February 25, 2014

Reform This!

In last week's blog (Gas Face 2/18) I concluded that opting out of high stakes testing was a cop out.  Some people tried, unsuccessfully to push back by saying that the test is wrong and because it is wrong, we should not subject our children to taking the test.  Upon further review…nope, still believe it is a cop out.

This past Saturday (2/22) I had the privilege of viewing the Daniel Hornberger documentary Standardized Lies, Money & Civil Rights: How Testing is Ruining Public Education. 
If I were Siskel or Ebert, I would begrudgingly give it a thumbs up.  As a teacher, I’ll give it a B-.  The reason being that there are several key things that struck me as fundamentally flawed and prevented me from liking the film more.  While I agree with the premise that the current batch of high-stakes testing is not benefiting students, there were several problems I had with the film.

1) Hornberger does an excellent job of painting the educational reform landscape since the late 1990s starting with the Clinton initiative “Goals 2000,” transitioning into No Child Left Behind (which is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization of 2002), and finally to Obama’s Race to the Top initiative enacted during his first term.  What I didn’t realize until seeing all of these programs en masse was that no one, or very few, have openly acknowledge that since the initial reauthorization of ESEA (dubbed NCLB, now back to ESEA) there hasn’t been ONE reauthorization of this most important piece of legislation.  This goes beyond insane.  Not only is NCLB an unfunded mandate, it is also a non-reauthorized one as well.  Imagine if Social Security or the Defense department was not reauthorized but simply languished in flux for 12 years? 
     2) Something else that is problematic is how some interviewed in the film create false notions of there being only one way of navigating through this muddy water.  They pretend that in order for “order” to be restored, you need to have gym, arts/music, social studies, etc…My thought goes beyond the simple either/or proposition to the more complex.  How do we get a child to read at grade level, assess where they are, assist in their growth and NOT lose these invaluable classes?  I do not believe that we need to boil down the school day into reading, math, science, and test prep.  I believe that this generally occurs in schools where there is a distrust between the administrators of a school and it's teachers which exists that does not allow for freedom at the school site level.  That seems like an easy proposition to solve.  Be counterintuitive, give MORE autonomy to failing schools.  Partner them with higher performing schools and see what happens.  Clearly drill and kill is killing not just the students, but the teachers as well. Why not try something new?
      3)  Some of the hyperbole in the film was laughable if it wasn’t so damaging. For example, one interviewee termed RttT as “extortion” while another made the statement that using data to drive instruction is not “teaching” students.  It gets even better, another interviewee stated that school reform equals “…Black and Brown kids being kicked out of their town and being replaced with White kids…” I have repeatedly lamented that the language of the educational reform discourse in this country is in dire need of improvement, but this is beyond depressing.  Not only are there these quotes and others which highlight the disrespect taking place, there is an entire segment of the film devoted to Michelle Rhee and other "reformers" which is simply embarrassing.  Teachers often lament that they are being “scapegoated” as the cause of the failure of schools and children.  Turning around and scapegoating someone else, regardless of her flaws, does not seem to me to be an intelligent action when seeking to eliminate the practice all together.
     4) Finally, when I saw the scene in the film in which the Long Island Opt Out group was meeting in the kitchen of one of the women’s homes, I realized what is so problematic about this entire faction of education reform. There are only two people of color in this film, Professor Yong Zaho of the University of Oregon and a young man calling Rahm “racist” during an impassioned speech to the Chicago Teachers during their strike. To me this fatal flaw is akin to why Colorado and Washington State have legalized “recreational” marijuana and Detroit does not.  Privilege has its positionality. 

Imagine if a group of Black or Latino parents wanted to opt out their children from taking…well from doing ANYTHING in the educational system?  Many would lament how “these” parents want special treatment, want affirmative action, want to hide the flaws in their children, etc…I’m sorry.  What is offensive is the notion (the false belief) that mothers and fathers in poor and urban neighborhoods do not possess the cultural and social capital to want better for their children and cannot advocate for them – thus we need “progressive” organizations and teachers to “fight” for our children. [Note: this concept was brought up again during the Q & A period of the screening when one woman said that her school district was a "great community."

In short, what has happened is too many people with White privilege have decided that this issue is too ripe to pass up.  They believe that they have the high moral ground to help "save our schools" by showing parents and students a "better" way.

For example, Hornberger made a comment during a Skype interview after the film that really was telling.  He said that the “SATs are a joke.”  This assertion has been known by decades of researchers who have lamented racial bias in testing, yet these tests are still here and still used (luckily to a lesser degree than when I applied to colleges in the late ‘80s).  Now that White folk whose families moved to the suburbs a generation or two ago in the wake of the Brown decision are gentrifying and “revitalizing” urban areas and
are subjected to not just the SAT/ACT high stakes but also the state test, they want come in and acknowledge what has been occurring for decades as if it is new?  NOW it has become a fight worth fighting?  Please.

So these are a few reasons why I give this film a B-.  In grad school parlance that’s a fail.  If you have seen the film, what are your thoughts?  How can we move beyond fighting words towards positive outcomes?  I’m sick of people using coded language such as “great community” to mean high SES, predominantly white and safe.  I am sick of films not presenting multiple sides of the issue by bringing in the perspective of people of color – either intentionally (which is bad) or purposefully (even worse).  

As someone else noted post screening, and as Marvin Gaye said so eloquently; “what’s (really) going on?”  There is no right answer, no singular solution.  Is that provocative? Perhaps…

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