The Multiple Choice Mind



What’s wrong with standardized tests?

Federal and state governments have been pushing for more multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests in our public schools for decades. Districts, teachers and administrators are labeled as effective or ineffective based on how well their students score on these tests. The whole media blitz of stories about failing schools comes down to this one thing: too many kids aren’t scoring well on their many, many standardized tests.

In an effort to increase test scores, public schools that miss the mark are being stripped of their school boards and given to for-profit companies who promise to bring up those scores but never actually do.

Meanwhile test-making companies like Pearson are raking in the cash BOTH producing the tests and the remedial material schools are told they need because their students aren’t scoring well enough.

And the reason for all these failing grades is obvious to anyone who actually looks at student demographics: the rich kids score high and the poor kids score low. So poor test scores are really an indicator of the almost 1/4 of American children living in poverty. But instead of attacking the root of the problem, politicians and policymakers scream for more standardized tests.

It’s a political scam that’s easy to see. One could oppose standardized testing without even looking at a single bubble sheet. But that would be to miss a perhaps even more pernicious aspect of this whole educational fiasco. There’s something wrong with the tests, themselves, with the whole idea that standardized testing taken to this extreme is (1) a good indicator of student learning and (2) produces sound educational outcomes.

To see how this is true, please answer the following multiple choice question.

Fill in the correct answer using a number two pencil. Please fill in the bubble directly before the letter of the answer choice that best completes the following sentence:

1) A strong emphasis on standardized testing in public education systems is                          to student learning.

( ) (A) essential
( ) (B) modeled
( ) (C) the expression of a standard in relation
( ) (D) peculiar

If you picked A-D, congratulations! You’ve written on your computer screen and may need to buy a new monitor, ipad or cellphone screen, in which case Bill Gates thanks you for playing!

If you chose a different answer in your own head such as “harmful,” “destructive” or “stunting,” then you’ve just shown the biggest problem with standardized tests: you have to pick between pre-approved alternatives. In the real world, we want people to be able to make their own decisions, not just chose from the available options. If someone asks, “Coke or Pepsi?” you should be free to answer “Water.” If someone asks, “Football or Basketball?” you should be free to say “Art.” If someone asks “Democrat or Republican?” you should be free to say “Independent.” But this is not how we are preparing our public school kids for the world. Standardized testing is an effective way to create good consumers, not good thinkers.

From a business point of view, one can see the value of narrowing people’s options. After all, the world is not multiple choice, but advertising is. We are constantly bombarded by false choices and expected to accept them at face value. Turn on the TV and you’ll be deluged by commercials for various energy drinks: Red Bull, Five-Hour Energy, Monster, etc. Nowhere will you find an advertisement for getting a good nights sleep or exercising regularly – things that might actually give you real energy and not just a caffeine boost. One could put it as a multiple choice test:

2) Which is the best way to get energy?
( ) (A) Drink Red Bull
( ) (B) Drink Five-Hour Energy
( ) (C) Drink Monster
( ) (D) Drink Rockstar

The correct answer isn’t even one of the choices. If you can get the consumer to let you frame the question, you can increase your market share and boost profits. Training people to accept limited choices, to accept someone else framing the alternatives is a good business model. Big business doesn’t care how well you can think, only how much you spend and continue to spend every week.

Compare this to our mainstream media. Talking heads get to frame the narrative convincing us there are only a limited number of possible choices in any news story. (Given how much we’ve internalized these media narratives, it’s best to give my examples in the most generic ways possible to avoid political knee-jerk reactions to hot button issues.) Are you with us or against us? Do you believe in science or religion? Are you for country A or Country B? Do you think product X is harmful or do you believe in free choice? Should people be allowed to do Z or are you a bad person?

Life is more complicated than that, but everyday you hear people foaming at the mouth, screaming at each other from only two well-defined view points. Again we could see this as a multiple choice question:

3) Which country do you side with?
( ) (A) Country A
( ) (B) Country B

No middle ground allowed. Rarely do you hear someone say Country A is right about this and wrong about that, while Country B is wrong about this and right about that. And we don’t even question it. Whether intentional or not, this is the outcome of a strong emphasis on standardized testing.

Think about it. Public school students today don’t just take one or two multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests. Standardized testing easily can go into the double digits every year and gobble up months of class time. When kids aren’t testing, their teachers are being forced to steer the curriculum toward more test prep. We’re teaching generations of children that the most important choices – the ones that count – are multiple choice. If something requires you to think beyond the bubbles, it’s not as important.

The result of this decades-long effort to deify the standardized test as the only valid, objective measure of student learning is a dumbed down educational system. Sure, individual teachers and administrators fight against it, but legislators now insist the only measure of teacher efficacy is student achievement on these same tests. So any educator who goes above and beyond and teaches his students to think for themselves actually does himself a disservice professionally. How can students who expect to think outside of the box be accurately judged on their ability to pick between the same canned multiple choices? And if their test scores drop, this educator will be judged “ineffective” and – if he doesn’t straighten up and teach to the test – he’ll soon be out of a job.

The bottom line is simple: we need to reign way back on standardized testing. These test have value to evaluate the most basic levels of understanding, but abused they lead to the results explicated here.

We need to teach our young people to think outside of the box, not inside the bubble. But sadly even the school reform debate is usually framed in this reductionist pattern:

4) Which statement is true?
( ) (A) Corporate reform strategies like standardized tests are the best way to evaluate student learning.
( ) (B) Not all children can learn.

5) Student learning is best stimulated by which of the following?
( ) (A) Common Core and its associated testing
( ) (B) Traditional antiquated styles of learning.

6) Who has the best interests of students at heart?
( ) (A) corporate school reformers
( ) (B) people in the pocket of the teachers unions

The real answers go beyond the multiple choice mind. Our children are being trained not to be able to tell the difference. Can you?


Raiders of Your Lost Pension

Ever wonder why corporate education reformers praise Teach For America temps so much and want to find more ways to fire veteran teachers? Here’s one potential answer in their own words:


“…it is theoretically possible for rapid staff turnover or aggressive organizing efforts by a cohort of Teach For America entrants to give newer employees the upper hand…”


In other words, a newer (read: ignorant) employee is a malleable one. So say the authors of a conservative think-tank paper on how to better raid teachers pensions. New employees don’t know better than to let their pensions be raided.

The 2009 paper is called “But the Pension Fund Was Just Sitting There…”: The Politics of Teacher Retirement Plans by Frederick M. Hess and Juliet P. Squire. It was published by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and is freely available on the Internet. AEI is a private, conservative, not-for-profit think-tank dedicated to research and education on issues of government, politics, economics and social welfare. AEI scholars are considered to be some of the leading architects of the second Bush administration’s public policy and include Lynne Cheney, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz and Newt Gingrich.

The paper suggests we should reduce pension benefits for teachers and public employees so as to be “fiscally responsible.” I don’t mean to suggest that all corporate education reform efforts are motivated by an urge to reduce teachers pension benefits. I merely suggest that this paper shows how many of the disruptive attacks on our public schools of late follow the pattern outlined here. One could easily see an effort aimed at privatization, for instance, following a similar turn.

Take note of the best political environment from which to attempt such an approach and compare it to what we’re seeing today:


“…embrace a “starve-the-beast” strategy. Since there are temptations for legislators to spend and unions to demand any available dollars, there is a perverse discipline implicit in funding shortfalls that dampens the urge to ratchet up benefits. In other words, the fiscally responsible course of maintaining healthy reserves can be regarded as an invitation to political irresponsibility.”


In other words, if you provide less funding to public schools, legislators will be more prone to cut things like teacher pension benefits. Moreover:


“When those moments emerge, reform-minded legislators and advocates have the opportunity to harness public opinion and frame benefit increases as irresponsible, craven, and kowtowing to “special interests.” Of course, the effort to manufacture such a moment can fall flat... which is why reformers must use fiscal crises as opportunities for promoting measures to modernize benefits and deliver responsible fiscal stewardship…” (Emphasis Added)


Notice the fiscal crisis doesn’t even need to be real. The authors suggest manufacturing such a crisis is perfectly allowable. It’s only cautioned against because the public might not be fooled. But if you can divert funding away from schools say with big business tax breaks or make it look like schools really have less funds than they really have, that’s still okay. How many times at the state and federal level have we seen this happen!?

Another way to grease the theft from teachers pensions is to divide-and-conquer. Specifically, the authors call for bribing veteran teachers at the expensive of new hires:


“…there is a persistent need to buy off, or in more decorous language, to “grandfather,” current teachers and retirees when promoting change. This is due not only to legal limitations but because unions will fight bitterly to protect the benefits of current members while, whatever they say, less passionately protecting those of future members.”


The authors think new employees can be better convinced of the benefits of reduced pensions benefits because:


“…newer teachers are by and large younger and generationally much more familiar with a highly mobile job market than are teachers who entered the workforce two decades ago. Existing pension systems are a legacy of the industrial era, a time when employees routinely stayed with one employer for decades or their entire career—and where benefits premised on long service were the norm. Today, decades in the service of a single employer is no longer the expectation for talented college graduates.”


So new employees have lower expectations. When hired by a school district, they don’t expect to be in the classroom very long before transitioning to their next job somewhere else. This certainly sounds like Teach For America temps, but it doesn’t sound like any public school teachers I’ve ever known. Moreover, it’s hard to see why this would be desirable from an administrator’s point of view. Wouldn’t you want knowledgeable, dedicated staff who devote their careers to the students in their charge? I guess that just costs too much. It wouldn’t be “fiscally responsible.”

However, the most pernicious element of the divide-and-conquer strategy may be that it’s just subterfuge. The authors clearly admit that at the end of the day they don’t care about veteran employees, new hires, administrators or even the public. They only want to provide plausible deniability:


“Finally, modifying pension systems requires addressing concerns of veterans who will feel cheated out of what they’ve been promised, organizing and selling advantages to younger educators and to recruiters, and designing systems that are clearly more responsive to public concerns and to the challenges of staffing schools—so as to provide plausible cover to reform advocates.” (Emphasis added)


Notice that none of this has anything to do with making schools better, providing better outcomes for students, parents or the community. The only concern here is to push forward a corporate education reform agenda – in this case reducing teachers pension benefits. There is no discussion of how this might impact student learning, only in how it would affect the bottom line.

To summarize, this paper advocates the following corporate education reform strategies:


1) Firing veteran employees and/or replacing them with TFA recruits helps the corporate reform agenda because it replaces the staff with more ignorant, malleable employees that can be more easily persuaded to accept changes in the status quo.

2) School funding shortfalls are excellent opportunities to enact changes that would not be considered when things are going smoothly.

3) There’s nothing wrong with creating a funding crisis if you can get away with it.

4) New employees don’t expect to be treated as well as veteran employees and thus can be more easily manipulated.

5) At the end of the day, this is all cover for pushing through the corporate education reform agenda.


So there you have it in the words of the corporate education reformers. If you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall, this was your chance. You can read the whole paper here.

Sadly, there is plenty more available on-line. It just takes a strong stomach to get through all of it. But it only takes a moment with a newspaper to see it being conducted right under our noses.