An education reform warning for Democrats

President Obama and JEb Bush shake hands, with Arne Duncan in the background, in 2011. (The Associated Press)
President Obama and Jeb Bush shake hands, with Arne Duncan in the background, in 2011. (The Associated Press)

If there is one area where there is bipartisan support in President Obama’s agenda, it is education reform. And that’s too bad. Here to explain the history of this — and why it is a problem — is Jeff Bryant, a marketing and communications consultant for nonprofits. Bryant is a marketing and creative strategist with nearly 30 years of experience – the past 20 on his own – as a freelance writer, consultant, and search engine marketing provider. He has also written extensively about public education policy. This post appeared on the Education Opportunity Network, a new online publication edited by Bryant.

By Jeff Bryant

It’s a conventional wisdom among Democrats to write off the state of Texas as a land of gun wielding troglodytes who genuflect to Rush Limbaugh and swill Fox News Kool-Aid. (Full disclosure: I was born and raised in the Lone Star State.)

But it may surprise most Democrats that the education policies that our current Democratic administration advances were, in a large part, invented in the oh-so awful red state of George W. Bush and Rick Perry.

The widespread idea that government operatives working in cubicles buried deep in the bowels of state capitals can monitor the “effectiveness” of schools in the hinterlands of the country was a scheme born and enacted first in a state known to be among the most oppressive in its treatment of people who Democrats like to refer to as “the least of these.”

But what happened this weekend in the Texas capital of Austin revealed a groundswell of resistance, from multiple political factions, against what has been heretofore defined as “education reform.”

A rally that brought thousands of people into the streets to protest deep cuts to the state’s education budget became a mass outcry against education policies that enforce high-stakes testing and accountability systems.

Education historian Diane Ravitch declared Texas the place where reform “madness” started and where “the vampire gets garlic in its face and a mirror waved and a stake in its heart.”

Former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott talked about turning in his “reformer card” and described promoters of school accountability schemes as people who are “selling two ideas and two ideas only: No. 1, your schools are failing, and No. 2, if you give us billions of dollars, we can convince you [of] the first thing we just told you.”

And Texas school superintendent John Kuhn called the pushback to school reform measures, “our San Jacinto.”

If Texas set the precedent for the last 20 years of education governance, is it now the state about to hurl the current reform model into the dustbin of history?

A Texas-Sized Mess

A recent article in that bastion of radical leftist thought, The American Conservative, took us “back in time” to recount how education policies that became the law of the land got their start in cowboy culture.

The author of the article, Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken, explained, “For the past two decades, excessive emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing and a one-size-fits-all focus on preparing all students for college came to dominate education policy in Texas and later, in Washington, D.C. with the passage of the Bush-Kennedy “No Child Left Behind” legislation.”

To trace this history, Pauken actually dialed his time machine back even further to the 1980s when computer mogul and zany presidential candidate H. Ross Perot pushed for a “basic skills test” requirement for earning a Texas high school diploma. A test-based accountability system gained momentum in the 1990s when state lawmakers decided to use test scores and passing rates to categorize schools as “Exemplary,” “Recognized,” “Acceptable,” and “Low Performing.” (Sound familiar?)

Pauken noted, “These categories … had little to do with measuring whether schools were preparing students for success in college or for meaningful employment. But the labels played well from a public-relations standpoint.”

Then, during the Bush governorship, local school districts throughout Texas ratcheted up their attention to the “performance measurements put in place by the state particularly the testing system.”

Now, 15 years later, according to Pauken, “The state’s one-size-fits-all accountability system pressures school districts to spend an inordinate amount of time teaching to the test. As one teacher told me, it all becomes a numbers game to get the most students to pass the single test.”

The test driven approach, according to Pauken, has led to a narrowed curriculum that has produced “worker shortages in the skilled trades,” declines in student performance on college entrance exams, and “a serious problem with high school dropouts.”

The Myth Of The Texas Miracle

Nevertheless, the Texas approach to education policy provided the model for accountability measures pushed by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top and other measures.

Writing at the website of “liberal” MSNBC, Jason Stanford recounted pretty much the same history that Pauken imparted.

Even when scores on the state assessments rose, Stanford explained, “SAT scores dropped. Researchers discovered that the Texas tests designed by Pearson primarily measured test-taking ability.” And “over all Texas lost ground to the rest of the country.”

Both men pin a lot of the blame for test-crazed education policies on a Democrat, Sandy Kress, Bush’s chief education adviser. According to Stanford, Kress convinced Bush, “The ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ was holding back minority students in failing schools. His solution: if Texas made all schools give the same tests, the state could direct resources where they would do the most good, and eventually African-American and Hispanic kids would catch up to the white kids. It was a great theory, and initially the scores rose.”

This became known as the “Texas Miracle,” according to Stanford, and once Bush became president, “Kress lobbied Sen. Ted Kennedy to add bipartisan legitimacy” to NCLB, which then “spread the Texas Miracle to the other 49 states.”

The Texas Miracle started to collapse when CBS News exposed Texas school officials routinely hiding drop out figures.

But Republicans and Democrats alike remained united in thinking that test pressures would eventually yield higher achievement levels for all students. But if that were indeed the case, wouldn’t those higher levels have started to become reality in the place were test pressures have been in place the longest?

Holding School Accountability To Account

To answer that question, Texas-based education professor Julian Vasquez Heilig has spent a lot of time examining the results of the Texas education regime. Writing at his own website, he found, over the past decade, the state’s students have performed “poorly,” relative to other states, on the benchmark National Assessment of Education Progress exam, a.k.a “The Nation’s Report Card.

“Texas dropped 21 spots in 4th grade math, four spots in 4th grade reading, and eight spots in 8th grade reading,” Heilig observed.

“As a former employee of the Houston Independent School District, we inside the belly of the beast had access to our data and knew accountability hadn’t delivered on the scale that was being promoted in the popular press,” Heilig explained.

When Heilig and other reform-doubters warned testing pressures were producing “teaching to the test, push-out of children, and the narrowing curriculum,” they were summarily dismissed by those “still drinking the high-stakes testing and accountability Kool-Aid.”

“The reason why we’re seeing, well, what we’re seeing, after 10 years of No Child Left Behind is the fact that we didn’t close the gaps, the fact that our graduation rates haven’t gone anywhere, our dropout rates haven’t improved because Texas never did that in the 1990s,” said Heilig. “Accountability had never delivered that. It had never done it. And that’s why over the last 10 years now that we have Texas-style accountability and policy in the whole United States, the reason why it didn’t deliver is because it never delivered in Texas then.”

Testing Backlash Breaks Out

The extent of the test mania now appears to know no bounds.

A recent article in The New York Times reported that gym teachers around the country are being forced to incorporate test-prep into PE by teaching reading, writing and arithmetic as well as sports and exercise.

In Chicago, kindergartners may spend up to a third of their class time taking tests.

Educators, parents, and students are pushing back – not just in Texas, but around the country.

Prominent and respected school superintendents from around the country are now speaking out against the damage being done by over-testing plus the misuse of testing in Charlotte, NC, Montgomery County, MD, and Sacramento.

A test boycott started by teachers at a high school in Seattle drew national press. Parents and students joined in support of the teachers, and now the boycott has spread to Portland, OR.

High school students in Providence, RI recently staged a “zombie protest” to protest a high stakes test required for graduation.

“We are finally waking up,” Heilig concluded in his blog post cited above.

The Next “Education Bipartisanship”?

So with both conservatives and liberals questioning the whole school accountability movement, Democrats need to reconsider their support for these flawed policies.

The notion of accountability came from a desire – approved by both political parties – to create a mechanism to ensure that schools everywhere didn’t overlook the rights of poor and minority children to receive the same quality of education  their white, better-off peers get.

More than a decade after NCLB became law, the achievement gap hasn’t closed, schools have become more segregated, and there’s evidence that test-driven accountability mandates are doing irreparable harm to students everywhere.

People who happen to actually know something about education have proposed alternatives to the testing craze. Democrats who want to avoid getting blind-sided by the next bipartisan agenda for education had better start checking those alternatives out.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · February 27, 2013