Imagine you’re settling in to enjoy an article on-line or in your favorite print newspaper and you come across this headline:
U.S. Schools Ranked Low Internationally!
Out of X Countries, U.S. Places Far From the Top in Math!
You feel embarrassed.
Soon that embarrassment turns to anger.
Sweat starts to break out on your brow.
And then you start to grasp for a solution to the problem – something major, something to disrupt the current system and bring us back to our proper place in the lead.
That was me blowing a gym teacher’s whistle. I’ll do it again:
Hold it right there, consumer of corporate media. You’ve just been had by one of the oldest tricks in the book.
It’s the old manipulate-the-data-to-make-it-look-like-there’s-a-crisis-that-can-only-be-solved-by-drastic-measures-that-you-would-never-approve-of-normally.
It’s been used to get people to agree to terrible solutions like preemptive wars of choice, warrantless wiretapping of civilians, torturing prisoners, defunding public health programs and scientific research – just about everything the Koch Brothers, the Waltons, the Broads, Gateses and other billionaire hegemonists have on their fire sale wish list.
In the case of the American educational system, it’s the impetus behind high stakes standardized testing, Common Core, Teach for America, and charter and voucher schools.
And they’re all justified by misinformation about student test scores.
The argument goes like this: Our Kids Are Failing!? Quick! Standardize and Privatize Their Schools!
First, education isn’t a race.
There is no best education system followed by a second best, etc. There are only countries that meet their students needs better than others.
And if you really wanted to determine if our country was meeting student needs, you wouldn’t appeal to test scores. You’d look at specific needs and assess them individually.
But you rarely see that. You rarely see an article with the headline:
U.S. Schools More Segregated Than Any In The Industrialized World!
Out of X Countries, U.S. Spends Most on Rich Students and Least on Poor Ones!
Second, we need to ask ourselves if standardized test scores are really the best way to assess (1) student learning and (2) the education system as a whole.
Multiple choice tests are written by large corporations that profit more off of student failure than success. That’s not exactly an objective measure.
Students are considered passing or failing based on an arbitrary cut score that changes every year. That’s not exactly unbiased.
Moreover, standardized tests are always graded on a curve. That means no matter how well students do, some will always be considered failing. We cannot have No Child Left Behind when our assessments are designed to do just the opposite – it’s logically impossible.
But whenever the media turns to these international rankings, they ignore these facts.
They pretend it’s a horse race and we’re losing.
I kind of expect this from the corporate media. But when so-called progressive writers fall into this trap, I have to wonder if they’re just lazy or ignorant.
At best, these test scores are a second hand indication of structural inequalities in our public education system. It’s no accident that student from wealthy families generally score higher than those from poor ones. Nor is it pure misadventure that minority children also tend to score lower than their white counterparts.
These tests are economically, racially and culturally biased. They are completely unhelpful in determining root causes.
Thankfully, they’re unnecessary. It doesn’t take a standardized test to determine which students are receiving the least funding. Nor does it take a corporate intermediary to show us which schools have the largest class sizes and lowest resources.
The sad fact is that there are an awful lot of poor children attending public school. The U.S. has one of the highest child poverty rates in the industrialized world. And despite spending a lot on our middle class and wealthy students, we’re doing next to nothing to actually help our neediest children.
A large portion of U.S. public schools have been left to their own devices for decades. What’s worse, when they struggle to meet students’ needs, we don’t swoop in with help. We level blame. We fire teachers, close buildings and privatize.
There’s absolutely zero proof that changing a public school to a charter school will help, but we do it anyway. There’s not a scrap of evidence that sending poor kids to a low end private school with a tax-funded voucher will help, but we do it anyway.
Think about it: why would getting rid of duly-elected school boards help kids learn? Why would allowing schools to spend money behind close doors with zero public accountability boost children’s ability to learn?
Yet our policymakers continue to push for these measures because they have no intention of helping poor and minority public school students. They just want to enrich their friends in the school privatization industry. They just want to divert public money to testing corporations and book publishers.
THAT is the problem with America’s education system.
Not test scores.
We must be honest about why our public schools struggle. That’s the only way to find real solutions.
We must acknowledge the increasing segregation – both racially and economically. We must acknowledge the blatant funding disparities. And we must acknowledge how the majority of education policy at the federal, state and local level has done little to help alleviate these problems – in fact it has exacerbated them.
We need to stop testing and start investing in our schools. We need to stop privatizing and start participating in our neighborhood schools.
And most of all, we need to stop the lies and disinformation.