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Inclusive Education, High Stakes Testing and Capitalist Schooling

Mara Sapon-Shevin (msaponsh [at] is Professor of Inclusive Education, and faculty member in Disabilities Studies, Women’s Studies, Programs in the Analysis and Resolution of Conflicts, School of Education, Syracuse University. Her latest book is Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms (Beacon Press, 2007).

If there are no losers, how will we know who the winners are?

This article is about our educational system and how it is working. I do not say how it is “failing,” because that would imply that it is not working. We need a different set of more nuanced questions. I want to ask: Working for whom? Working to do what? Failing whom? And failing to do what?

If we are concerned that we are failing to educate all children, or failing to prepare our future citizens, or failing some commitment to equity and social justice—then, yes, the system is failing. But one could also argue that our system is actually succeeding perfectly. It does a superb job sorting out the winners from the losers, perpetuating a highly-classed society, and creating the work force that our stratified, capitalist society requires.

What is confusing, though, is a rhetoric that postulates one set of goals (leaving no child behind, for example) and then engages in practices and policies which can never achieve those goals—practices and policies which are expressly designed to do the very opposite. We have simultaneously moved away from a commitment to the education of all students—full inclusion—while simultaneously blaming those we have excluded for their own exclusion. Most startling is our inability to name these blatant contradictions and blow the cover off the rigged game. So in a real sense, our educational system is working: we are successfully convincing many people that the proposed educational reforms will actually achieve the goals of educational equity; and that failure to achieve these goals is a failure of will or effort, rather than a failure of the reforms themselves.

Meritocratic schooling in the United States thrives on the metaphor of the “level playing field,” the idea that given enough drive and effort, anyone can be successful. Buying into that metaphor is important in getting people to “keep trying” and not become hopeless or demoralized, and to get people to continue to work within the system by promising they will be rewarded.

Consider the activity called “The Level Playing Field.” The participants line up across the center of a room, holding hands and facing forward. The leader gives various directives: (1) If both of your parents attended college, take one step forward; (2) If English is not your native language, take one step backwards; (3) If you went on family vacations every year, take one step forward; and (4) If you ever went to bed hungry, take one step backwards. As various descriptions of privilege and oppression related to race, gender, religion, class, sexual orientation and language are read, the line is broken; some people move forward, and others back. Before long, the players are no longer able to hold hands because they are too far apart. The leader then announces that since we have a “level playing field” in our country, we will have a race, and “success” is designated as the front wall of the room. “When I say ‘Go’,” says the leader, “I want you to race to the front wall.” When the leader says this, those in front (generally White, male, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexual, native-English speaking, upper-middle-class people) usually do not have to move at all—often they are already pressed against the front wall. Meanwhile, those in the back cannot possibly reach the wall first (or perhaps at all), even if they ran very quickly. And most striking is that those in front—those who have the most power and privilege and who benefit from the myth of the level playing field—no longer even see those in the back. Although invisible to those in the front, the people in back can see very clearly what power and privilege look like, what it is like to “have the goods” and to be successful. But the shame at not being successful, the anger that will be read as dangerous and needing to be suppressed, the lack of power, and the narrative that says, “You could have made it if you had tried harder,” all decrease the likelihood that those in the rear will cry “foul”—or that they will be heard if they do.

A clearer way to understand the impact of competitive legislation, competitive merit pay, and the use of standardized tests which are designed to rank and sort, is to think about the game of Musical Chairs. The organizer (usually an adult) sets out a number of chairs, but one fewer than there are players (usually children). The organizer explains the rules; music is played and the participants walk around the chairs to the music; and when the music stops, there is a scramble for the chairs. The person left without a chair is out of the game. After each round, another chair is removed so that the competition continues. The game continues until there is one triumphant “winner” (the only one with a chair). The rest of the players are losers and have been eliminated.

What lessons does the game teach? (1) There is not enough to go around; (2) The only way to deal with the scarcity of resources is to compete; (3) The only “evaluation” that counts is whether or not one can grab a chair; (4) Any differences that interfere with winning are bad and dangerous, or at the least put one in peril of losing. So any child who is slower, shorter, smaller, does not speak English enough to understand the instructions, or who has some physical impairment which makes grabbing a chair difficult, will be out—and usually first; (5) Any attempts to enact other solutions (sharing chairs, for example), will be disallowed by the leader, typically with the question, “Who was here first?”; (6) Players have no obligation to help or support one another, since this would be dysfunctional and endanger their own potential victory; (7) It is important to keep smiling and to accept the consequences of exclusion and losing; to do otherwise will call into question one’s status as a “good sport,” and the loser will then be blamed both for his or her own elimination, as well as for having a “bad attitude.”

This game is a perfect metaphor for understanding the current educational system and the ways in which it enacts a form of “educational triage” within our society, choosing who is worthy and who is disposable, determining who will receive what kinds of services and support and who will not, and teaching all of the players to accept some of the basic premises of the system. A set “pot” of money is allocated for education, and schools are asked to compete for those funds. If you choose not to participate in the game (a privilege only available to the rich with other funds), then your school will not receive funding. Proposing radically-different solutions to secure your funding is not an option. Certain schools (like certain children in the game) get the goods, while others do not. Patterns of tracking and segregation (including special education and gifted programs) mean that even within the same school, students will receive radically different educations. The neo-liberal agenda manages to define how we “do school” and what constitutes “success” in ways narrow enough to preclude those at the margins from even participating, much less winning. The game is the “given,” and the players (administrators, teachers, parents, and students) are left to competitively navigate the rules in order to win. Certain questions are permissible within this framework (“How can I get my child into the gifted program?”; “Is it more important to fund the sports program or the arts?”; and, “How can we best determine which teachers we keep and which we let go?”) But we are not encouraged (or even allowed) to ask those “in charge” any of the following questions:

  1. Who set up the game and what was the motivation for organizing it?
  2. What is accomplished by creating a scarcity scenario and how real is the scarcity?
  3. Even if the scarcity is real, how predictable is it (before the game even begins) who will win and who will lose?
  4. What obligations do players have to one another?
  5. What will happen to the losers?
  6. What other possible solutions or ways of being might allow the resources and success to be shared?
  7. Are there ways to succeed other than by grabbing a chair? Is there only one definition of success?
  8. What kind of relationships will be built or damaged by participating in this activity, and what implications will this have for building and maintaining an equitable community, society, and world?

The major difference between Musical Chairs, The Game, and Musical Chairs, The Educational Policy, is that no one says to the players in The Game, “Hey, we’re going to play a game where everyone can win—we want you all to succeed!” It is clear from the beginning that the game will result in one winner and many losers. It is actually explained that way. But our current educational policy enacts a similar structure and yet tells the players, “We want all our children to be successful”; “We will leave no child behind”; and, “Our future depends on the quality of education our children receive.” It would be much more honest to say, “Our educational system is designed to recreate existing stratifications of race, class, language, and other forms of privilege. The best predictor of student success in our country is parental income. Rich kids get much better schools, better prepared teachers, and far more resources than poor children do. They are exposed to a richer curriculum, more creative forms of pedagogy, and are granted some reprieve from the demands of constant testing and evaluation. We are currently committed to a set of policies that are designed to destroy public education, and these include: (1) Defunding public education and supporting the development of Charter Schools and other forms of privatization; (2) Systematically deskilling teachers, limiting their ability to act and teach independently, and then blaming them for student failure: (3) Ignoring and scoffing at those who cite gross societal inequities and challenges which impede school success like poverty, violence, illness, malnutrition, and homelessness; (4) Convincing people that any failures of the system are the result of parents who do not care, students who do not try hard enough, and teachers who are incompetent; (5) Creating powerful rhetoric that sounds as though the goal really is to have all students be successful, but without acknowledging that our society depends on using schools to stratify, sort and select.

During President Obama’s State of the Union Address on January 25, 2011, he was applauded when he said, “Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what is best for our kids.” Obama called this “the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.”

The Executive Summary of the legislation describes the policy as follows:

The ARRA provides $4.35 billion for the Race to the Top Fund, a competitive grant program designed to encourage and reward States that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform; achieving significant improvement in student outcomes, including making substantial gains in student achievement, closing achievement gaps, improving high school graduation rates, and ensuring student preparation for success in college and careers; and implementing ambitious plans in four core education reform areas:

Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;

Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;

Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and

Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.

Race to the Top will reward States that have demonstrated success in raising student achievement and have the best plans to accelerate their reforms in the future. These States will offer models for others to follow and will spread the best reform ideas across their States, and across the country.1

At a panel at Columbia University on the Race to the Top initiative, the President of the New York State United Teachers, Dick Iannuzzi, said that he feared that inequality in education would actually become worse because of the competition inherent in the Race to the Top grants. Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has acknowledged that there will be “a lot more losers than winners” among the states in competition.2

Of course there will be more losers than winners. That is why it is called Race to the Top. It is not called “Collaboration for Success,” or “Helping Each Other to Achieve.” It is not about schools working cooperatively to cross the finish line together; it is not about collaborations in which stronger schools support weaker, struggling ones; it is not about addressing the systemic, structural inequalities that make the race so unfair. It is a race!

Why is it not clear that we cannot “turn around low-achieving schools” if only some schools will be funded? How do we, as the legislation says, “reward” teachers for student success when that success is so clearly linked to other external factors, such as poverty and resources? What would have happened if the President’s State of the Union Address had shown video footage from crumbling, dirty, rat-infested schools, and contrasted it with footage of well-resourced schools where every child has a laptop, the floors are carpeted, the library is full of books, and the classes are small? Would it have generated any outrage that this is the educational disparity which exists in our country? Would it have made it clear that the Race to the Top legislation cannot possibly address, much less remediate, these discrepancies?

Alfie Kohn names the ways in which viewing educational success as “winning the global competition” is both distorted and disturbing. He states, “To say that our goal isn’t for our kids to keep improving but to score better than their counterparts in other countries—or that it isn’t for more of our students to stay in school longer but to ‘retake the lead,’ as President Obama put it on Monday, alluding to a nonexistent international contest—is to say that we want children to fare relatively poorly just because they aren’t Americans.”3

One of the biggest contradictions between our current policies, and the administration’s rhetoric of inclusive success, can be seen in how students with disabilities are affected by recent legislation like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the newer Race to the Top. The 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (re-authorized in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) had among its stated goals a commitment both to include students with disabilities within the general education system, and to dismantle segregated educational facilities and classrooms. Given the vast over-representation of students of color in special education, efforts at inclusion were also part of attempts to end racial segregation in our schools. One of the requirements of NCLB was that all students had to be included in high stakes testing; theoretically this was an attempt to increase accountability for students with Individual Educational Programs. However, a report by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy and the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community (IIDC) documented that while efforts to meet NCLB accountability standards improved short-term student outcomes, “the act’s narrow assessment criteria creates pressure for schools to reverse inclusion efforts and may contribute to higher drop-out rates among students with disabilities.”4

Under NCLB regulations, schools that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) were subjected to a series of punitive measures including defunding and dismantlement, and most states did not make the act’s AYP because of the special education subgroup. The report states that, “This situation puts pressure on schools to remove special education students from general education classrooms, undoing years of progress toward inclusion in mainstream schooling.”

Sandi Cole, director of the IIDC’s Center on Education and Lifelong Learning and author of the report, applauds the fact that students with disabilities are part of the assessment system. But she also says, “The system needs to make sense. Don’t we want to know how much a child is progressing towards the standards? Don’t we want schools to be measured according to that progress? Right now, they either pass or they fail. We need a system that values learning and growth over time, in addition to helping students reach high standards.” The report states that the inclusion of students with disabilities in NCLB’s accountability standards has unintended consequences. These include a narrowed curriculum, and a “scapegoat” mentality which casts special education as the obstacle to schools trying to make AYP.5

It is not surprising, then, that schools are increasingly reluctant to include students with disabilities, and many charter schools are structured systematically to deny entrance to students with disabilities. Given that many districts are now rewarding teachers based on student performance (sometimes even publishing student test results), what teacher would want to take into his or her class a child who is challenged or challenging, and whose progress—even if significant—will still result in negative consequences for the teacher and the school? Policies of high-stakes testing and educational accountability, as defined largely by test scores, have increased both racial segregation and the isolation of programs and schooling for students with disabilities. Instead of including more students in the “Who counts?” rubric, we have narrowed both our responsibility and our accountability to educate. There are other examples of the push/pull between efforts to democratize education and responses which re-segregate. After racial segregation was outlawed in the South, there was a proliferation of private academies for white students only. When urban schools became more integrated racially and economically, some schools maintained “gifted programs” in order to insure that certain students (often white and middle-class) were still able to receive high-level academic programming, even within challenged schools. Jeannie Oakes pointed out that tracking policies in schools are highly correlated with race and class, and result in de facto re-segregation even within otherwise more integrated settings.6 The pattern is clear—if schools are forced to include all students and increase the diversity of the student population, then those with power and privilege will find ways to maintain stratified education and differential outcomes. The implementation of regimes of testing and evaluation, particularly those that are competitive, actively works against creating a more inclusive and democratic society.

It is also compelling that our rhetoric of inclusiveness and responsibility is limited to education, rather than to addressing other more systemic issues. Educator Lynn McKinney asks why we commit to “leaving no child behind” in terms of education, but do not have a “No Child Left Hungry Act,” a “No Child Left Unhealthy Act,” or a “No Child Left Homeless Act.” He says, “Mandatory standardized testing, as imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act, does not and cannot identify and address any of these problems that fundamentally impact our ability to educate children. No Child Left Behind is disingenuous and duplicitous. It has almost nothing to do with the approximately 30 percent of all children who, because their basic needs are not being met, are being left behind. And almost no one is talking about them.”7 It is easier to blame schools (and teachers, parents, and students) for their own failure than it is to blame children for being hungry, sick and homeless. Therefore we can continue to ignore structural issues, and narrow our gaze and our reform efforts.

Sometimes I find myself in conversations with colleagues from other countries about U.S. schools in general, and differences between “rich schools” and “poor schools” in particular. I explain that education is funded through property taxes in the United States, something that frequently leaves my foreign colleagues flabbergasted. They often say, “But wouldn’t those policies result in gross inequities in what kinds of schools kids go to? I mean, wouldn’t rich kids get better schools than poor kids?”

It is always challenging (no, it is impossible) to explain how this could be seen as acceptable in a country that purports to be democratic and committed to “liberty and justice for all.”

People are also shocked to learn the high proportion of Americans (especially African-American males) who are imprisoned in the United States and at what cost.8 It is hard to explain our “school-to-prison pipeline,” which funnels children out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The ACLU’s Racial Justice Program reports that, “Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out. ’Zero-tolerance’ policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while high-stakes testing programs encourage educators to push out low-performing students to improve their schools’ overall test scores. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.”9

This is another example of the ways in which policies of high-stakes testing are directly linked to negative, even deadly, outcomes for students with disabilities, students of color, and others already significantly disadvantaged in society. It is obvious that pushing students out of school is not the end of the story—they end up somewhere and doing something, and if they are not well educated, they will often find themselves in the criminal justice system.

What would it take to truly turn around our educational system? The solutions would include: (1) acknowledging the role our educational system plays in maintaining the current racial and class stratification of our society; (2) addressing the core systemic issues which keep children from succeeding—especially racism, poverty and violence; (3) making radical changes in how education is funded in this country; (4) strengthening teacher preparation and teacher power in schools; and last, but perhaps most challengingly, (5) admitting that our educational system cannot and will not change unless we actually pursue more democratic, just and equitable goals for our society. The task is huge, but speaking truth to power and challenging the myths that perpetuate injustice would be a fine start.


  1. U.S. Dept. of Education, “Race to the Top Program Executive Summary,” November 2009,
  2. Cara Metz, “Panel looks at pros and cons of Race to the Top,” New York Teacher, March 26, 2010,
  3. Alfie Kohn, “Competitiveness vs. Excellence: The Education Crisis That Isn’t,” August 9, 2010,
  4. Cassandra Cole, “Closing the Achievement Gap Series: Part III. What is the Impact of NCLB on the Inclusion of Students with Disabilities?,” Education Policy Brief, 4, no. 11, Fall 2006,
  5. ibid.; “Report: No Child Left Behind is out of step with special education,” November 15, 2006,
  6. Jeanne Oakes, Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, 2nd edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
  7. WilliamLynnMcKinney, “Law Leaves Children Behind,” February 26, 2004,
  8. Prison Population Exceeds Two Million,”
  9. School-to-Prison Pipeline,”
2011, Volume 63, Issue 03 (July-August)
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