The unspoken atrocity of standardized education

As the corporate takeover of public education proceeds in the US and other countries, schools cease to be training grounds for social transformation. We are not just fighting for our children, but for the liberation of our country. 

Molly Rowan Leach
4 April 2014

From the Denver “Zombie Crawl” against standardized testing. Credit: All rights reserved.


From the Denver “Zombie Crawl” against standardized testing. Credit: All rights reserved.

For my son David, who’s at the youngest edge of second grade at school in Colorado, things are not going well - at least according to the results of the standardized tests that every school in the US has to use. These tests say that he is struggling, but at home he was always an imaginative and enthusiastic learner.  Over the past two years however, he’s expressed increasing hatred towards school, where he’s more and more discouraged by a climate that subjects children to mounting pressures to conform to a narrow and mechanistic vision of education.  

This isn’t just a problem for David; it’s a crisis that’s engulfing all children in the USA, because it starves them of the skills and capacities they’re going need to transform society in the future. Given that similar forces are at work in the UK and other countries, it’s time that we all woke up to their calamitous effects and joined the movement to reverse them.

Who is responsible for this situation, and who benefits? Not children, or their parents, or their teachers, or the communities in which they live. Although David’s school is packed with caring and competent staff, something is happening that’s beyond their control: a corporate takeover of public education. That’s where the story begins, but thankfully, it’s not where it ends.

In the United States, it’s no secret that corporate interests have already taken over most of the systems that are supposed to educate and care for people, and to keep them healthy. After all, this is the country where a corporation has the same rights as a person. Prisons are filling up while private companies reap billions of dollars from incarceration. “Big Pharma” and the health insurance industry are key beneficiaries of Obamacare, which is about as affordable for regular people as a small Mercedes. The federal budget is still dominated by a Military Industrial Complex that sucks resources out of national efforts to enhance people’s lives.

So it’s no surprise that education is being added to this list, with corporate entities earning mountains of money from a package of reforms that are labeled and sold as ‘improvements.’

These reforms come straight out of neo-liberal ideology, where the purpose of education is to prepare children for the labor market. Therefore, priority is given to basic competencies in literacy and mathematics - the so-called “common core standards.”  Anything that doesn’t fit into these basic competencies - like the arts and physical education - must be dropped or drastically scaled down. The standards are measured by tests which are produced and scored by private companies, maximizing the use of their own technology.

The results of the tests are then used to evaluate the performance of both teachers and their schools. Those who perform well are rewarded financially, and those that do poorly are fired, or see their schools closed down and handed over to private charters. Competition is everything, a motif that runs through the names of successive government programs like “Race to the Top” and “No Child Left Behind.” In the process, the market is capturing public education for itself.

The underlying message is one of standardization to the lowest common denominator. Conform. Sit still for long periods of time. Focus on the basics. Be grateful that you are taught by teachers who are overtired, underpaid and under-respected. Squeeze as much money as possible out of the system for consultants, managers and corporations. Does this sound familiar?

The process begins as early as five years old when children enter kindergarten. There they must enroll in a system of reading comprehension tests known as DIBELS, or “Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills.” According to author Ken Goodman, not only do the tests reduce reading to a few narrow skills, but they only measure a fragment of them anyway. It’s a system that rewards speed but not comprehension. Teachers must score children ‘on the fly’ while administering the tests, using a stopwatch which students find distracting.

Because of these flaws, Goodman concludes that DIBELS “cannot be administered and scored consistently” even though their results can determine whether a student progresses from one grade to another.  Worse still, new laws in Colorado and other states link standardized test results to teacher evaluations, tying at least 50 per cent of their job performance rankings to something that can’t even be measured consistently. In plain English, teachers must improve the test scores of their students in order to keep their jobs. Not surprisingly, this leads to widespread cheating and test-score manipulation in order to inflate the image of success.  

Paul Horton, a teacher at the University of Chicago Lab School, goes further:

“The purpose of the Common Core standards is to generate profits for business and deskill teachers. The Common Core standards are essential to the long-term strategy of leaders in business-industry-and-government to eliminate unions, to replace experienced teachers with Teach for America [an NGO that places college graduates in schools], and to hand public schools over to private management.”

The driving force behind this revolution, Horton concludes, is greed. And the best course of action is to eliminate the Common Core completely.

The problems created by these policies are so bad that even their original architects have changed their minds, sometimes in spectacular fashion. Diane Ravitch, for example, who was the chief strategist behind the “No Child Left Behind” program during the administration of George H.W. Bush, now says she was very, very wrong. Teacher Aaron Pribble calls tests and teacher evaluations “the arbitrary albatross.”

Whether you are for or against standardized testing and the other measures that form part of the corporate wish-list, everyone wants their children to learn, and perhaps even to be inspired in the process. But what does that mean? What does a ‘good education’ consist of, and who decides? Where is the “bow that casts the arrow of our children’s lives” aiming, as Kahlil Gibran asks in “The Prophet?”

In my view, schools should be places where imagination and creativity can flourish. I want all children to be empowered and freed from restrictions, so that they can be independent and accountable for the choices they make. Education should nurture these qualities, and open children up to the full range of possibilities in life, where magic and truth lie around every corner. I want them to be happy, healthy, and whole. I want them to be academically competent, but not at the cost of their empathy, creativity, and free thinking.  

When we insist on “teaching to the test,” the pressure mounts for everyone involved - parents, children and their teachers. Teachers who already commit so much of their lives to children are pushed to conform, narrow their horizons, and remain silent if they want to keep their jobs. Children pick up on these pressures. They can feel and taste them in the air of the corridor and the classroom, as thick as the ice in my Colorado Rockies winter.

But teachers and parents are fighting back. United Opt Out National is a movement to end corporate reforms in education. It supports parents who want their children to opt out of the system, building resistance at every level in the process. Parents are encouraged to mobilize in support of students and staff so that they can protect their schools from external pressures.

For example, in Chicago in February, 2014, teachers at the Saucedo Scholastic Academy unanimously voted to opt out of the tests, bolstered by parents who supported their actions. In Seattle, a similar uprising occurred at the Seattle Hill Elementary School, where parents used the rights contained in the No Child Left Behind program to remove their children from mandated testing. And at Garfield High School (also in Seattle), a monumental boycott occurred that has helped to spark resistance nationwide.

Meanwhile, back at David’s school in Colorado, parents, children and teachers continue to walk the line between conformity and outrage. Sometimes I’m surprised at how quickly schools have become corrupted, but it’s easy to make something look as though it’s beneficial when the reality is the opposite - that’s part of the power of the corporate reformers. The fact is that good people who provide the ‘bone marrow’ of the education system are being force-fed requirements that clamp down on everything from children’s ability to grow and learn at their own pace, to the security and satisfaction of teachers, who worry whether they will have a job at all next year.

As the days pass, mobilization against the reforms increases, both as a protective measure and as a foundation for building an education system of which we can be proud. When I am fully present with my son, and when I join forces with his teachers and with the parents of his classmates, I can see what needs to be done. It’s our collective voice that will keep the school doors open for children to develop their freedom and imagination, their playfulness and sense of joy in art, and their love for themselves and other people.

We are not just fighting for our children, but for the liberation of our country. 

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