Pushing back against so many K12 tests

How to curb the policy influence of corporate philanthropists
By: | November 26, 2018

In her book, After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform (The New Press, 2018), Andrea Gabor shows how corporate philanthropists have hurt, rather than helped, public education.

From limiting the ability of teachers to do their job, to making poor-quality test results bellwethers of effective teaching, this influence has alienated faculty, students and families.

Citing success stories in New York, Massachusetts, Texas and elsewhere, Gabor, chair of the business journalism program at Baruch College-CUNY, shows how schools and districts can push back by building a collaborative and respectful climate among unions, educators and communities.

A disciple of business guru W. Edwards Deming, Gabor shows how Deming’s continuous quality improvement model can help push educators to carve out their own successes.

How did foundations and corporations get so involved in education reforms?

The first real involvement is obviously philanthropy. We’ve had philanthropies for a long time—such as the Annenberg Foundation, which did the Annenberg Challenge back in the 1990s.

What has changed is that now the philanthropists aren’t just donating money, but they are directing funding in a particular way to influence policy. I’m talking now about The Gates Foundation, The Walton Foundation and The Broad Foundation.

It wasn’t until the Obama administration that they fully ramped up, not just with money but also with their policy objectives.

During that period, Gates had a tremendous influence on policy, including the Common Core, and the expansion of small schools and charter schools.

But I think as a country, as a democracy, we really have to think about the influence of these ultrarich, unelected people who are shaping, for better or for worse, our education policy.

It seems every administration, whether at the local, state or federal level, wants to dismantle what was done before—even if it was shown to be successful.

That’s exactly right, and it’s really tragic. One of my favorite examples of that is the fact that in New York, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, there were about a dozen reorganizations in as many years. It was just lunacy.

But one of the last reorganizations was when they picked up on an idea that was developed by Eric Nadelstern, a longtime, highly respected educator, and they set up a network structure.

The idea was that they would create these relatively small service entities or networks that schools could hire, using their own money.

One of the innovations of the Bloomberg years was giving principals control over their budgets as well as taking many administrative functions away from the central bureaucracy.

Principals could hire like-minded networks to help them with everything from special ed to professional development, and if they didn’t like the results, they could hire someone else.

But time and again, rather than the reformers trusting and putting the educators in charge, they appoint some mediocre businessperson.

A prime example was when Bloomberg replaced Joel Klein, the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, with Cathie Black, a publishing executive who knew next to nothing about public schools. At that point, all of Joel Klein’s top disciples headed for the exits.

If there had been an attempt to have a closer working relationship, especially with those gifted educators, then maybe the networks wouldn’t have been scrapped. Maybe there would have been more resistance and a greater defense for the good things that were done during the administration.

This tension between administrations and educators and the union—which runs through both Republican and Democratic administrations—is really unfortunate.

You write that the reformers have “a deep distrust of democratic decision-making, both at the school board level and in schools themselves.” Why? Who knows better about what’s going on than those on the front line?

Teachers—educators generally—are not trusted. They’re not respected. I think I can say that with a fair degree of certainty.

Unions are deeply distrusted and reviled among many policymakers, and the more the policy has become influenced by business-minded philanthropists who look at things through a market lens, the more that divide increases.

The reform movement continues to be marked by an over-reliance on testing.

That is aggravated by the market mindset, because there’s great pressure to have measurable, easily digestible metrics for success.

Test scores, for better or for worse, have become a metric. We’ve come to assume that high test scores are analogous to what an education should be—and, of course, they’re not.

The pressure is now so great on so many schools and districts that the test is the be-all and end-all, and it’s been incredibly damaging. One thing is that it puts much of the emphasis on ELA and math.

Civics—essential in a democracy—has been decimated. And thanks, in part, to the way the Common Core has been interpreted, kids are reading fewer novels than they were before.

There’s a saying: “The most important things are not measurable.” But there’s more to it than that. Measurements, without really understanding how the numbers are used or what the purpose of the instrument is, are completely meaningless.

The downside to the testing focus, as you note, is that courses such as civics and social studies get eliminated. We’re not preparing students to become citizens.

That’s right. They don’t have any idea what the role of the government is. Unfortunately, what gets tested is often what gets taught in our world. But I think we really need to rethink the role of testing.

If you have more tests, they will be cheaper and of a lower quality. We spend billions on testing today, and there’s just no logical reason why kids should be tested as often as they are after third grade.

You can get rid of most of the tests. If people feel they absolutely must have a test, you can have one or two high-quality tests. This frees up educators from worrying every year about how they are going to score on these cheap, mediocre and often constantly changing tests.

They make it impossible to compare this year’s results to last year’s results. And let’s not forget that cutoff scores are often politically manipulated. In New York state, for example, the secretary of education helps determine the cutoff scores, and they often change.

It’s not as though you have one standard that’s used every year—it’s constantly shifting.

I’ve spoken with long-serving teachers who consistently get high ratings, but the one year they miss that cutoff their jobs are in jeopardy.

Oh, absolutely. This is just a statistical reality. If your kids are already doing relatively well, then getting to the next level is harder.

It’s the low-hanging fruit argument. If you’ve got a school or a class that’s really doing poorly, in some ways it’s easier to show an incremental improvement than it is with a school or class already doing well.

That’s why in New York City, you have the phenomenon in which some of the better schools would see their grades go up and down every year because it is harder to show every year that they are improving.

How do we get beyond this? What would have to happen for successful programs—like those you describe in Massachusetts, Texas and New York—to flourish?

For one thing, we have to get back to the connection between schools and democracy. We need to revive the importance of civics and civic engagement, including within the elected school boards.

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