A Perfect Storm Hits Public Schools

Steven Sellers Lapham and Jack Hassard

Public schools in America are under attack from many directions, and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) seems bent on delivering a lethal one-two-three punch. This decade will likely witness more neighborhood schools shutting down, crowded classrooms, excellent teachers fired, and children fobbed off to “online learning programs.” Let’s recall that Prince Edward County, Virginia closed its schools 1959-64, creating a “lost generation” of children who were hobbled, as adults, by years of missed education. Today, a school district in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, cash strapped and unable to pay its teachers, is being kept open only by a federal court order.

We now face the prospect of a school closing because the local tax base has withered, the state government is under water, and the federal government has deemed the school to be unworthy of aid due to lackluster scores on high-stakes student tests. ED, which should be the strongest defender of public schools, is making the problem worse.

Punch #1: Punish the Poor.

The slogan “Race to the Top” is social Darwinism at its most ugly: Reward those who are doing well (inevitably, schools in wealthier neighborhoods) and punish those who are struggling (predictably, schools in America’s poorer neighborhoods). A child in Oklahoma, Mississippi, or North Dakota should not have to rely on a state administrator’s clever grant-writing skills in order to receive a good education. Certainly, some grant monies should be available for innovation and experimentation in schools. But to make “success” the guiding star of educational policy is wrong.

Punch #2: Death by Paperwork.

States might avoid the draconian punishments of the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) by applying to ED for a “waiver.” The mad rush is on. To date, eleven states have submitted a “flexibility report.” Georgia’s is 249 pages. California estimates that enacting all of the waiver requirements (unfunded mandates) would cost at least $2 billion and has declined to apply. ED could make the waiver process useful by placing a 1,000-word limit on applications (a bit longer than this essay) and asking only for a brief description of a state’s educational goals. This would free up teachers and administrators to do real work.

Punch #3: Absurd Metrics.

Teacher evaluations will be based on “student growth.” There is, however, no scientific basis for doing this. The practice contradicts a 2011 National Academy of Science report, “Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education.”

Using test scores to measure the efforts of teachers is a pseudoscience akin to phrenology of the 1800s, which purported to measure one’s intelligence according to the shape of one’s skull. It also brings to mind journalists and social scientists of the 1920-60s who misued prison statistics to “prove” that black people are genetically inclined toward criminal behavior.  In his Harvard University Press book, Khalil Gibran Muhammad established how a racial and racist, ‘scientific’ discourse promoted this idea.  Today, we use high-stakes test scores to “prove” that embattled schools are “failures,” and that hard-working professionals aren’t working hard enough.

There are many reasons why student test scores might not mount endlessly upward, such as an influx of non-English speaking immigrants; a rise in divorces; the town’s factory closes; family transience; a rise in home foreclosures; a sad absence of parents, who are serving in Afghanistan; etc. Or maybe the for-profit company that created the test got a little sloppy when it wrote the test questions, skewing the results. These powerful influences cannot be adequately controlled in a statistical analysis on the small scale of a single school district, a single school, and least of all, a single teacher.

Pushing Back

We must ban the use of standardized tests to make high-stakes decisions of any kind. Standardized test scores might be used ethically as a diagnostic tool (“Apply first aid here!”), but never as an excuse for punishment (“Bleed the patient dry!”). As a study by Fairtest has revealed, the system has placed an inhumane burden on teachers and administrators on the ground, resulting in cheating scandals in 32 states and the District of Columbia. Valerie Strauss reports that the “misuse of standardized tests mandated by public officials has created a climate in which increasing numbers of educators feel they have no choice but to cross ethical lines.”

Of course, teachers, like any professional group, should be evaluated and held to high standards. Experienced teachers and administrators in the school itself have personal knowledge of the teacher, students, local community and curriculum. Peer observation and evaluation have been a part of healthy educational settings for centuries. There are rigorous protocols for teacher evaluation provided by professional and subject-discipline associations. Let’s use those.

In New York State, 1,200 principals (and even more teachers) have signed a letter protesting the use of students’ test scores to evaluate their job performance. California, with more public school students than any other state, has jumped ship. So has Pennsylvania, apparently. “The emphasis on testing under the waiver plan is as heavy-handed as it has been under NCLB,” said educational historian Diane Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education.

Replacing NCLB with a new law could propel our nation’s educational standing. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s most cherished goal is to return the United States to first place in the percentage of the population who graduate from college. To do that, let’s provide every child who could benefit from daycare with free admission to Head Start, which is the most powerful predictor of success for children born into poverty. Then we can strive to make every school in every neighborhood in America a center of excitement and excellence, not just the chosen few.

Until Congress passes a new federal education law, ED can write its rules and marshal its resources to assist students, teachers, and schools – and stop punishing them. And it can adopt a new slogan to match this new ethic. How about “Raise All Boats!”

Have the Federal Government’s education acts (No Child Left Behind and the Race to the Top) created conditions that have led to the “perfect storm” hitting American education?  What do you think?


— Steven Sellers Lapham is an editor at a nonprofit educational association. The opinions expressed are his own.

— Jack Hassard, is Emeritus Professor of Science Education, Georgia State University, and writes a blog at http://www.artofteachingscience.org

5 Education Reform Posts Not To Ignore

Education reform in education seen through the lens of writers and teachers appears as repetitions of innovative ideas that claimed to change and improve schooling as we know it.  In a post at Education Week, Anthony Weiner suggests that education reform of any age simply offers more of the same.  In particular, he sees education reform over many decades focusing on the same themes: privatization and choice, as well as standards-based testing and accountability.  Over time, education reforms that have been suggested are moving the U.S. toward a more centralized education system, rather than a democratic system that is rooted in local communities, and schools.

For several months I have explored on this blog issues that impinge on the current reform that is based on high-stakes testing, and standardization of the curriculum.  The latest reform in science education is the development of the Next Generation of Science Standards by Achieve, Inc., in collaboration with NSTA, AAAS, and apparently, 25 states.  There are many professional educators who are writing about reform, and offering critiques based often on experiences on-the-ground in classrooms, and on educational research.

In this post I have selected five articles from online blogs that I frequently read, and use for my own research on science education, and the current status of reform in American schools.

I hope you find the articles worthwhile, as I have, and that you discover new writers who represent and write about alternatives to the current reform fiasco under the heading of standards and high-stakes testing.

Here they are.

Education Reform Posts Not to Ignore

Will National Standards Become the Operating System for our Schools?  Written by Anthony Cody, veteran science educator (Oakland, CA schools), and author of Living in Dialogue on Education Week Teacher, this article is a must read for all of us, especially science teachers.  Anthony Cody raises the important objection to the New Generation of Science Standards, as well as the Common Core Standards movement.  He suggests the standards movement is the antithesis of “autonomous professionals,” that is teachers who are “entrusted with crafting engaging lessons, and working with students in creative ways.  The standards movement kind of knocks the wind out that.  Read more ….

How Many Decades Before ‘Reform’ Becomes ‘Status Quo’?  In this Education Week post, the author traces a brief history of reform in American education starting in the 1980s with the Nation at Risk report, and going forward.  He concludes that each of the “reforms” that succeeded the back to basics reform movement of the Nation at Risk report were simply more of the same.  Read more

When Test Scores Become a Commodity. In this Education Week post, Jonathan Keller, an AP History and AP Art History teacher shows us how using student achievement test scores to evaluate teachers and administrators turns test scores into a commodity.  He says “by making student scores the basis for evaluation, the students and their scores create a market for the teachers and administrators whose livelihoods depend upon the results.”  Read more..

NCLB + RTTT = MOTS or No Child Left Behind Act + Race to the Top Fund = More of the Same. Reform in the 2000’s has been dominated by two Federal Programs, No Child Left Behind Act (2003), and the Race to the Top Fund (2010).  In this post we suggest that these two “reform” efforts have gone forward with little regard for research, but more devastating is the fact that the NCLB set into play a test-crazed culture of schooling that has led to untold cheating scandals, and undue pressure on students, teachers and administrators, not to mention parents.  Read more

Standardized Testing: The Modern Bloodletting?   Written by Vicky Davis, a technology teacher in Georgia, this post compares the modern system of testing as used in American schools to the archaic and harmful habit of draining blood from a sick person—bloodletting.  In a scathing analysis of how we use testing exhaust the minds of our students.  Read more….


The Consequence of Banning High-Stakes Testing in (Science)

American education in general, and science education specifically have been radically and negatively impacted by high-stakes testing.

High-stakes testing, as set forth in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), is the idea that the pressure of such tests will increase student achievement.  But one of the major studies cited here finds that the pressure created by high-stakes tests has no important influence on academic performance (Nichols, Glass & Berliner, 2005).

In this study, which was published in 2005, the researchers found that:

  • States with greater proportions of minority students exert greater pressure, and thus will disproportionately affect minority students.
  • High-stakes pressure is negatively associated with students in middle school moving on to the last year of high school.  The result is that many kids are kept back, or simply drop out of school.
  • Increased pressure did not result in gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test for elementary or middle school students.

These researchers conclude that

there is no convincing evidence that the pressure associated with high-stakes testing leads to any important benefits for students’ achievement. They call for a moratorium on policies that force the public education system to rely on high-stakes testing.

In another research study, Noddings reported that

although evaluation of student learning is required for accountability, high stakes testing is not required and may even be counterproductive. It also questions whether the goals of the ‘No Child Left Behind Act’ are reasonable and contends that, if they are not, there may be no justification for imposing punishments and sanctions on children and schools unable to meet them. Moreover, high stakes testing may be incompatible with many defensible aims – among them, critical thinking.

These two important ideas, that high-stakes testing has not been shown to improve student achievement, and that high-stakes testing is not required to assess student learning lead us to support the notion that

The consequence of eliminating high-stakes testing would be the immediate removal of the pressure on students and teachers to be controlled by a Federal policy that is deeply flawed, and based on a factory mentality of education that does not fit with 21st Century society.  The implementation of high-stakes testing has had more impact on what and how teachers teach than any curriculum innovation of the past 50 years.  Teachers are pressured to teach to the test, and in a case reported yesterday on this blog, Florida science teachers are throwing out hands-on and inquiry activities so that they can spend more time teaching to the end of year test (FCAT).

The consequence of eliminating high-stakes testing would mean that the likely hood that cheating on tests, by students and teachers would go by the wayside.  According to the Georgia Governor’s three-volume report, the Atlanta cheating scandal was caused by “a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation that spread throughout the (Atlanta) district.”  That culture of fear was directly related to the pressure put on administrators, teachers, and students to make sure students scored high on the end-of-year tests at any costs.

The Atlanta scandal is not the first time cheating has happened.  In their book, Collateral Damage, Nichols, and Berliner report that cheating in American schools has occurred because it helps one gain advantages or avoid negative consequences.  In the present NCLB environment, schools can be sanctioned, or taken over, teachers fired, and students told they should go somewhere else to get a better education.

In the Atlanta case, cheating was widespread, and had gone on for several years, all during the enactment period of the NCLB Act.  So far, eleven educators’ teaching licenses have been revoked, and each faces criminal charges.  Another 180 teachers and administrators face sanctions and criminal charges.

I am not condoning the behavior of the educators in Atlanta, but I am using this case to reflect on the research that was done by Nichols, Glass and Berliner in 2005,  and their conclusion calling for a moratorium on policies that force the public education system to rely on high-stakes testing.

The consequence of eliminating high-stakes testing in science would enable science teachers to focus on science standards that encourage innovation, creativity and science-inquiry.  Teachers would also be free to relate science to the lived experiences of their students, to involve students in engaging scientific projects, and use the wealth of resources and curricula that have been developed by the leading science educational organizations in the Nation such as TERC and the Concord Consortium.

Science teaching, as well as other areas of the curriculum, would flourish with the banning of high-stakes tests.

But how would students and teachers be assessed if we didn’t use high-stakes tests.  That’s for tomorrow.


High-Stakes Testing and Student Achievement: Problems for the No Child Left Behind Act, Sharon L. Nichols, Gene V. Glass and David C. Berliner, Arizona State University, Education Policy Studies Laboratory, 2005

High-Stakes Testing: Opportunities and Risks for Students of Color, English-Language Learners, and Students with Disabilities, Jay P. Heubert, Teachers College, Columbia University

Why Science Educators Need to Oppose High-Stakes Testing

There are many reasons that we can site to oppose the use of high-stakes testing in American schools.  Yesterday, I reported on a case in Florida in which several middle school teachers decided not to do hands-on, inquiry-based activities with their students.  These science teachers decided that a more direct instruction approach was called for, and indeed, they found that their student’s test scores improved on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).  This is sounds like a very good decision on the part of these teachers, and indeed, it may be.

However, the behavior of teachers in this case represents a disturbing collateral effect of high-stakes testing.   Here is an example how high-stakes testing is threatening the “ideals and purposes of American education.” And in this case the nature of science teaching.  Are we to be convinced that using inquiry and hands-on activities in the curriculum is a waste of time because the goals of science teaching that attributed to inquiry-oriented teaching are not measured on high-stakes tests such as the FCAT?

This is one example of the logic used by our test possessed education system that was put into action by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  As Nichols and Berliner state in their book Collateral Damage, the NCLB has created a system of “threats and incentives tied to test performance that will energize teachers and their students to work harder and more effectively.”

As they point out, this is a factory model that was used to manage workers who were doing difficult labor intense tasks.  But today, most businesses depend on the knowledge or intellectual abilities of their “workers” and surely, using punishment and reward, as we have seen imparted on our public schools, is not a part of the model business world.

We are corrupting the nature of (science) teaching by continuing to use high-stakes testing as the only indicator of student achievement and teacher effectiveness.  What would happen if we were to eliminate high-stakes testing immediately from being used as a determinant of a student’s grade in a course, or whether the student moves on to another grade?

The first thing to happen would be the enormous release of pressure on students and their parents who have been convinced that the only way to know if their child is successful is how he or she does on a 40 – 50 item test, that may or not be related to what went on in their classroom.   Pressure would also be released to allow teachers and administrators to act professionally and create environments that are conducive to learning by all students, regardless of where they live.

Another result would be the freeing up of the curriculum enabling teachers to make professional decisions about content and pedagogy, and relate the curriculum to the needs and aspirations of its students.  Now, because of the Common Core State Standards movement combined with high-stakes testing, most of the decision making about content is not in the hands of the professional that know what is best for their students.

Nichols and Berliner, in their book Collateral Damage, issue a warning that American education is suffering because of high-stakes testing, and that we should heed the warning and do something about this.





Teachers of English Oppose Common Core Standards and National Tests

I read on the Schools Matter weblog site that the National Council of Teachers of English will consider a resolution to oppose the use of the Common Core State Standards, and national testing.  What about science teachers?  What about the National Science Teachers Association?

In their resolution, they directly show that the claims that the common core movement and national testing uses included:

  • The American educational system is broken.
  • Education must be improved to improve the economy.
  • The best way to improve education to have “rigorous” standards, and use national tests measure the “improvement.”

None of these claims can be supported.  Not only is there data to show that these claims are false, but the standards and testing movement ignore the real problems that our schools face today, and that is the increasing levels of poverty, and the impact that poverty has on student learning and success.  Neither of these movements deals with poverty, and in fact these movements claim that all student should be held to the same standards regardless of where they live.  The truth is, the U.S. has highest level of child poverty among industrial nations, and until we deal directly with this problem, we’ll make little progress in reforming schooling.

I have written at length about the relationship between the economy and student learning.  Amazingly, corporate leaders, and politicians view our youth as the problem with the economy in the sense that they claim that if we don’t improve student academic test scores, the economy will tank.  The Great Recession was not caused by low (or high) student test scores, it was caused by many years of spending on two wars, uncontrolled banking and lending practices, and large financial companies that helped lead the country down the path to a near Depression.

We do need to improve schooling, and learning.  We always have believed that.  But simply writing behavioral objectives (standards) that are “rigorous” and then testing the heck out of students has not been shown to improve learning.

We need to humanize education, not dehumanize it.  The standards and testing movements together are moving us into a space that is not conducive to student learning.  We need critical alternatives to reform, as described in Humanizing Education.   Paolo Freire put it this way in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion.  But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people’s vocation.  This vocation is constantly negated, yet it is affirmed by that very negation.  It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity.