Monday, November 23, 2015

Charters, School "Reform", and Standardized Testing

Punk and other misfit/outsider/radical cultures have always had a conflicted relationship with education and teaching. On one hand, school is an oppressive institution. It is a potentially-dangerous environment that is legally forced upon us when we are kids and teenagers in the primary and secondary grades (elementary and high school). Then, when we finally finish (or escape) it as adults we are societally pressured to progress into often-ruinously expensive higher education (college). On the other hand, education has also been used as an escape valve for countless people who are stuck in grim life situations otherwise, helping provide them with structure and intellectual skills that have the potential to improve their lives and those of others.

Though the institutions of education are historically problematic and often oppressive, students who have been through them as “outsiders” understand the importance of teachers who have developed radical notions of what education is and how it works. Sometimes, these students become teachers themselves, helping to subvert these educational institutions or find outside alternatives to them. It makes sense, given that much of punk embraces idealism, ethics, and intellectualism, that so many punks have become teachers while remaining punks. This column is designed to provide a platform for these radical, subversive teachers/educators to share their ideas and draw attention to important issues around education.

The first Teaching Resistance column (January 2015) in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR) column is concerned with the extremely important, often-misunderstood issues of corporate education “reform” and standardized testing. It is by Matt Meyer, who has been an educator for 11 years, lives in Oakland, California and teaches at Berkeley High School. He can be contacted directly at matt.meyer666 [at] gmail.com

As a teacher, I have a complicated relationship with school. When I was a teenager, school was where my friends and I directed our rage. We felt trapped by its conformist values and forced socialization. I became a teacher because I wanted to empower kids to question and confront that same system. For the past eleven years I’ve been actively working toward creating a space where that critical engagement is possible—a journey that has become more difficult with the increasing push toward educational standardization.

Public education has always been a paradox. It’s a system the state forces upon kids, but can leave room for transformative experiences and authentic learning to take shape. It’s where kids can be exposed to new ideas, find an adult who can guide them through tough situations, and find passions that stick for years to come. Public schools are where kids spend most of their time, learning to analyze and question the world around them. These public schools are under attack by the same forces of capitalism that continue to commodify so many other aspects of our lives.

The assault on schools takes the form of the corporate education reform movement, which aims to destroy our public education system and therefore destroy our ability as teachers to empower youth to think critically. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, the success of public schools has been quantified by unrealistic growth measures based on standardized test scores. Consequently, schools are punished based on those results. This legislation, however, was only the beginning of the corporate reform movement. Since taking office, President Obama has continued to support the movement, which is based on dismantling public school systems and replacing them with school vouchers, publicly-unaccountable charter schools, and curriculum based on standardized tests.

The key assumption behind this movement is that schools should run like competitive markets. Schools compete with each other to attract students through their publicized standardized test scores. Then, teacher conformity is forced through tying performance ratings to these test scores. Teachers, in order to keep their jobs, or, in extreme cases, keep their schools open, are pressured into teaching test-taking skills and rote memorization, forgoing critical thinking and social-emotional learning-- skills that are untestable on a multiple choice exam. This ‘merit pay’ system incentivizes competition over collaboration between teachers. Students are left with a substandard education where they are tested multiple times from elementary school all the way to high school graduation. The tests have been found to inaccurately measure the performance of a teacher despite the fact that her job may be on the line. Even worse, every day a student spends taking a test disconnected from what she is learning in class is a lost day of authentic experience.

Although they are funded by the privatization movement, the architects of the corporate reform movement use the language of the left to demonize public education. Corporate foundations masking as philanthropy organizations pretend to represent student interests. The biggest so-called philanthropists are the Broad Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation, of Wal-Mart fame. These reforms see education as a potential revenue stream. They fund electoral campaigns and sue states in order to pass market driven education models. For example, the recent court case, Vergara v. California, brought on by a group calling themselves, ironically, Students First, says that job protections for teachers are a violation of students’ right to an education. This same organization funds right wing politicians, while claiming it has the best interests of students in mind. The Vergara v. California lawsuit exemplifies how the corporate reform agenda blames teachers and teacher unions for all the problems of public schooling and ignores poverty, institutional racism, and decreasing school funding as reasons why kids don’t succeed.

These organizations exploit the notion of the achievement gap to discredit public schools while refusing to take up the real problems in education. The charter school mantra of “school choice” ignores the institutional causes of education inequality. Furthermore, as due process rights of teachers and job protection decrease, teachers will be less able to have autonomy in the classroom and the chances of delivering a radical education will diminish. Schools will cease being a place where students learn new perspectives and ways of expressing themselves. The factory model of education, where teacher curriculum is prescribed and students are turned into data points, becomes the norm. Keeping good teachers is already difficult given the pay and the difficulty of the work, but taking out the creativity and opportunity to impact student lives in a meaningful way further disincentivizes the profession for those of us that see education as a key place of raising consciousness for change.

In order to solve the problems that face schools, society has to change priorities and reallocate resources back into the commons. Instead, they are stripping what’s left of our commons by setting up charter schools that are not held accountable to democratically elected school boards and measure success by ‘data’. Because of this race toward turning our kids into data points, the public schools have had to respond with more testing. In Florida, under new state testing schemes, some schools test students 60 to 80 days of the school year. These changes to how we educate have been bankrolled by millionaires with a secret agenda, who fund school reform as a way to discredit and defund public schools and teacher unions. They play on the emotions of dissatisfied parents by passing parent trigger laws that enable a small group to effectively turn a public school into a charter school. These charter schools are, conveniently, not unionized, and teachers can be fired for any reason.

Additionally, many of these schools are controlled by private, unelected boards instead of democratically elected school boards. Some charter schools are even for-profit, actually making money from taxpayers. They seem to think creating schools that adhere to free market principles will improve education for all, although many of these schools kick out their most difficult students or don’t admit high-needs students in the first place. The free market fails for schools just as it has failed many of our other institutions. Charter schools have not been found perform any better than their public school counterparts, even though they claim that innovation and competition has led them to greater success.

The good news is that communities are fighting back. Teachers, students, and parents have had enough. Teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington boycotted their state tests. The book, More Than a Score, edited by Jesse Hagopian details this struggle amongst others against corporate education reform. Students are also resisting. They deliberately stay home on testing days or fill out an ‘opt-out’ form. Some have even organized walk-outs. In Florida, parents are pushing back on state mandated tests. Even some school boards have started denying charters as they realize that their models do not serve kids.

As long as kids are forced to go to school, it is our collective responsibility to make sure that these schools meet their needs. Public education is not a business. It should not be run like one. Equity and opportunity should be at the forefront of our public education system, not profit incentive and competition. We need to support our schools and our kids by fighting back against standardized testing, opting out when possible, and putting pressure on schools to treat our children as whole beings that will excel when given the opportunity. --Matt Meyer


I am an activist, a punk, and an aspiring teacher. I am constantly searching for ideas/inspiration on how to radicalize and subvert teaching pedagogy (the science, art, and philosophy of education) to better understand and elevate my students. As mentioned earlier, this column is designed to provide a platform for radical, subversive teachers/educators to share their ideas and draw attention to important issues around education; particularly compulsory- and community-based education. If you are a teacher for students of primary or secondary school ages (K-12), Community Colleges, or alternative learning arrangements such as collectivist free schools, and you want to submit an idea for a column, please write an email to teachingresistance [at] gmail.com --John No, Teaching Resistance editor

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