Why High Stakes Testing Was Cancelled This Year (and Probably Will Be Next Year, Too)

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There are at least two silver linings to the current Coronavirus catastrophe for education.

 

One – with nearly all public schools closed, March was the first month since 2002 without a school shooting.

 

Two – districts nationwide cancelled high stakes standardized tests in April and May.

 

Taken together, these are two victories that no one could have predicted before November.

 

Gun safety restrictions remain laughably lax in the US compared to the rest of the world. And our system’s reliance on high stakes testing to hold schools and teachers accountable for economic inequalities and racially biased standards has been thoroughly criticized for nearly a century.

 

In short, the virus succeeded where policy did not.

 
The pandemic’s other effects have been more damaging as students, parents and teachers have struggled to move education online at home.

 

Teachers are seeing high absences especially among poor, underprivileged and special needs children. Not to mention worries about the quality and depth of education provided virtually and the stress it places on families.

 

To make matters worse, the situation seems likely to continue in some form when next school year begins in the fall.

 

With the COVID-19 virus likely to endure spreading unchecked due to a lack of adequate health screenings, the time it takes to make a vaccine, and an unwillingness by the government to save everyday people from the economic consequences of a nearly stopped economy, not to mention an increasing unwillingness among people to continue thorough social distancing procedures, schools may be left to solve the crisis themselves.

 

There’s been talk that when schools start up in August and September they may simply continue with cyber curriculum. Or they may open the physical buildings with safety protocols including half day classes of smaller size to keep students a safe distance apart.

 

In any case, the question of standardized testing arises again with a vengeance.

 

While there is some wiggle room, federal law (The Every Student Succeeds Act) requires all public school students be given standardized tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

The U.S. Department of Education waived that mandate this year because of the virus.

 

That was great news – a sound decision from a government agency known more for market solutions than rationality.

 

The question remains: why did the department do it?

 

Whether staffed by Democrats or Republicans, this doesn’t sound like them.

 

Why was this exception made and will it be extended again given that the circumstances may be little different in 2020-21 than they were in 2019-20?

 

The answer seems to be rooted in the tests, themselves, and the economic circumstances which create and sustains them.

 

WHY TESTS WERE CANCELLED

 
In late March, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that her department would streamline the paperwork for states to request a waiver allowing them not to give high stakes testing this year and that the government wouldn’t use this year’s testing data in future school accountability ratings.

 

DeVos said in a statement:

 

“Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn. Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations. Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time.”

 

How did we get here?

 

Well, imagine a world where this didn’t happen.

 

Before DeVos made her statement, some states like Colorado and Texas had already eliminated testing requirements without waiting for a response from DeVos.

 

If the federal government hadn’t answered these requests in the affirmative, it would have had to engage in an open power struggle with the states over control of public schooling.

 

This would be especially damaging for a Republican administration because of the party’s stance on state’s rights.

 

However, even if we put aside this power dynamic, the decision was inevitable.

 

CORPORATIONS FIRST

 

 

All of these assessments are the property of private corporations. These include Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson.

 

States purchase the right to use these tests but assessment material is the ideological property of the parent corporation. And so they want it guarded from theft.

 

That’s why nearly all high stakes testing requires proctors – people whose job it is to set up, monitor and secure the testing environment. They make sure test takers don’t cheat, but they also are responsible for ensuring no information about specific test questions leaves the assessment environment.

 

This is true for standardized assessments at the K-12 level as well as college and certification tests.

 

I know because I’ve spent every year of my teaching career employed as a proctor throughout most of April as my students take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) tests. But also when I got my degree I had to go to a designated testing center where I could be monitored as I took a series of assessments necessary to get my certification.

 

I had to sign in, empty my pockets including giving over my cell phone, and submit to being observed by the proctors and video surveillance. I even had to sign out and back in when I needed to use the restroom.

 

With physical classrooms closed, there was simply no way effectively to do this.

 

The College Board tried anyway with an abbreviated Advanced Placement test taken online from home this month to disastrous results – glitches, server issues and a failure by the organization to take responsibility.

 

However, the problem isn’t essentially technological. These assessments could be given online. Many districts do exactly that, but with teachers in the room acting as proctors.

 

The technological infrastructure may not yet be in place for widespread virtual testing, but that’s not an insurmountable hurdle.

 

Test security is a much stickier issue – without real, live people policing the environment, testing information would be at risk.

 

Rival companies could get access to trade secrets. The value of scores could come under scrutiny due to concerns of student cheating. And the tests, themselves, would for the first time be visible to parents and the general public.

 

TESTING SECRECY

 

 

As a classroom teacher, I get to see these infernal tests. I get to see the questions.

 

They are not good. They are not well-written, well considered, developmentally appropriate or even good at evaluating student understanding of the knowledge they claim to be assessing.

 

But up to this point, anyone who gets to see the tests is sworn to secrecy including the students.

 

The kids taking these exams – regardless of age – are no longer treated as children. They are clients entering into a contract.

 

At the start of these tests, they are warned of the legal consequences of violating the terms of this agreement.

 

THE PSSAS

 
In particular,the PSSAs require students to read the following warning on the first day of the assessment:

 

DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH, COPY OR REPRODUCE MATERIALS FROM THIS ASSESSMENT IN ANY MANNER. All material contained in this assessment is secure and copyrighted material owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Copying of material in any manner, including the taking of a photograph, is a violation of the federal Copyright Act. Penalties for violations of the Copyright Act may include the cost of replacing the compromised test item(s) or a fine of no less than $750 up to $30,000 for a single violation. 17 U.S.C. $ 101 et seq

 

So the first act of testing is a threat of legal consequences and possible fines.

 

In the commonwealth, we also force kids to abide by a specific code of conduct for test takers. They must enter a quasi-legal relationship before they are even permitted to begin.

 

Much of this code is common sense. Get a good night’s sleep. Fill in bubbles completely using a number two pencil.

 

But some of it is deeply disturbing.

 

For example, students are told to “report any suspected cheating to your teacher or principal.”

 

They have to agree to be an informer or snitch to a government agency. My students aren’t old enough to vote or even drive a car, but they are directed to collaborate with the government against their classmates.

 

In addition, they are told NOT to:

 

-talk with others about questions on the test during or after the test.

 

-take notes about the test to share with others.

 

Students are compelled into a legalistic vow that they won’t break this code. On the test, itself, we make them fill in a bubble next to the following statement:

 

By marking this bubble I verify that I understand the “Code of Conduct for Test Takers” that my Test Administrator went over with me.

 

As a test administrator, I am not allowed to move on until all students have filled in that bubble.

 

Technically, we are not making them promise TO ABIDE by the code of test takers. Perhaps we lack that legal authority. We are, however, making them swear they understand it. Thus we remove ignorance as an excuse for noncompliance.

 

As a proctor, I have to sign a similar statement that I understand the “Ethical Standards of Test Administration.” Again, much of this is common sense, but it includes such statements as:

 

DO NOT:

 
-Discuss, disseminate or otherwise reveal contents of the test to anyone.

 

-Assist in, direct, aid, counsel, encourage, or fail to report any of the actions prohibited in this section.

 

So even teachers technically are not allowed to discuss the test and should report students or colleagues seen doing so.

 

And according to the “Pennsylvania System of School Assessment Directions for Administration Manuel”:

 

Those individuals who divulge test questions, falsify student scores, or compromise the integrity of the state assessment system in any manner will be subject to professional disciplinary action under the Professional Educator Discipline Act, 24 P.S. $ 2070. 1a et seq, including a private reprimand, a public reprimand, a suspension of their teaching certificate(s), a revocation of their teaching certificate(s), and/or a suspension or prohibition from being employed by a charter school. [emphasis added]

 

CORPORATE VULNERABILITY

 

 

If students were allowed to take these tests unsupervised at home, all of this legal protection would disappear.

 

The corporations would be much more exposed and defenseless.

 

THAT’S why the tests were cancelled this year.

 

It wasn’t because anyone rethought the value of high stakes tests – though they should have. It wasn’t because anyone had considered standardized testing’s history in the eugenics movement – which they should have. It wasn’t because anyone was worried that giving these tests would take away precious academic time – though they should have.

 

It was to protect the business interests that would be at risk otherwise.

 

THE DYSTOPIAN TESTING FUTURE

 

 

The need for proctors is a problem that the testing companies know about and are working to eliminate.

 

In fact, they’ve been trying to line things up in their favor for years.

 

Their answer is something called Competency Based Education (CBE) or Proficiency Based Education (PBE). But don’t let these names fool you. It has nothing to do with making children competent or proficient in anything except taking computer-based tests.

 

Paradoxically, it’s sold as a reduction in testing, but really it’s about changing the paradigm.

 
It’s a scheme that ed tech corporations privately call stealth assessments. Students take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’re asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers make it look like a game.

 

This safeguards the tests because kids aren’t aware of being tested. Constant micro-assessments blend in with test prep curriculum until there is little to no difference between the two. Academics gets dumbed down to the level of multiple choice and critical thinking is redefined as asking “What does the questioner want me to think?”

 

Yet the results could still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.

 

But that’s just how it is used in schools today.

 

The potential is to make this a replacement for physical schools.

 

It’s a disaster capitalism reform tailor made for the Coronavirus age, but not yet ready for large scale implementation.

 

Imagine a world where there are no schools – just free range children plopped in front of a computer or an iPad and told to go learn something.

 

No schools, no teachers, just gangs of students walking the streets, stopping along the way to thumb messages to each other on social media, play a video game or take an on-line test.

 

That’s the world many ed tech entrepreneurs are trying to build.

 

One thing they need is a pet policy of DeVos and the Trump administration – Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

 

Normally, the federal, state and local government collect taxes to fund an individual child’s education, which is then spent at a public or charter school.

 

 

However, ESAs would allow that money to go elsewhere. It could go to funding the tuition at a private or parochial school like a traditional school voucher.

 

 

Or it could be used for discrete education services provided by the ed tech industry.

 

It’s almost like homeschooling – without a parent or guardian in charge.

 

The idea is often called a learning ecosystem.

 

 
But it’s just a single person cyber school with little to no guiding principles, management or oversight.

 

Education is reduced to a series of badges students can earn by completing certain tasks.

 
Reading a book or an article gives you a badge. Answering a series of multiple-choice questions on a reading earns you more badges. And if you’ve completed a certain task satisfactorily, you can even earn a badge by teaching that same material to others.

 

It’s the low wage gig economy applied to education. Children would bounce from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!

 

And as an added benefit, the badge structure creates a market where investors can bet and profit off of who gains badges and to what degree on the model of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin!

 

 

Make no mistake, it’s not about improving the quality of education. It’s about providing the cheapest possible alternative and selling it to the rubes as innovation.

 

 

It’s school without the school or teachers.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

 

This is where the testing industry is going.

 

This is where we would be today if the legal framework were in place and the technology were widespread, adequate and capable of safeguarding corporate intellectual property without the need for test proctors.

 

In the short term, this is good news.

 

As long as the pandemic keeps school buildings closed or keeps them running at less than capacity, the chances of mandating high stakes testing during the crisis goes down.

 

On the flip side that’s detrimental to student learning in the here and now, but it does offer hope for the future. It at least opens the door to cancelling high stakes testing in 2020-21 like we did this year. And the longer we keep those tests at bay, the greater likelihood they will go away for good.

 

However, the people at the testing corporations are far from stupid. They know that each year we forgo the tests proves how unnecessary they are.

 

A coalition of six neoliberal organizations warned against cancelling the tests nationwide in March.

 

“As the coronavirus pandemic evolves on a daily basis, it would be premature to issue blanket national waivers from core components of the law. Thus, case-by-case consideration of each state’s needs is, at this time, most appropriate,” said a letter signed by testing industry lobbyists including John King, the former secretary of education and head of the Education Trust.

 
They have the future mapped out – a future with immense earnings for their companies and shareholders.

 

We must be fully aware of what is happening and why if we are to have any chance of opposing the next disaster and coming out of the current crisis with better school policy than we went in.

 

If we are to safeguard an authentic education for our children, we must learn these lessons, ourselves, now.


 

 

 

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Who’s Afraid of Public Schools?

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Public schools are the bogeymen of American life.

 
We so often hear the bedtime story of “Failing Schools” that it’s no wonder some folks will do anything to ensure their kids get in elsewhere.

 
And let’s be honest. It’s the same impulse behind the latest college admissions cheating scandal.

 
A group of wealthy – though not too wealthy – parents thought their children should be able to enroll in the most prestigious schools.

 
So they bribed college admissions officers, cheated on standardized tests or paid coaches or other officials to accept their children as college athletes even if their kids had never played the sport.

 
We see the same kind of thing everyday in public schools – a confederacy of white parents terrified that their kids might have to go to class with black kids. So they dip into their stock portfolios to pay for enrollment at a private or parochial school.

 
Or they take advantage of a tax scholarship or school voucher to avoid an institution with low test scores by enrolling in one where students don’t have to take the tests at all.

 
Or they cross their fingers and enter their kid in a lottery to a charter school praying their precious progeny will escape the horrors of being treated just like everyone else’s kids.

 
And they call it a meritocracy!

 
What a joke!

 
They pretend that their children have earned special treatment.

 
WRONG.

 
No child deserves favoritism – paradoxically –  because all children do!

 
There are really two important but related points here:

 
1)  The children of the privileged don’t deserve a better education than anyone else’s.

 

2)  Children who come from wealthy families (and or from privileged social circumstances) don’t do anything to distinguish themselves from the underprivileged.

 
But these nouveau riche parents tried to bribe the way forward for their kids anyway even though to do so they had to launder the money through a fake “charity.” They didn’t care that doing so would earn them a tax deduction and thus result in even less money for the underprivileged. They didn’t care about the underlying inequalities in the system. No. They only wanted their children to remain in the class of America’s chosen few.

 
And the best way to do that is with cold, hard cash.

 
America doesn’t run on Dunkin. It runs on greenbacks. Dinero. Swag. Bling. The prosperity doctrine made physical, quantifiable and mean.

 
No one really denies that there are two Americas anymore. We just lie to ourselves about how you get placed in one or the other.

 
And that lie is called excellence, quality, worth – the ultimate in class war gaslighting.

 
It’s a deception that this scandal has shattered to pieces.

 
The privileged don’t earn their privilege. It’s not something they possess on the basis of intelligence or hard work shown through test scores. They don’t have it because of drive, determination or grit – once again shown through test scores. They have it based on wealth – the kind of wealth that buys time and resources to either pass the tests or bribe the gatekeepers to change the scores.

 
Think about it.

 
George W. Bush got into Yale and Harvard and graduated with a 2.35 GPA. Why? Not because he had the grades and demonstrated his worth. He was a legacy. Like at least one third of all admissions to Ivy League schools, he got in purely because he had family who graduated from there.

 
You think Donald Trump threatened the College Board not to release his grades because they were all A’s!?

 
According to one account, his scores were merely “respectable.” Yet he still dropped out of the prestigious Fordham University and transferred to the University of Pennsylvania after two years based on family connections and the reputation of his father, Fred Trump, one of the wealthiest businessmen in New York at the time.

 
Moreover, his kids, Don Jr. and Ivanka, were both enrolled at Penn around the same time as their father made hefty contributions. They began classes in 1996 and 2000, respectively, just as the university and its private Manhattan clubhouse received more than $1.4 million in pledged donations from Trump, the school newspaper reported.

 

This is not merit. This has nothing to do with what these people deserve. It is money – a pure transaction, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

 
The only thing that separates what the Trumps and the Bushes did with this latest scandal – the so-called Operation Varsity Blues – is the amount of wealth involved.
If you’re super rich, you can get away with it. If you’re just rich, you’d better not get caught.

 
And if you’re poor or middle class, you’d better stay in your lane.

 
But there shouldn’t be any lanes on this highway. Or at least they should only be in place to maximize fairness and student success.

 
We sneer at the idea of Affirmative Action but only because it’s directed at people of color. No one says anything about the real Affirmative Action that’s been in place since before our country even began – the system of reciprocity and privilege keeping wealthy white families in positions of power like Lords and Ladies while the rest of us serfs scramble for their leavings.

 
All children deserve the same opportunities to succeed. All children deserve the chance to get an excellent education. All children should attend a first class school filled with highly educated and experienced teachers who can draw on plenty of resources, wide curriculum, tutoring, counseling and support.

 
And the only way we’ll ever achieve that is through a robust system of public schools.

 
I’m not saying they’re perfect. In many neighborhoods, they’ve been sabotaged and surgically dismantled, but that’s a problem with an easy solution. Invest in public schools!

 
Because the stated purpose of public education, the reason it exists at all, is equity.
The alternatives – private and charter schools – are essentially unequal.  That’s their raison d’êtreto create a market that justifies their existence.

 
In order for charter and private schools to be a thing, there must be schools that don’t otherwise meet students’ needs. There must be an unreasonable demand that schools indoctrinate students into parents’ religious beliefs. There must be schools that aren’t as well funded or that have to meet ridiculous federal and state mandates.

 
The result is a two-tiered system. Schools for the haves and for the have-nots.
It’s an apparatus that perverts the public to make room for the private.

 
In the public system, students are segregated into communities based on race and class and then their community schools are funded based on what their parents can afford. The rich shower their children with the best of everything. The poor do what they can.

 
Then the federal government pretends to hold everyone “accountable” by forcing students to take standardized tests that merely recreate the economic and racial disparities already present in their districts and neighborhoods. In turn, this provides the justification for charter and voucher schools that further erode public school budgets and increases the downward spiral of disinvestment.

 

 

Meanwhile, few notice how the equity built into authentic public schools gets left behind by those enrolling in privatized alternatives. No more open meetings. No more elected school boards. No more public comment or even a voice in how the money is spent.
 

So long as there are two Americas, the fear of being in the wrong one will motivate the privileged to cheat and steal their way to the top. They will horde resources and wealth for themselves and their children while denying it to others.

 
It is a self-perpetuating system – a loop that we’re all caught in.
We must break the chain. We must recognize our common humanity and stop the zero sum game.

 
And perhaps the best way to begin is by supporting authentic public schools and not privatization.

 
We have been taught to fear public education, because it is really our only hope.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Yellow Vest Protests Include Resistance to School Corporatization

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If you want to know what the French Yellow Vest Protests are all about, just refer to the arrest of 153 teenage students this month near Paris.

 

 

The kids at a high school in Mantes-La-Jolie were forced to kneel down, hands on their heads or secured behind their backs with zip ties as riot police circled them with assault weapons.

 

 

Why did law enforcement take such extreme measures? The students had been protesting their government’s education policies.

 

 

“What a well-behaved class!” French police commented ironically on a video documenting the arrest on social media by Violences Policières, a watchdog group.

 

Yes, how well behaved!

 

 

Of course! Children should be seen and not heard. Speaking out for yourself is a definite faux pas.

 

 

So is detaining minors without a lawyer, which the officers did and which is illegal in France.

 

But C’est la vie!

 

 

 

Unfortunately such scenes have been repeated throughout the country since November. Despite police opposition, high school students from a number of French schools have joined the Yellow Vests to protest French President Emmanuel Macron’s education policies – inaccurately dubbed “reforms” – among other austerity measures resulting in stagnant wages and a high cost of living.

 

 

Macron was elected in 2017 on a neoliberal platform much like that of Barack Obama. And though he was praised for his demeanor, especially in comparison to the boorish Donald Trump, his policies at first met with criticism and then outright protests in the streets.

 

 

Citizens took issue with new labor laws, the rail system and taxes. You can’t save the environment by cutting taxes for the wealthy and raising them for the poor to discourage them from driving. You can’t stomp on workers rights in order to create more low-paying jobs.

 

 

Protestors repurposed the yellow vests they are required to keep in their cars in case of an emergency into an iconic image of resistance to the gas tax. Hundreds of thousands demanded not just a repeal of Macron’s policies but a new platform to bolster social services and the economy.

 

 

The Macron administration has met these demands by at first violently stifling them and then agreeing to individual points before returning to suppression.

 

 

Perhaps it is the administration’s insistence that it is beset by violent “hooligans” while most protestors do no more than block traffic that has resulted in a continued rejection of Macron. Protestors even spray-painted a demand that Macron resign on the Arc de Triomphe, the arch on the Champs-Elysées.

 

 

Though the American media has mostly ignored the situation, critics blame widespread police brutality including the use of tear gas and clubs for at least four deaths and 700 people wounded in weeks of political challenges that some have compared to the French Revolution.

 

 

In particular, students take issue with at least three components of Macron’s plan: (1) changes to the high school graduation exam, (2) changes to college admissions and (3) a new requirement that all students participate in a lengthy volunteer national service project.

 

 

First, protestors oppose changes to the end-of-school exams known as baccalaureate or ‘bac.’ Though the proposal includes positive reforms such as reducing the number of exams and providing a longer time frame to take them, it also changes focus from academics to careers.

 

 

Much like Common Core did in the United States, the exams would be revised and rewritten. Instead of being tested on broad subjects such as science, literature or social sciences, students would be assessed on much narrower content.

 

 

Macron seems to be taking his queue from US philanthrocapitalists like Bill Gates in order to make French students more “college and career ready.”

 

 

The new assessments would push students toward specific degrees sooner. Before their final undergraduate year, high school students would have to choose two specific majors and two specific minors alongside the standard curriculum – similar to American colleges.

 

 

Students are against this because of what they call “hyper-specialization.” They say these changes would deprive them of exposure to a wide range of disciplines and force them to make life-long choices too early. This would be especially harmful for poor students because, as Liberation editorialist Laurent Joffrin put it, “Those who have more, know more.” In other words, wealthier students would probably be better prepared to navigate the choices open to them than those in poorer areas.

 

 

Next, students also want the repeal of stricter selection criteria to universities – a law passed just last year – which they say increases economic inequality between rich and poor schools.

 

 

The government provides free college to any student who passes the high school exit exams. However, just like in the US, corporate interests complain that college students struggle with the increased workload and pressures at universities. The new measure solves this by ensuring that fewer students are admitted.

 

 

Students say Macron has it backwards. The government shouldn’t be undermining free access to higher education. It should be investing more in the country’s universities and helping students succeed.

 

 

Finally, students want to get rid of a mandate that all 16-year-olds will have to participate in a national civic service program scheduled to begin in 2026.

 

 

French youths would have to volunteer in fields like defense, environment, tutoring or culture. During the long school breaks, they would have to undergo a one-month placement, consisting of two weeks in collective housing to promote a “social mix,” and then another two weeks in smaller, more “personalized” groups.

 

 

The measure doesn’t go as far as Macron wanted. He originally proposed mandatory military service.

 

 

Students object to the plan because they say it’s unnecessary and extremely expensive. The program is estimated to cost $1.8 billion ($1.6 billion Euros) with a $1.98 billion ($1.75 Euro) investment up front.

 

In addition to these demands, some have included limits on class size. Protestors have demanded no more than 25 students per class from nursery school through high school. Low class size ensures each student gets more personal attention from the teacher and a better chance to ask questions and learn.

 

 

 

What we’re seeing in France is extremely important for those living in the US.

 

 

It shows that as terrible as the Trump administration is, there are many flavors of bad government. When your representatives are more interested in seeing to corporate whims than the will of the people, chaos can ensue.

 

 

Perhaps the US media has been so adverse to reporting on the Yellow Vests because of corporate fear that protests will jump the pond and land on our shores, as well. We have many similar neoliberal and neofascist policies in the US of A, some passed by Republicans and others passed by Democrats.

 

 

Here’s hoping that we all can establish legitimate governments that seek to further the ends of liberty, equality and fraternity.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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College Remediation is Less About Bad Students Than Academic Elitism

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Ah, college.

 

The school on a hill.

 

The marble columns, wood paneled studies and ivy encrusted gardens.

 

It’s never really been a place for everybody. But in rhapsodizing the college experience, our lawmakers have pushed for universities to enroll an increasing number of students. The demand for free or reduced tuition – especially for low-income students – has meant more kids putting on a letterman jersey and giving it the ol’ college try.

 

Teenagers who wouldn’t dream of higher education in previous decades are going for it today.

 

And the result has been a greater proportion of incoming college freshman taking remedial courses before they can even begin the normal post-secondary track.

 

According to a 2017 report by the Hechinger Report, more than half a million students at two- and four-year colleges in 44 states had to take such courses.

 

This costs up to an estimated $7 billion a year.

 

So, as usual in our country, we’re looking for someone to blame. And look! Here’s our favorite scapegoat – the public school system!

 

The gripe goes like this: Incoming college freshman wouldn’t need remediation if the public schools had bothered to teach them correctly!

 

However, the argument ignores several important factors and jumps to a completely unearned conclusion.

 

 

1) Public schools don’t decide who is accepted at colleges. College admissions departments do.

 

 

If people in higher learning think all these teenagers don’t belong in college, don’t accept them. Period.

 

But that would mean fewer students, less tuition and forgoing the lucrative revenue stream provided by – surprise! – these same remediation courses!

 

We pretend that colleges are special places where honor and scholarship rule the day. It isn’t necessarily so.

 

They are run by people, and like anywhere else, those people can be ethical and egalitarian or petty and materialistic.

 

Colleges aren’t immune to small mindedness or the economic realities facing institutions of learning everywhere.

 

Like most schools, they’re starved for funding.

 

The state and federal government have slashed subsidies to colleges and universities just as they have to public schools. Colleges have to make up the shortfall somewhere.

 

So they enroll students who don’t meet their own academic standards and then charge them for the privilege of attempting to get up to snuff.

 

It’s a good deal. You get to blame kids coming in AND reap the rewards.

 

 

2) How exactly do we determine that these kids need remediation?

 

 

 

In many schools, they use standardized tests like the SAT or ACT to make this determination. Others give their own pretest to all incoming freshman and assign remediation based on the results.

 

You’d expect more from institutions of higher learning.

 

You’d expect them to know how inadequate standardized tests are at assessing student knowledge. After all, most of the mountain of studies that conclude these tests are worthless are conducted at the college level. However, it seems people in admissions don’t always read the scholarly work of their colleagues in the departments of education and psychology.

 

I remember when I was in college, several classmates were being pressured to take remedial courses but refused. It didn’t stop them from graduating with honors.

 

 

3) Let’s say some of this remediation actually is necessary. Why would that be so?

 

 

These are high school graduates. What has changed in public schools over the past few decades to increase the need for these additional services at colleges?

 

It seems to me the answer is three-fold:

 

1) School budgets have been cut to the bare bone

2) Schools have to fight for limited funding with charter and voucher institutions

3) Standardized testing and Common Core have been dominating the curriculum.

 

If you cut funding to schools, they won’t be able to prepare students as well.

 

That’s a pretty simple axiom. I know business-minded number crunchers will extol the virtue of “doing more with less” and other such self-help platitudes, but much of it is nonsense.

 

You never hear them explain how cutting CEO salaries will mean corporations will run more effectively. It’s only workers and schools that they think deserve tough love and penury.

 

Look, schools with less funding mean fewer teachers. That means larger class sizes. That means it’s more difficult to learn – especially for students who don’t already come from privileged backgrounds.

 

None of this is bettered by the addition of charter and voucher schools sucking up the limited money available. We don’t have enough for one school system – yet we’re asking two or more parallel systems to exist on that same amount. And we’re stacking the deck in favor of privatized systems by prioritizing their funding and not holding them to the same accountability and transparency standards as traditional public schools.

 

It’s like deliberately placing leeches on a runners back and wondering why she’s started going so slowly.

 

Moreover, it’s ironic that the Common Core revolution was conducted to make students “college and career ready.” It has done just the opposite.

 

Narrowing the curriculum to weeks and months of test prep has consequences. You can increase students ability to jump through the hoops of your one federally mandated state test. But that doesn’t translate to other assessments. It doesn’t mean they’ll do better on the SAT or other college entrance exams. Nor does it mean they’ll possess the authentic learning we pretend we’re after in the first place.

 

The bottom line: if we really want to improve student academic outcomes in public schools, we need to fully and equitably fund them. We need to abandon school privatization schemes and fully support public schools. And we need to stop the obsession with standardized assessments, curriculum and – yes – even canned standards, themselves.

 

That might actually reduce the numbers of students who allegedly need remediation at the college level.

 

However, there is another aspect that we need to consider that is harder to remedy…

 

4) Developmental psychology.

 

 

Schools – whether they be post-secondary, secondary or primary – are built to meet the needs of human beings. And human beings don’t grow according to a preconceived schedule.

 

Just because you think someone should be able to do X at a certain age, doesn’t mean they’re developmentally ready to do so.

 

Speaking from experience, I was a C student in math through high school. It wasn’t until I got to college that I started to excel in that subject and earned top marks.

 

I didn’t have to take any remedial courses, but I was forced to take a quantitative reasoning course as part of my liberal arts majors.

 

I’m not alone in this. Many people aren’t cognitively ready for certain concepts and skills until later. That doesn’t make them deficient in any way nor does it betray any problems in their schooling.

 

That’s just how their brains work. We can whine about it or we can accept human nature and do what we can to help students cope.

 

 

And this brings me to my final reason behind the college remediation trend – a problem that is more insidious than all the others combined.

 

 

5) The elitism behind the whole post-secondary system.

 

 

For centuries, higher learning has been seen as a privilege of the wealthy and the upper class. Sure a few exceptional plebians were let into our hallowed halls just to “prove” how egalitarian we were.

 

But college was never seen as something fit for everyone.

 

As such, the attitude has always been that students are on their own. Many who enroll will not end up graduating. And that’s seen as perfectly acceptable. It’s part of the design.

 

It’s the baby sea turtle school of education – thousands of hatchlings but few survive to adulthood.

 

However, if you really want to make college the right fit for an increasing number of students, you have to get rid of the elitist attitude.

 

If students come to college and need remediation, stop whining and provide it.

 

And it shouldn’t incur an extra cost from students, either. This should just be a normal part of the process.

 

If a patient comes to the emergency room with heart disease, you don’t penalize him because he didn’t eat heart healthy. You do what you can to help him heal. Period.

 

That’s how colleges and universities need to approach their students.

 

You know – the way public schools already do.

 

 

SOLUTIONS

 

 

In summary, it’s not a case of colleges vs. public schools. And anyone who tells you differently probably has a hidden agenda – the standardization and privatization industry, for instance.

 

We need to support colleges and universities. We need to support public schools. Both need additional funding and political will.

 

However, colleges need to become more accepting and supportive of the students enrolled there. They need to meet them where they are and provide whatever they need to succeed.

 

Moreover, public schools need the autonomy and respect routinely given to college professors.

 

The answer is a transformation of BOTH institutions.

 

That’s how you make a better school system for everyone.

 

That or we could just keep grumbling at each other, forever pointing fingers instead of working together to find solutions.


 

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