There is so much that the federal government could do in education. Besides taking the obvious first step of reducing student loan rates to those given by the Fed to commercial banks, it could take steps to equalize spending across the nation for public schools, use its influence to reduce the shackles of strict certification guidelines to enter the profession of teaching, and work to promote learning in liberal arts as well as STEM subjects.
However, the Bush-Obama Education Departments have fixated on standardized test scores. The basic flaw with this approach is that it focuses on measuring the unmeasurable. It is the quintessential over-reach of social science. Children are more than atoms and molecules whose actions can be measured. They are vibrant dynamic human beings who learn in many different ways and find challenges from every angle. There are really two problems with educators measuring student achievement: professionals inflate the positive scores, giving a false of merit to those who do well; and they further open the door to teachers’ worst habits – relentlessly criticizing students.
Caught between the purposeless mandates of the Education Department and the misery of the students in the complicity of the teachers, the standard practice in the 2000s is for teachers to accept the demands that they administer standardized tests after spending the prior part of the school year prepping the students for the tests, usually at the expense of crucial real learning such as critical thinking and creativity. School districts are under the gun to perform well so that they can tout their accomplishments to residents and realtors alike. Individual schools have to maintain or raise scores in order to avoid the shameful consequence of having their doors shut. Individual classroom teachers must show increased student “performance” if they are to maintain the jobs, or perhaps climb the pay-scale ladder.
Is it any surprise that under the weight of federal and state pressure to raise test scores, many district superintendents, school principals and teachers have chosen to cheat to raise test scores? After all, these educators are only exercising some of the logic that they learned as they grew up. It’s the “by any means possible” approach to achievement. If you need to get from Point ‘A’ to Point ‘B,’ take the necessary steps to get there. In the case of test scores, there is little doubt that massaging the student answers on the tests is a much easier way to raise scores than focusing entirely on the boring and unnerving task of “making” students better “learn” the restricted and disparate material that is on the test. The only thing that keeps some teachers from cheating is the moral qualm about doing something dishonest.
We are brought up with the maxim that honesty is the best policy. In many regards, these are sound words by which to live. But what about situations in which an individual is societally oppressed, often for a specious reason. Were we to expect slaves to stay on their masters’ property when given a chance to get away? Do we look without forgiveness to a hungry man or woman grazing through the vegetable and fruit departments of a grocery store? When people are oppressed, they often do what is necessary to survive. As that is true for a slave or a hungry person, it also applies to an educator who is mandated to make student test scores rise.
So the recent news of eleven educators in Atlanta being convicted of racketeering because of their complicity in a cheating scandal is in many ways a case of further punishing the victim. Would some of these educators be headed to jail if the “best and the brightest” in the U.S. Department of Education and its counterparts in state capitals had not willfully set them up to resort to dishonest ways to achieve the mandated goals? Since those schools under the most pressure were in inner cities, would it not have been clear that this would have a disproportionate effect on African-American students and African-American teachers?
To this day, neither those in President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program nor President Obama’s “Race to the Top” program have acknowledged that they established and perpetuated a misguided system in which previously law-abiding citizens engaged in “criminal” behavior. There is certain similarity to the transgressions on Wall Street, where those in charge of criminal behavior walked away unscathed.
The Department of Education’s addiction to standardized testing is, in many ways, another form of Jim Crow laws. It disproportionally has a damning and painful impact on the African-American community. It has encouraged educators in impacted areas to be dishonest and to engage in cheating. It does not surprise me that the Bush Administration would do this, but frankly, I am appalled that the Obama Administration bought into it and still hasn’t backed off from it.