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Testing, Privatization, and the Future of Public Schooling

An Assessor” is a researcher and activist who has made extensive studies of education and testing, as well as national and international struggles for social change.

Standardized testing occupies a central place in the ongoing reorganization—or demolition—of public education in the United States. The key question is not whether leading sectors of capital—major foundations from Gates on down, business groups including the Business Roundtable and Chamber of Commerce, a near-endless array of think tanks and policy groups, major media, well-funded “Astroturf” (faux grassroots) groups such as Stand for Children, and leading forces in both major political parties at the state and national levels—promote standardized tests as a tool for making major, “high-stakes” decisions about students, educators, and schools. The better, and unanswered, questions are: Why are tests such an important weapon, What are the goals of the test-driven offensive, How does testing interact with other corporate school “reform” goals, and What can be done to turn this around?

The reconstruction of schooling is part of the neoliberal stage of capitalism, which, far from defeated in the United States by the economic crisis, has intensified itself as “the only alternative.” Historically, public schooling developed as the result of struggles/negotiations between capital and the working class. From capital’s perspective, which is dominant but not absolutely so, schools became a valuable means to prepare workers, managers, and ancillary personnel for an exploitative system whose motor force is the accumulation of capital. The bottom layers of the working class faced long hours, brutal conditions, and low pay, while laborers in the “higher” sectors—the ones more commonly in unions—exerted some control over their work and won higher wages. The workplace hierarchy was gendered and racialized, with women, African Americans, and Latinos disproportionately in lower-waged and nonunion sectors.

These divisions weakened somewhat between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1970s, as industrial workers and public employees unionized, and as the civil rights and women’s movements gained momentum. There was some reduction in wage inequality, overall income inequality remained roughly constant, taxes were somewhat progressive, and public social welfare spending rose. The spirit of resistance born in the antiwar movement of the 1960s began to spread into the working class as a “refusal of work” movement erupted in a wide but not organizationally unified class offensive. Along with international struggles and intense economic competition by the major rivals of U.S. capital, this created the profits crisis of the early 1970s that soon prompted capital’s turn toward neoliberalism.1

The essence of capitalism is turning human labor power into the work that makes capital accumulation possible. Capital needs workers who are disciplined and prepared for a great variety of jobs. Schools have been critical institutions for providing capital with such workers. However, as neoliberal capitalism gathered steam, radically altering workplaces, capital concluded that the schools had not been doing a good enough job giving employers what they now needed.

The approach to schools in the first phases of neoliberalism focused on intensifying schoolwork and discipline. Tests were a useful mechanism for pressuring students—via grade promotion, graduation, and scholarships. This added to their continuing use as a sorting mechanism, which included persuading those who did not succeed that the fault lies not in society but in themselves. In the United States, tests have come to serve a function similar to money: they are both a measuring tool and a means of control.2

However, in the early days of emerging neoliberalism, testing was itself under attack. States cut back mandated exams, as did the federal government in its 1994 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). I can recall wondering how long this could continue in the face of neoliberalism. By this time, the Thatcher and Major governments in Britain had created the essential neoliberal model, which was also being promoted in the United States. The implications of this model for education were being formulated in the United States, especially by the Fordham Institute. In its current U.S. incarnation, the neoliberal education model now looks like this:

  • Centrally controlled definitions of what is to be learned (standards). These are functionally defined and enforced by state tests (made by private companies), and soon through two multistate national consortia that are likely to end up under federal domination.
  • Increased privatization. This requires conceptualizing education as an individual consumer good, not a social good. Functionally, this involves expanding privatized administrative control in terms of charter schools and educational management organizations, with “virtual charters” and “vouchers” looming.
  • A vast array of pressures and sanctions to keep the workers—students, teachers, administrators—in line. In the United States, the main weapon is “accountability,” particularly evident in the federal No Child Left Behind law (NCLB, the current ESEA), now intensified by the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” (RTTT) program, created as part of federal stimulus funding.

Getting to this point has taken some time. In the 1970s, governors allied with business groups pushed for graduation tests. They spoke incessantly about “accountability,” particularly as an often-successful means to persuade liberals and civil rights groups to join the corporate offensive against local authority over schools serving low-income youth, and more recently against unions. Well-orchestrated PR waves promoted in the public mind the notion of a “crisis.” This propaganda saw a crisis of educational difficulties caused not by poverty but by the educators themselves. “No excuses” became the slogan.

George W. Bush gave the neoliberal education model a huge boost when he was able to parlay his highly touted (though largely unsuccessful) efforts in Texas to push NCLB through a compliant Congress eager to pass “bipartisan” legislation in the wake of 9-11. Democrats largely swallowed the test-and-punish “accountability” Kool-Aid, while “local control” Republicans were willing to give Bush what he wanted.

With annual testing now required in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school, the amount of testing in most states has doubled or nearly tripled. In a desperate effort to avoid failing to make mandated “adequate yearly progress,” many urban school districts started administering multiple-choice “benchmark” tests three or more times a year. Now, some are using “probes,” short, computer-based tests given several times a week, with results monitored by the central office. This ensures an unwavering focus on teaching to the test, and thus narrowing the curriculum. It has helped state scores soar. But on independent exams, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), gains slowed and even halted after NCLB passed.3 Nevertheless, policymakers mostly continued to defend the testing regime, evidence be damned.

Under a barrage of criticism that pointed out the low-quality of standardized tests and their damaging consequences to learning, the Obama administration promised a “new generation” of tests. However, multiple-choice remains the dominant format in the proposals from the two consortia of states that won Race to the Top funds to construct new tests. There will be a few open-ended “extended response” items (writing a few paragraphs, which can readily be coached with no gain in real writing skills), and maybe even a “performance task” (for example, reading some source documents and writing a short paper; again, potentially canned and ultimately trivialized). Even in the unlikely event these are good tasks, they will be swamped by the rest of the testing regimen. And there will likely be far more tests, as states and districts exponentially increase the use of “interim” tests and fake “formative” assessments.4 Furthermore, the new tests will not be ready until at least 2014-15, so the federal administration and Congress can ignore calls to curtail testing in the pending reauthorization of ESEA by pointing to the forthcoming “good” tests.

Testing as a tool of school change does not exist in a vacuum. In particular, resources, privatization, and unions have been important, interrelated battlegrounds.

Until the past few years, spending on public schools has increased, enabling schools to reduce class size and to serve heretofore ignored youth, such as those with disabilities or those for whom English is a second language. Even in the current crisis, most states are cutting public school funding less than other areas, though cuts have exacted a serious toll even in middle-income communities.

Funding, however, remains unequally distributed, with three-to-one funding ratios between wealthy and poor districts common both within and across states.5 Closely related to this is the extensive and growing racial segregation in the United States, so that lack of funds intertwines with racial isolation. Rather than address these issues, leading forces here call for tests and privatization, proclaiming that “education is the new civil rights agenda.” Contrast this with Martin Luther King’s call in his book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community for “restructuring the whole of American society” to end poverty.

Leading neoliberal ideologues such as Chester “Checker” Finn and Frederick Hess are now advising governments to take advantage of the fiscal crisis to cut the teaching force sharply, end seniority and even unions themselves, and increase class size, thereby dramatically reducing costs. The United States, they intone, can no longer afford the unproductive waste embodied in our current public schools. This line comes mostly from Republicans, but some Democrats, from New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo to Democrats for Educational Reform, have willingly taken up the cudgels to wage war on public education.6

Privatization complements high-stakes testing and funding inadequacies and inequities. The past decade has seen a sharp rise in the numbers of “charter schools.” These privately controlled (for- and not-for-profit), publicly funded entities are promoted by the same constellation of forces that back high-stakes testing. Most states have laws authorizing charters; most are raising or removing caps on the number of allowable charters; and most charters cater to low-income communities. The most prominent, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and the Harlem Children’s Zone, receive large sums from private entities, enabling them to provide more for their students than do under-resourced, nearby public schools. On the other side are the McDonald’s of the charter world, corporate entities such as White Hat in Ohio (which made big payoffs to electoral candidates), which are chains of charters offering test-prep malnourishment while the owner pockets the big bucks. Charters often remove students whose behavior or test scores create problems for the school, and they under enroll English language learners and students with disabilities. Despite such advantages, several major research studies, including one by the federal government, found that charters on average perform less well than public schools on standardized tests.7

No matter, the push goes on, now focused increasingly on “virtual charters” in which kids get their lessons via computer.8 This saves on bricks and mortar, passes many costs on to parents, and cuts teacher expenses greatly. Now a “master” teacher can organize the courses, with ill-paid assistants to respond to particular student questions online. They can presumably be outsourced overseas—indeed, so can the master teachers. The “proof” of their “success” will remain standardized tests.

The combination of tests and privatization played out in the competition for a share of the billions of federal dollars doled out by RTTT. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned states that they would not be eligible for the funds if they did not allow virtually unlimited numbers of charters. Many states obediently responded; some unions went along, others fought it. Duncan having won this battle, the final competition rules did not mandate dropping limits on the number of charters, but they did require that teachers and principals be evaluated (and given tenure and raises or fired) “in significant part” based on student test scores.

States have again been jumping through the hoops and getting in line, some even requiring test scores to comprise half a teacher’s evaluation. (Although even in conservative Tennessee, a February 2011 Vanderbilt University poll found 65 percent of the respondents did not support awarding bonuses based on scores.)9 Usually this involves so-called “value added” measurements (VAM), statistical tools for tracking student test score gains over the years. The research shows that the methodology is inaccurate and should not be used for judging teachers.10 The use of VAM is thus another weapon in the attack on teachers, even as it intensifies central control over curriculum.

Indeed, research evidence clearly indicates that privatization and high-stakes testing do not even boost scores on tests that are not the direct target of instruction, never mind improve real learning. It would seem, then, that the bipartisan neoliberal education goal is not really about improving academic outcomes. Here, however, as in many things, it is important to consider how long-standing social inequities of race and class are used by capital to mobilize some sectors to attack others and deflect attention from the doings of capital itself. We might also wonder if the attacking would be different if most teachers were men, not women.

In response to the lack of evidence that the corporate agenda improves schools, fear mongering has been a significant tool, but one primarily couched in terms of an economic imperative. In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama described education “reform” solely in economic, instrumental terms, and defended his administration’s programs (and, implicitly, Bush’s as well) despite their track record of failure.11

The push to smash unions has intensified since the 2010 elections, as seen in legislative proposals to curtail collective bargaining for public employees and end due process rights (“tenure”) for teachers. In defense, this push has, at least, mobilized tens of thousands of teachers and students, most prominently in Wisconsin in February and early March of this year.

Testing combines with privatization and union-bashing/wage cuts, in an environment of declining resources, to promote a profound reorganization, and potentially the death, of public schooling. The libertarian Cato Institute says “charity” would provide for children whose parents could not purchase private education. It is reasonable to ask whether isolating children largely by themselves in schools is the best way to raise and educate them, but ending public schooling in a capitalist economy would be a complete disaster.

Of course, most Republicans do not go so far. Perhaps harder to grasp is why so many liberal Democrats support testing, charters, and union-bashing. Too many, including some civil rights organizations, have accepted the neoliberal nostrums as vehicles for improving schooling for low-income children of color. Their anger toward school systems and unions has some justification, but the “solution,” which is being propagated by the wealthiest sectors of society, carries no promise of genuine improvement. The absence of a plausible progressive alternative has led to acceptance of or at least acquiescence to the neoliberal solutions. It is patently obvious that Democrat support is valuable to neoliberal school “deformers.” More generally, it is further evidence that most Democrats have abandoned liberalism/social democracy for neoliberalism.

The U.S. neoliberal goals are clear: control schools through tests, establish extensive charters and at least some vouchers, and replace long-term, often unionized, teachers with a steady parade of short-timers, particularly in urban, low-income areas (as with Teach for America).12 Are we facing, then, the end of meaningful public education, or is what we are witnessing “merely” a reorganization to ensure the continued reproduction, at lower cost, of a hierarchically structured labor force, while allowing “the market to work its magic” and ensure that goodly chunks of this public fund find their way into corporate profits? The hallmarks of tests, privatization, and de-unionization suggest it could go either way.

I do not offer a prediction here. Perhaps I am too affected by growing up in the brief capitalist period of modest social-democracy/Keynesianism to be entirely convinced that capital has now concluded it can essentially function without public education. There is zero doubt that capital is working forcefully to drive down wages and increase social insecurity. Still, the capitalist apparatus is complex and needs (it would seem) not only a wide range of qualities of labor power (qualities, they hope, in sufficient supply to keep wages down) but also a heterogeneous work force that can find ways to cooperate in the spheres of production, circulation, and reproduction (but not cooperate in struggle). It is hard to see how private schooling could do all this.

There are still wider social consequences of the neoliberal assault on schooling that are revealed through high-stakes standardized testing. Far from entering the realm of what some term the “cognitariat,” the relative dumbing down of schooling for working people and the narrowing of the capacities of managerial strata seems to be the actual agenda.13 Thus, anecdotally, I hear from college professors at top-rated schools that many incoming students now have less ability to think in the subject areas.

It could be this is a serious mistake on the part of capital’s theoreticians and planners, but the trajectory seems clear, for the reduction of schooling to test preparation and the use of student test scores to judge teachers affect all public schools, their students, and teachers. If U.S. capital really needs more and more workers who are cooperative, creative, autonomous, high-skilled, college-educated initiators and problem solvers, then why is the dominant trend in schooling competitive, repetitive, and reduced to test coaching?

I would argue this emphasis on testing is more fundamental than the question of privatization, as it implicates what it means to be human. It suggests that whatever the rhetoric, the deeper capitalist thinking recognizes deskilling and lowered wages as the main trend in the United States. It completely ignores even a pretense that schooling serves democracy, self-development, lifelong learning, personal interests, or sociality outside the workplace, never mind social justice.

Neoliberalism can only be stopped by a major effort by educators, parents, and communities—that is, by different sectors of the broad working class (including the so-called middle class, which is fundamentally the strata of middle-to-better-paid workers) coming together. Without such a movement, there is no hope for the fundamental changes needed in U.S. education.

At the moment, that is a thin reed to hold on to. The official rate of strikes in the United States has been close to zero for years now, even as what is probably the largest strike wave in human history erupts around the world, combining with vast struggles by women, communities, the indigenous, students, and more, nearly everywhere except the United States. Here, workers seem more interested in making sure no one else has a less miserable deal than they do, and in deluding themselves that preserving empire and allowing capital to do anything it wants is their salvation.

It has not always been this way, as we know, and the upsurge in Wisconsin, coupled with other modest signs, suggests that the old mole may be ready to erupt from the U.S. earth.14 Here, I offer some suggestions for a way forward for activists to consider.

First, reject the view that the purpose of schools is to feed the economy, to win the (cold or hot) war against China, India, and whoever or whatever else the U.S. government names. The purpose of education must be both individual and social fulfillment and well-being. Accomplishing that goal will be a huge undertaking, but fighting for it can energize far more people than an illusory quest to be the last high-wage worker standing.

Second, fight privatization. This must involve an assertion of the commons, an effort at “commoning” as Peter Linebaugh terms it, an insistence that society is neither reduced nor subservient to the market. Even the far-from-anti-capitalist Diane Ravitch said that public schools “are a public service, a public good. It is the obligation of public officials to provide good public schools in every neighborhood, not to privatize them or to act as an umpire whose role is to judge them defective and shut them down.”15 Thus, reject the Orwellian notion that private control over public funds is somehow public. Insist that democratic, shared, participatory control over public funds and spaces, starting with our children’s education, is necessary for any real society.

Third, expose the forces behind test-punish-privatize. Do not let them hide behind the masks of philanthropy and benevolence. This means some good old muckraking. Even if some of them have good ideas (and few do), rather than allowing them to use their wealth to dominate society and schooling, insist on democracy and, minimally, wealth and income leveling.

Fourth, reject testing and test-based “accountability.” Rejection can mean building mass refusal to take (or administer) the tests, a weapon that has been used effectively a few times, recently in England. It is reasonable for any community to want to know how well its schools are doing—but that means a full range of learning outcomes as well as being happy, healthy places for our children. For accountability, support greater local/parent/community involvement and less centralized control, with the center focused on ensuring civil rights and strengthening equity in opportunities to learn. Ally with groups like FairTest, which call for less testing and local (teacher and school) control over assessment for verifying the accuracy of school-based evidence.

Fifth, reject all the multiple variants of union- and teacher-bashing, including use of student test scores to judge teachers and end tenure. This also means rejecting the endless parade of unprepared short-timers in schools serving low-income communities through entities such as Teach for America.

Sixth, reject the claim that schools can solve the problems of poverty. Put poverty back on the agenda. Given the way the United States is going, in theory, this should not be too hard—in theory.

Seventh, challenge but reach out to “tea partiers.” While some are clearly reactionary ideologues, many involved have let their fears get the best of them, succumbing to the illusions of “trickle down” economics and empire. They are right to be angry, but their anger—and ours—needs to be against the rulers, not the ruled.

These are general points, but each one is a stick in the spokes of the neoliberal education wheel, and each can open the path to a positive, socially beneficial conception of education. To do that, the rejection of neoliberal, capitalist ideology and practice must be thorough and resolute. Developing a shared vision of what society and education can be is fundamental. We do not yet have that vision—or, perhaps better, set of visions. Developing them requires many conversations, especially public conversations, among all those concerned. From that can come demands, strategies, alternatives, that can push toward the healthy education of our children, in and out of schools.

Notes

  1. I largely concur with analyses developed by Midnight Notes; see http://midnightnotes.org, a series of articles in various publications over an extended period of time. For specific references, contact this author.
  2. This raises questions about other nations that use tests far less. There is not room here to discuss this. I’d simply say that nations can develop other methods of controlling schooling, but in many countries, tests play a critical role in university admissions, which in turn affects the entire pre-college school system. For background material on testing, see esp. Peter Sacks’s Standardized Minds: The High Price of America’s testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001), as well as materials at fairtest.org.
  3. They had risen most dramatically, and race-linked score gaps closed the most, in the aftermath of desegregation. In the early 1990s, gaps widened, but closed again as overall scores also rose. NAEP tests primarily in reading and math at a few grades, administered as a national sample. The results are a limited but useful indicator. See http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard.
  4. Formative assessments are properly processes and tools used by teachers in the instructional process to help guide teaching and learning, not mini-tests controlled from outside the classroom, which is how states and districts are often using them. See “Position Paper on Assessment for Learning” (2009) available at http://fairtest.org/position-paper-assessment-learning. Interim (or periodic or benchmark) tests are shorter tests given to gauge progress toward scoring high on the major exam; their use has escalated dramatically in the NCLB period, particularly in urban districts.
  5. Jonathan Kozol’s work, such as Savage Inequalities (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), is most prominent in exposing unequal educational opportunities. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA and the Schott Foundation, among others, continue to expose the inequities, with the CRP also focusing on intensifying U.S. racial segregation.
  6. Finn’s Fordham Institute has been perhaps the leading neoliberal voice on schools; following them on their newsletter, The Gadfly, is instructive. Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, blogs incessantly, including on the nation’s primary education newspaper, Education Week.
  7. CREDO, Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States (2009), available at http://credo.stanford.edu.pdf. U.S. Department of Education, The Evaluation of Charter School Impacts (2010), available at http://toped.svefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/charter-mathematica-study0610.pdf.
  8. Cf. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education on digital learning, at http://excelined.org.
  9. Julie Hubbard, “Test-based Pay for Teachers Opposed,” February 8, 2011, http://tennessean.com/article/20110208/NEWS04/103230001/-1/projects11/Test-based-pay-teachers-opposed.
  10. There is a large and growing body of research on this. One popular discussion is Wayne Au, “Neither Fair Nor Accurate,” Rethinking Schools, Winter 2011, available at http://rethinkingschools.org/archive/25_02/25_02_au.shtml. A second useful source is Bruce Baker, “7 Reasons Why Teacher Evaluation’s Won’t Work,” The Record, March 13, 2011, available at http://northjersey.com/news/education/evaluation_031311.html. A third is Monty Neill, “Student Test Scores: An Inaccurate Way to Judge Teachers,” Backpak, available at, http://citizensforpublicschools.org/editions-of-the-backpack/spring-2011-backpack/student-test-scores-are-a-dangerous-way-to-judge-teachers.
  11. It is not the topic of this article, but there is a great deal of knowledge about how to improve schools, which has nothing to do with testing or privatization, though it still remains true that family wealth and income are the strongest predictors of student outcomes.
  12. In England, educator and parent resistance has led to a steady cutback in the amount of testing. The test-based model is being pushed in other nations, for example across Latin America, but is meeting resistance. See Testing, Testing, Testing: A Seminar-Conference on Standardized Evaluation in the Americas (2009), available at http://www.idea-network.ca/userfiles/image/file/PRINT%20VERSION.pdf, and Intercambio Year 3, No.1, http://idea-network.ca/userfiles/image/file/INTERCAMBIO%202-Ingl%C3%A9s.pdf.
  13. See especially The Edu-factory Collective, Toward a Global Autonomous University: Cognitive Labor, the Production of Knowledge and Exodus from the Education Factory (New York: Autonomedia, 2009). This work is rooted primarily in the analyses of Toni Negri and Michael Hardt.
  14. But for a pessimistic view arguing the U.S. working class is not now willing to challenge capital, and Wisconsin is an anomaly, see George Caffentzis, “Wisconsin: The Struggle Against 21st Century Wage Slavery,” The Paper, available at http://wearethepaper.org/2011/03/24/wisconsin-the-struggle-against-21st-century-wage-slavery.
  15. Diane Ravitch, “Closing Public Schools, a Truly Bad Idea,” Education Week, February 8, 2011, http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2011/02/closing_public_schools_a_truly.html. We might note this seems to remain the dominant view in some capitalist nations.
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