I just returned from a rousing three-day street corner teach-in called “Occupy the Department of Education,” held in Washington DC. I wanted to occupy the DOE because, for me, what started as a fairly straightforward involvement in a movement against massive education cuts in Pennsylavnia has evolved into a sense of urgency that we must reverse the damage that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and corporate education reforms are doing to public education.
This week my nine-year old son will be “opting out” of the high stakes test given in the Pittsburgh Public Schools (the PSSA). The test is used to grade my son’s school on its annual progress (Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by NCLB). I wrote an editorial about my decision to have my son opt out of the test, which has been seen and/or shared by at least 50,000 people in the last week. A companion piece at a lively blog called The Answer Sheet at The Washington Post is also generating considerable traffic. Apparently, I’m not the only parent who’s concerned about highstakes testing.
Many of those parents are, like me, middle class. But the emerging movement against school reform might be even more important for the working class.
My son’s school, Pittsburgh Linden, is a magnet school in Pittsburgh’s East End, one of the wealthier parts of the city—near the universities and the hospitals. Because it’s a magnet Linden students come from at least six different zip codes and from a variety of racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. 70% of the students are African American, Asian, Hispanic, or two or more races, while the remaining third are white. About 35% qualify for the federally funded lunch program, suggesting that despite the tony neighborhood, many of the students come from poor and working-class homes.
When NCLB was enacted the rhetoric was about fixing schools that served the poorest and most disadvantaged students. But a decade into NCLB, it is clear that high stakes testing is not improving our schools. These standardized tests are being used to assess the student, the teacher and the school, and depending on the outcome, they may be punished or rewarded.
But even before any formal punishments, these tests are forcing a narrowing of the curriculum. At Linden and at thousands of public schools across the country, much of the school day is devoted to pre-tests, practice tests, test prep, and test taking strategies. State budgets cuts have made the situation even worse, and the combination has left my son and many others without band this year (he was going to start the clarinet), and with many fewer hours of library and music each week. Middle-class kids (including my own son, who is learning piano) might get music lessons outside of school, but for working-class students, the narrowed curriculum cuts off their opportunities.
About a week before the testing starts, the hallways and classrooms are often stripped bare. The PSSA guidelines require that everything that could reveal an answer to the test be taken down or covered up, and sometimes schools, wary of cheating accusations, go overboard. One teacher was asked to cover the clock in her classroom because it was a “number line.”
Before the test many schools emphasize the importance of rest and good nutrition. I received a robo-call from the school district last week admonishing me to make sure my kids went to bed early on Sunday night. Some schools hold pep rallies for the PSSA and show videos using the soundtrack of Rocky to get the kids excited about doing well on the test. Why? Because the fate of the school depends on how the students score on this single test.
Once the test starts the atmosphere of cheerleading is over. Bathroom breaks are only permitted at certain times, and I have read reports of kids who were too scared to ask for permission to use the bathroom and who sat in their chairs and wet their pants during the test. One teacher wrote me to tell me about a child who opened her test and threw up on it because she was so nervous. She still had to take the test because it had been “opened.”
Increasingly, corporate education reformers (folks like Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee) want teacher evaluations, firings, promotions, and pay to be tied to these exams. This means that teachers, who most people would assume are middle class, are increasing forced into a more working-class position (as Michael Zweig has argued) in which they have less control over what they teach or how they are credentialed and evaluated.
So what are the consequences of high stakes tests on poor and working-class children? Numerous studies (such as this one) have shown that parents’ income is the largest predictor of how a student will perform on a standardized test. According to these studies, teachers rarely have more than a 10-15% influence over how an individual student will perform. In other words, lower-income children are handicapped out of the gate. And so are their schools. It also means that poor and working-class children are more likely to have their schools closed.
School closings often have a devastating impact on the communities that are centered around them, and they don’t improve academic opportunities for the students at the closed school. This study, for example, argues that students who are assigned to schools farther away from home participate less in after school programs, and their parents are less involved.
Ironically, perhaps, schools themselves can provide a sense of home to the poorest students. One study found that 10% of students in a Chicago school that was closed were homeless. What was it like for them to lose their homes, and then their schools? And what will happen to them in the fall if Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel succeeds with his plan to close another 50 schools?
Schools that serve the least privileged students in the US are also the ones most likely to have young, less-well trained, and inexperienced teachers. Programs like Teach for America lead to what experts call the “churn and burn” phenomenon, in which idealistic young teachers are sent to low-income, often low-performing schools and just as quickly leave the profession—forever.
In other words, the gnarly combination of high stakes tests, recessionary state budget cuts, schools closings and the de-professionalization/de-unionization of the teaching profession are hurting poor, minority and working class children the most.
But a growing number of students, parents and educators are fighting back. On April 9th, Newark high school students are walking out of their classrooms to confront the politicians who are cutting the education budget. High school students in Rhode Island are boycotting their high stakes tests. Teachers in Seattle are refusing to administer a standardized test called the MAP. Established groups like Parents across America and a wonderful new organization, The Network for Public Education, are working at the local and the national level to dismantle NCLB. Respected national education leaders like Diane Ravitch and Mark Naison are helping to turn the tide against a decade of harmful testing and meaningless reform.
One of the most inspiring people to speak at Friday’s protest was Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis, who linked her union’s 2012 successful strike to the upcoming Chicago school closings and to high stakes testing. Towards the end of her remarks, Lewis asked why we keep submitting to the game of high stakes tests when they serve us so poorly. “What is the story that the winners tell the losers to keep them playing the game?”
I’m done playing the game, and I’m ready to change the story. Will you join me?
Kathy M. Newman