Corporate school deform vs. education justice

November 6, 2013

In the first of a two-part article, Berkeley, Calif., teacher Dana Blanchard discusses strategies for confronting high-stakes standardized testing and attacks on teachers.

FROM RESISTANCE to high-stakes testing to a more assertive voice from teachers' unions, big-money corporate education "reformers" are encountering significant new resistance. Now is the time for teachers to step up our defense of public education, both by highlighting the destructive impact of the so-called reforms and by building on the emerging alliance between our unions and the communities we serve.

This article attempts to summarize some of these important shifts and highlight places where our side can organize and push back, starting right now. The prospects for teachers unions in the struggle ahead will be the subject of the second part of this article.

It's difficult to exaggerate the damage done by the education reformers. I've been a public school teacher in California for 12 years--a time that coincides with implementation of the federal government's misnamed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

NCLB unleashed the current wave of corporate school reform: the use of standardized testing to punish failing schools and evaluate every teacher's effectiveness; the increase in privately run charter schools claiming to be an "option" for students in "failing" public schools; and a massive growth in for-profit textbook and testing enterprises that feast on funds from school district trying desperately to make yearly progress targets--goals that move further and further out of reach each year.

Teachers, parents and students march against the school deform agenda in Chicago
Teachers, parents and students march against the school deform agenda in Chicago (Sarah-ji)

At the same time, I've seen a whole generation of new teachers who burned out early from the prospect of teaching under the gun of standardization and the lack of job security from perpetual cycles of budgets cuts in public education. Meanwhile, teacher farms like Teach for America place more and more young people in the front lines of education without adequate preparation, only for them to leave the profession for better jobs with less collateral damage.

But recent cracks in the corporate education reform monolith have given rise to new hope. New studies validate what teachers have known all along--top-down, punishment-based reforms don't work. They don't work for creating a profession that people want to dedicate their lives to, and they don't work for the students who are most underserved by public education.

What is the corporate education reform agenda?

One key task for the movement to defend public education is to clearly define corporate education reform since the inception of NCLB.

Certainly an argument could be made that corporate education reforms has always been a part of the agenda for the ruling class in this country, ever since public education became a demand of the working class. But in the past decade or so, corporate reform has become explicitly linked with larger neoliberal policies, in the form of privatization and outsourcing of education.

Education reform has been characterized further by the application of market-based practices and measurements on the institutions of public education, and the evaluation of teachers and students using measures like norm-referenced tests. These standardized tests have come to be labeled "high stakes"--and represent one of the most universal features of corporate education reform.

As a result, schools are now evaluated based on student performance and high-stakes tests--and schools must make decisions based on improving test scores above all else in order to avoid punishments. NCLB mandates that if schools fail to show better results, local or state school authorities must take control of its management and operations. This takes away both school site and teacher decision-making power over how--and how much --instruction happens in certain subjects.

Schools that don't meet arbitrary yearly progress on these standardized tests are labeled "program improvement schools" and must make changes to their programs and instructional models to make student performance on tests a priority. This usually means cutting arts, physical education and enrichment programs in order to make more time for student instruction in materials that will be on the standardized tests. Students spend hours reviewing reading, writing and math skills, and have little time for any other subject areas.

Make no mistake: this does not mean students will spend more time deepening their essential literacy and math skills. Rather, they will spend time learning the very distinct skills it will take to do well on these very specific multiple-choice tests. The tests are created by companies, not teachers, creating an all-or-nothing situation where no other standards are used to measure the growth of students or schools.

Corporate education reformers try to justify this by claiming that teachers don't believe in assessment. Therefore, they say, standardized tests are the only way to overcome this resistance and figure out how our kids are really doing--and what teachers are not doing for them.

The reality is that most teachers spend hours of time figuring out what our students know and don't know so that we can best instruct them in real skills and concepts that we know are critical for them to be successful in life-long learning. As a result of the prioritization of standardized tests over teacher-created assessments, schools spend an inappropriate amount of time gearing all student instruction and practice towards getting students to perform on these tests.

An example: Instead of giving students a multiple-step word problem connected to a real-life situation that they can solve collaboratively, a teacher is forced to assign students endless worksheets of multiple choice, low-level math questions that align to the standardized tests.

Schools that don't adapt and gear instruction towards test performance and continue to show "inadequate" progress are labeled as "failing." Rather than receive support, they are instead closed or taken over by policymakers who have never spent a day in front of a classroom full of students--people who are nevertheless deemed "experts" in education.

One of the most despicable aspects of the corporate education movement is that it frames this process of closing schools and punishing teachers and students as a way to support the achievement of low-performing students--in particular, students of color. Public education in the United States is fraught with deep inequalities and racism--but these are not the problems that corporate education reformers want to address. In fact, they exacerbate them by creating a permanent underclass of "failing" schools where students and teachers who can leave, do so. This further deepens inequality within and across school districts.

Reformers pose as if they care about our kids, especially the poor and students of color who have been marginalized by public education and other institutions. Yet reformers do nothing that supports our students really learning.

Sometimes, corporate reformers sweeten the deal of closing neighborhood schools by giving some parents the option of taking their kids to charter schools nearby. This is the most disgusting part of the process: Charter schools select only the students they deem as potential successes. The rest are left to flounder in neighborhood public schools that continue to be treated as pariahs, and get fewer and fewer chances to improve, due to both a lack of funds and an extreme narrowing of the curriculum.

At the same time, charters seemingly flourish because they select reject students who have too many "problems"--often enough, they have no requirements to meet high-stakes testing targets. Education academic Linda Darling-Hammond has studied what she calls "redlining," documenting the destructive impact of charter schools' selective migration policies.

The corporate reform machine has also taken away local control over schools to prevent parents and the community from challenging school closures and the "punish failing schools" agenda. Governance instead is under the oversight of policy wonks who have no connection with local schools, nor stakes in their success. In some urban districts mayors--who, last time I checked, are not required to have any expertise in education--have used test results as justification for taking control of schools and instituting top-down "reforms" and school closures that have devastated communities and families.

By putting schools in the hands of people driven only by the bottom line and not any desire to educate kids to be successful in the world, the education reformers are creating generations of students who are unable to think critically, unprepared to get decent jobs or unable to fully participate in higher education. This further exacerbates the gap between students in wealthy, high-performing districts and those who lack access to a well-rounded, enriching educational experience.

Corporate education reform has not closed the "achievement gap," but rather has exacerbated it. It hasn't brought up impoverished schools, but has instead starved them even more. Reform hasn't brought better schools to communities, but forcibly taken control of schools from the very communities and families they serve. It hasn't made schools places of learning and student engagement, but an arena for standardized testing, with a curriculum designed to ensure that students learn only the most basic skills needed for unfulfilling, low wage jobs.

What has corporate education reform done to the teaching profession?

Corporate education reform has devalued the teaching profession and trumpeted the false narrative that teachers are to blame for the failures of public schools.

The reformers have detached the issue of how to improve teacher quality from real conditions in the schools, and real programs that have been shown to produce high-quality teachers. They have defined teacher effectiveness using the narrowest of terms and invested millions of dollars in data systems and tests to replace the professional, collaborative learning environments that do improve teachers' craft, fostering instead an atmosphere of competition among teachers.

The corporate reformers' narrative goes like this: The main problem with failing schools in ineffective teaching, and the only way to change that is to motivate teachers through corporate-style incentives based on performance (so-called "merit pay") and punishments, like being fired, for failing to meet arbitrary standards.

The fatal flaw in this logic--as anybody who has ever spent time with a public school teacher knows--is that teachers are not really in it for the money and the glory of meeting standards. They most likely come to work, day in and day out, to make learning happen, despite overcrowded classrooms and inadequate materials. They teach under the constant real-world pressures of poverty and racism, which take a toll on each of the young human beings in front of them.

Teachers often come to work not because of the paycheck, but because of their deep desire to educate children. This isn't to say that money is unimportant. But there are other jobs out there that pay well and don't require years of education and ongoing professional development, not to mention a high tolerance for ongoing chaos and crisis.

For teachers on some days, you are also a social worker, nurse and family counselor, at the same time that you're trying to help all your students learn inordinate amount of material outlined by the state standards (or the new Common Core standards.)

The idea that the way to improve education is to incentivize the teaching profession just doesn't fit with the actual profession of teaching. Many people become a teacher exactly so that they can escape the corporate rat race--and feel like they're making a difference in the lives of young people.

Corporate education reform directly attacks teachers' ability to do their jobs well. It has eroded tenure and seniority rights, led to the firing of massive numbers of teachers, and done nothing to show that any of these policies have improved the quality of the teaching force.

The reformers have made it harder to retain innovative and creative teachers, especially new teachers, who are lured to education by the promise of doing something meaningful, only to find endless amounts of work outside of paid time, insurmountable challenges that often get in the way of delivering instruction, and punishment instead of support when they need help.

In California, budget cuts have meant that more than 30,000 teachers have been laid off since 2008, many of them new to the job. These job cuts, combined with the changing pressures on the teaching profession, have meant some of the brightest young teachers in our schools have permanently left the profession. Fast-track teacher training programs like Teach for America claim to be filling our schools with more young, excited teachers, when in fact they're setting people up to fail because of a lack of training and support.

One of the most insidious problems with corporate education reform is the effort to pit teachers against students. The reformers refuse to acknowledge the real fact that our working conditions as teachers are the learning conditions of our students. In most cases, what we demand with regard to decent classrooms, materials and reasonable class sizes are aligned with what is in the best interests of our students.

Has the corporate education agenda been successful?

Some good news: Recently, corporate education reformers have begun to get bad press, and some cracks have appeared in their confidence. Simultaneously, local districts and state governments like California are using the transition to the new quasi-national Common Core standards to push back on some aspects of high-stakes testing and federal programs like Race to the Top, which require states to gut union rights and follow accountability measures to receive funding.

The Common Core, which on paper appears to offer better learning targets for our students, is in fact rife with the same corporate education garbage that has been part of the standards movement from the inception of NCLB. Education historian and reform critic Diane Ravitch has written some insightful pieces on the Common Core that are worth a read for more background.

In New York state, one of the earliest adopters of the Common Core, the rollout of the new standards and new assessments has been a disaster. Angry parents have begun to reject the new Common Core-aligned assessments in large numbers, sparking a small but significant movement of parents to do the same from Louisiana to Oregon.

The critical boycott against the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test by several Seattle schools sparked a similar national dialogue about using assessments that are not aligned to classroom instruction to evaluate students and teachers. In the last year, Georgia, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Alabama, which had been adopters of Common Core standards, have dropped out completely or scaled back their implementation of the new standards and the tests that come with them. Florida rejected the new Common Core benchmarks this month.

In California, the state legislature passed a bill this month doing away with the old standardized tests for the current school year. In a move that looked like a game of political chicken, State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson told Education Secretary Arne Duncan that California schools would not be subject to No Child Left Behind accountability measures this year as we transition to new learning standards. Duncan threatened to pull all federal funding for California schools, but Torlakson held the line and the bill has become law.

As a result, there's a brief statewide moratorium on high-stakes testing this year, and possibly beyond. This presents a real opportunity for our side to push back against the NCLB testing agenda. While this window is small, schools have a chance to breathe for a moment and begin a real dialogue about why high-stakes testing needs be dismantled permanently.

So besides a lot of stress what have we gotten for twelve years of NCLB accountability?
Rather than solving issues of student achievement and improving teacher effectiveness corporate reforms, like high-stakes testing, have led instead to high-profile cheating scandals. Further, there's no conclusive evidence that students in privately run charter schools do any better than their public school counterparts.

Around the country, studies have shown the only thing that's consistently correlated to NCLB policies is widespread cheating, from school administrators to teachers and even to parents, all of whom are desperate to keep schools from being punished for "failing." Even Michelle Rhee, a high-profile education reformer when she ran public schools in Washington, D.C., has been implicated in such scandals.

The very foundation of the neoliberal education platform--that we must use standardized testing to measure effectiveness of students and teachers--has proven at its heart to be utterly flawed.

Standardized testing isn't the only area where corporate education reformers are taking a hit. A recent national Stanford University study also shows rather conclusively that privatization of schools through charters and vouchers isn't helping students learn better than their peers in public schools.

The data proves that rather than fix education, corporate reformers have created a high-pressure environment where the larger questions of what kind of education students really deserve has been completely lost. They've left in their wake decimated teachers unions and demoralized students and parents. Forbes magazine--not a bastion of liberal opinion, to be sure--called out charter schools and their direct link to funding high-profile political campaigns, while at the same time pointing out that there is absolutely no conclusive evidence they help students learn better.

Given this poor record, when teachers unions confront the corporate reformers, they can win the public support of parents and the community. That's a key lesson of the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012, which held the line against Mayor Rahm Emanuel's union-busting demands. The union followed that fight with a campaign against school closures that, although unsuccessful, exposed the unpopularity of the mayor's schools agenda.

The declining popularity of the corporate reformers' program has compelled several mayors to repackage their education program in less confrontational terms. Bill DeBlasio, the mayor-elect of New York City, defeated his rivals in the Democratic primary earlier this year in part by rejecting Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education program.

Of course, these shifts don't mean that politicians suddenly believe now in keeping public education public or in getting rid of the test-and-punishment policies for school funding. Rather, there is a small opening in what was once an impenetrable wall of corporate education policies. Increasingly, the public realizes that the changes we need to make to our education won't come from business people and corporate interests, but must come from somewhere else.

What do these shifts mean for teachers who are trying to reclaim our vision of public education from the corporate reformers?

These developments will mean nothing unless we use them to get organized and fight back.

No Child Left Behind is not on its deathbed. New standardized tests linked to the Common Core standards--even more challenging and comprehensive--are coming down the pipe. Charter schools continue to steal resources and students from school districts. Politicians continue to make policies that are detrimental to students and seek to break teachers unions across the country.

If we don't use this information to begin to form our own platforms for what we think public schools should be, we will miss a tremendous opportunity. Inspired by the struggles of the CTU and teachers in Seattle, teachers unions are starting reach out to our communities and to find common ground to struggle for better schools for all our students, the schools they truly deserve.

Part Two of this article will focus more specifically on what teachers unions are doing--and what we need to do to reclaim our vision for public education.

Further Reading

From the archives