed of educators who offer different accounts of what teaching and learning is about.  They are leading an effort to challenge the current standardized reform movement.

Please follow this link to read about some of the people identified as part of this vanguard.  There are many more, and most of them are teaching in classrooms around the world.

So, what is this vanguard voicing opposition to?  All are questioning the lack of wisdom, profound ignorance, and inexcusable ineptness of an educational reform movement that is rooted in a very narrow purpose of schooling: teaching to the test.  According tp Sahlberg, the movement can be summarized in four words: Global Education Reform Movement GERM).

Global Educational Reform Model (GERM)

The Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) promotes and spreads the “strategies and interests” of global agencies, billionaire donors, and private consultants as if it was a live virus (Sahlberg 2013).  According to Sahlberg, three primary sources led to the spread of the GERM virus including:

  1. The need for proficiency in literacy and numeracy,
  2. A guarantee that all students will learn the same set of standards in math and language arts and reading, and value placed on competition, and
  3. Accountability by holding schools to a set of standards, and benchmarks using aligned assessments and tests.

None of the details of proficiency, standards or benchmarks are based on scientific or educational research.  They are opinions crafted by the groups mentioned before?

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a good example to show how GERM works.  PISA has developed its own set of standards and tests (assessments) in math, science, reading, and language arts used to hold students in more than 60 countries accountable to PISA benchmarks.

The Guardian newspaper published a series of articles about the 2013 PISA international test results.   Sahlberg points out that creating league tables that showcase or shame countries based on their student’s performance on standardized tests is simply not a proper use of international test results, in this case PISA.   As I’ve reported many times on this blog, international test results fall prey to newspaper headlines that predict the collapse of economies, or prevent its students from competing in the ‘global market.’  The ‘sky is falling’ mantra was alive and well when the 2013 results were announced.  It always is.

Imagine reading the headlines in Helsinki after its students fell from second place to 12th in just three years.  Sahlberg reports that in Sweden, the test result for its students was considered a national disaster.  In the United States, the Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) said the U.S. the results are “straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation.”

But Sahlberg suggests that the PISA results are proof that the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) is working and spreading itself around.  According to Sahlberg, GERM is a virus that has infected many nation’s schools.  In his view, GERM is characterized by

  • standardization (Common Core),
  • core subjects (math, reading, science),
  • teaching to the test,
  • corporate management style, and
  • test-based accountability.

When Duncan commented  (Guardian News, 2013) on the 2013 PISA results, he said it was clear that this “must serve as a wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations.”  And to correct American education’s shortcomings, “we must invest in early learning, redesign high schools, raise standards and support great teachers.”

Good examples of GERM schools can be found in the US, England, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden and Chile.  Here is how they fared in the PISA tests (Table 1).

PISA Results for Nations that have adopted the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM)
Table 1. PISA Results for Nations that have adopted the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM)

These nations have adopted a model of education based on competition, standardization, and test-based accountability.  In Sahlberg’s view,

GERM has acted like a virus that “infects” education systems as it travels around the world.

Non-Global Education Reform

But Sahlberg, or any of ones of the “vanguard of subversives” that I identified here, were ever asked by Duncan how to improve American schools, none would suggest the “reforms” that Duncan has funded for the past five years.  Instead they would suggest that the standards-corporate styled reforms (GERM) are based on premises that are rejected by educators and policy makers in nations that seem to be successful.

GERM advocates should listen to Dr. Mercedes Schneider, a high school English teacher who holds a Ph.D. in Applied Statistics and Research Methods.  She is relentless in her writing about corporate reform, especially the way in which the Common Core State Standards came into being, and how they have corrupted American education.  In her recent book, (A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education) I wrote this as part of a review on Amazon of her book:

In this book we have at our fingertips answers to important questions about how such a limited number of individual’s faces crop-up in various media outlets as the experts on public schools. If you want to find how to get wealthy and have a really big office, read about Joel Klein in chapter 1. Find out how Teach for America is transforming teacher education into a temp business by reading the Wendy Kopp story in chapter 3. You’ll find important episodes about characters including Eva Moskovitz, Michelle Rhee, Erik Hanushek, Arne Duncan, David Coleman, Chester Finn, and others. You’ll also find out about organizations that fund each other in the name of reform, but in the end seek to dismantle public education. Welcome to TFA, the New Teacher Project, the National Council on Teacher Quality (not), the Aspen Institute, the Gates Foundation, and cousins Walton and Broad.  And the best is yet to come as she saves the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the nation’s bill mill for the last chapter.  The content of the book is thoroughly researched and authenticated. If you read her blog, you’ll certainly enjoy this book.

According to Sahlberg, a school system is “successful” if it performs above the OECD average in mathematics, reading literacy and science, and if students’ socio-economic status has a weaker-than-average impact on students’ learning outcomes. The most successful education systems in the OECD are Korea, Japan, Finland, Canada and Estonia.

Table 2. PISA test scores for nations that are above the OECD average, and students socio-economic status has weaker-than-average impact on students' learning outcomes (Text: Sahlberg, 2013)
Table 2. PISA test scores for nations that are above the OECD average, and students socio-economic status has weaker-than-average impact on students’ learning outcomes (Text: Sahlberg, 2013)

Beyond GERM

In order to eradicate GERM, it will be crucial to think differently about teaching, learning and the purpose of school.  We must return the locus of  control of education to local educators and their boards, and establish schooling based on the well-being of each child.  The use of standardized testing must be reduced so that the only use is to provide feedback to schools and their districts about overall goals.  Standardized tests should never be used to rate, grade, or judge students, nor should these test scores be used in any way as a measure of teacher performance.  There are oodles of ways to assess student growth that will actually help students learn.  And there are many ways to assess teachers, and provide the kind of professional growth that people in other professions receive.

Here are just a few things that should be implemented.

1. Schools should have autonomy over its curricula and how students are assessed.  Teachers should work collaboratively to design and develop curriculum, and make decisions about the nature of instruction in their own classrooms.  This is contrary to the reforms that have dominated American education for decades, especially starting with the publication, Nation at Risk, followed by the No Child Left Behind Act during the Bush Administration, and The Race to the Top during the Obama administration.  Sahlberg says:

PISA shows how success is often associated with balanced professional autonomy with a collaborative culture in schools. Evidence also shows how high performing education systems engage teachers to set their own teaching and learning targets, to craft productive learning environments, and to design multiple forms student assessments to best support student learning and school improvement.

2. Schools need to focus on equity by giving priority to early childhood (one point for Duncan), comprehensive health and special education in schools, a balanced curriculum that sees the arts, music and sports as equals to math, reading and science.

3. School choice does not improve academic performance in a nation’s schools.  In fact, the overemphasis on school choice and competition between schools leads to greater segregation of schools.

4.  Successful schools are public schools and are controlled locally, not by a state or federal governments. If we want to improve education in the US, we need to move away from the competitive, corporate-based model that is based on standardization and test accountability.  As Dr. Nel Noddings says in her book, Education and Democracy in the 21st Century (Library Copy)

Education in the 21st century must put away some 20th-century thinking. All over the world today, many educators and policymakers believe that cooperation must displace competition as a primary form of relating. Competition is not to be abandoned— some competition is healthy and necessary— but it should no longer be the defining characteristic of relationships in an era of growing globalization. If we agree with this judgment, then we must consider how to prepare students for a cooperative world, not solely for one of competition.  (Noddings, Nel (2013-01-25).

American public schools are not failing.  The premise that they are failing is based on one factor–test scores.  We need to move beyond this concept of schooling and embrace collaboration, dialogue, interdependence, and creativity (Noddings, 2013).

New eBook

As I mentioned at the head of this post, a forthcoming eBook will explore this conundrum, and point to ways that the mischief and misery of standardization might be overcome.   It’s under development, and should be published later this month, and will be available free on my blog.


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