By Anthony Cody.
A new report from Marc Tucker is gaining some support for its supposedly new approach to holding schools accountable. But I am afraid his plan makes many of the mistakes that previous such systems have made.
Here is the core of his proposal:
Instead of testing all of our students every year with low-level, cheap tests, our students would take high stakes tests only three times in their whole school career. These tests would be much higher quality tests, testing much more of the kinds of skills and knowledge now demanded for careers that are satisfying and pay well. And these high quality tests would cover the whole core curriculum, so subjects like history, literature, science, social studies, music and the arts would not be slighted. There would be tests in mathematics and English language arts every other year in the off years, but they would be administered only to samples of students and only by computer, and would not carry high stakes either for the teachers or the students.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Four years ago, Arne Duncan voiced similar complaints about the limitations of “bubble tests” and spoke with enthusiasm about the “next generation” of assessments the Department of Education was funding, aligned with the Common Core.
One of the biggest frustrations of teachers with existing assessments is that they fail to test higher-order reasoning and writing skills, and thus fail to show what students know and can do. One-shot, year-end bubble tests administered on a single day, too often lead to a dummying down of curriculum and instruction throughout the course of the entire school year.
By contrast, the new assessments will help drive the development of a rich curriculum, instruction that is tailored to student needs, and multiple opportunities throughout the school year to assess student learning.
Tucker’s plan is confusing. In a proposal in which accountability remains closely tied to a set of high stakes tests, Tucker cites the “Failure of Test-based Accountability,” and eloquently documents how this approach doomed NCLB.
Tucker speaks about the professionalization of teaching, and points out how teaching has been ravaged by constant pressure to prepare for annual tests. But his proposal still seems wedded to several very questionable premises.
First, while he blames policymakers for the situation, he seems to accept that the struggles faced by our schools are at least partly due to the inadequacy of America’s teachers. I know of no objective evidence that would support this indictment.
Second, he argues that fewer, “higher quality” tests will somehow rescue us from their oppressive qualities. He also suggests, as did Duncan in 2010, that we can escape the “narrowing of the curriculum” by expanding the subject matter that would be tested.
It is worth noting that many of the Asian countries that do so well on international test contests likewise have fewer tests. This chart shows that Shanghai, Japan and Korea all have only three big tests during the K12 years. However, because these tests have such huge stakes attached to them, the entire system revolves around them, and students’ lives and family incomes are spent on constant test preparation, in and out of school.
Third, and this is the most fundamental problem, is that Tucker suggests that the economic future of our students will only be guaranteed if we educate them better. He writes:
Outsourcing of manufacturing and services to countries with much lower labor costs has combined with galloping automation to eliminate an ever-growing number of low-skilled and semi-skilled jobs and jobs involving routine work.
The result is that a large and growing proportion of young people leaving high school with just the basic skills can no longer look forward to a comfortable life in the middle class, but will more likely face a future of economic struggle.
This does not represent a decline from some standard that high school graduates used to meet. It is as high as any standard the United States has ever met. And it is wholly inadequate now. It turns out, then, that we are now holding teachers accountable for student performance we never expected before, a kind and quality of performance for which the present education system was never designed. That is manifestly unfair.
Tucker then repeats what has become the basic dogma of education reform. The economy of the 21st century demands our students be educated to much higher levels so we can effectively compete with our international rivals. Education — and ever better education to ever higher standards — is the key to restoring the middle class.
This dogma has actually become central to the official response to questions about poverty and economic stagnation. A New York Times post by Josh Barro in March pointed out that, in spite of a healthy recovery to the nation’s GDP, 57% of Americans still believe the economy is locked in recession. Barro wrote:
When the economy does grow, that growth disproportionately accrues to the owners of capital instead of to wage earners; and in the last few years, weak growth and abundant labor have made that pattern even stronger than normal.
On Monday, Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, held a briefing about the Economic Report of the President, which features a chart showing how productivity has pulled away from wages since the 1970s. I asked him what policies, other than raising the minimum wage, the president sees as useful for raising the share of G.D.P. that goes to wages.
To my surprise, Mr. Furman responded with a list of education and human capital policies, including expanded prekindergarten, improved access to higher education, holding colleges accountable for quality and better apprenticeship programs. He also promoted policies to raise overall growth, like corporate tax reform.
These policies might promote wage growth over the long run (or, in the case of prekindergarten, the very long run). But they are not policies specifically aimed at tightening the labor market.
So I call bullshit. I do not believe the economy of the 21st century is waiting for some more highly educated generation, at which time middle class jobs will materialize out of thin air.
Corporations are engaged in a systemic drive to cut the number of employees at all levels. When Microsoft laid off 18,000 skilled workers, executives made it clear that expenses – meaning employees, must be minimized. Profits require that production be lean. There is no real shortage of people with STEM degrees.
On the whole, it is still an advantage for an individual to be well educated. But the idea that education is some sort of limiting factor on our economic growth is nonsense. And the idea that the future of current and future graduates will be greatly improved if they are better educated is likewise highly suspect.
Bill Gates recently acknowledged in an interview at the American Enterprise Institute, “capitalism in general, over time, will create more inequality and technology, over time, will reduce demand for jobs particularly at the lower end of the skill set.”
This is the future we face until there is a fundamental economic realignment. Fewer jobs. Continued inequality and greater concentration of wealth.
Take a close look at the graphs in this report from Yong Zhao and ASCD. There is zero connection between test scores and economic performance. Furthermore, we know that even as corporate profits and the GDP have climbed, wages have not followed, and unemployment remains high. Corporations are using technology to make more money with fewer employees, and according to Bill Gates, this is an inexorable trend.
There are elements of Tucker’s proposal that are worth considering.
His suggestion that teams of experts visit and advise struggling schools was advanced by the Broader Bolder Approach several years ago, and would certainly be preferable to the current approach where such schools are often labeled failures and closed down. His suggestion that teachers take more responsibility for collaborating and guiding peers is good, though Peer Assistance and Review programs may offer a better model than law firms do.
Tucker has some advice for teacher unions:
They (teacher unions) have two choices. They can remain in a defensive crouch and continue fighting to retain what they won earlier, until everything they have won is gone (note for example, the recent effort to pass a California initiative to abolish teacher tenure in that state). Or they can ditch their defensive posture and, instead of defending archaic and counterproductive practices in the schools, practices perceived to benefit the teachers but not their students, take the leadership in raising the quality of teachers to much higher standards and championing the measures needed to turn teaching into a true profession.
I have in mind a third stance. I do not think we should abandon “practices perceived to benefit the teachers but not their students,” by which I believe he means seniority and due process protections. I agree we should abandon a defensive stance, but the real alternative to this is to take our case to the public.
For far too long educators have accepted the flagellations of one accountability system after another, and time has come to say “enough.”
We need to learn (and teach) the real lesson of NCLB – and now the Common Core. The problem with NCLB was not with the *number* of tests, nor with when the tests were given, nor with the subject matter on the tests, or the format of the tests, or the standards to which the tests were aligned.
The problem with NCLB was that it was based on a false premise, that somehow tests can be used to pressure schools into delivering equitable outcomes for students. This approach did not work, and as we are seeing with Common Core, will not work, no matter how many ways you tinker with the tests.
The idea that our education system holds the key to our economic future is a seductive one for educators. It makes us seem so important, and can be used to argue for investments in our schools. But this idea carries a price, because if we accept that our economic future depends on our schools, real action to address fundamental economic problems can be deferred. We can pretend that somehow we are securing the future of the middle class by sending everyone to preschool – meanwhile the actual middle class is in a shambles, and college students are graduating in debt and insecure.
The entire exercise is a monumental distraction, and anyone who engages in this sort of tinkering has bought into a shell game, a manipulation of public attention away from real sources of inequity.
A real new system of accountability for our schools would not simply reduce the number of tests. Why do we have no accountability for equitable funding for our schools? Why do we not hold schools accountable for providing small class sizes for all students, not just those who can afford Lakeside or Sidwell Friends?
If reformers were sincere about confronting inequities, that is where the work would begin. But the bottom line is we do not need a new system of accountability for schools, because our problem has never been a lack of accountability within our schools. We need some accountability for children’s lives, for their bellies being full, for safe homes and neighborhoods, and for their futures when they graduate. Once there is a healthy ecosystem for them to grow in, and graduate into, the inequities we see in education will shrink dramatically. But that requires much broader economic and social change — change that neither policymakers or central planners like Tucker are prepared to call for.
Update, Sep. 20, 2014: This post has stirred a useful debate. Here are the posts that have been coming out in response:
Diane Ravitch posted: Anthony Cody: What Marc Tucker Gets Wrong
Marc Tucker responds: To Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody: Really?
Yong Zhao weighs in today: Time to Give Up: Yong Zhao responds to Tucker
What do you think? Do we need a new accountability system for our schools?