Charter School’s Two Dads – How a Hatred for Public School Gave Us School Privatization

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If bad ideas can be said to have fathers, then charter schools have two.

 

And I’m not talking about greed and racism.

 

No, I mean two flesh and blood men who did more than any others to give this terrible idea life – Minnesota ideologues Ted Kolderie, 89, and Joe Nathan, 71.

 

In my article “Charter Schools Were Never a Good Idea. They Were a Corporate Plot All Along,” I wrote about Kolderie’s role but neglected to mention Nathan’s.

 

And of the two men, Nathan has actually commented on this blog.

 

He flamed on your humble narrator when I dared to say that charter schools and voucher schools are virtually identical.

 

I guess he didn’t like me connecting “liberal” charters with “conservative” vouchers. And in the years since, with Trump’s universally hated Billionaire Education Secretary Betsy Devos assuming the face of both regressive policies, he was right to fear the public relations nightmare for his brainchild, the charter school.

 

It’s kind of amazing that these two white men tried to convince scores of minorities that giving up self-governance of their children’s schools is in their own best interests, that children of color don’t need the same services white kids routinely get at their neighborhood public schools and that letting appointed bureaucrats decide whether your child actually gets to enroll in their school is somehow school choice!

 

 

But now that Nathan and Kolderie’s progeny policy initiative is waning in popularity, the NAACP and Black Lives Matter are calling for moratoriums on new charters and even progressive politicians are calling for legislative oversight, it’s important that people know exactly who is responsible for this monster.

 

And more than anyone else, that’s Kolderie and Nathan.

 

Over the last three decades, Nathan has made a career of sabotaging authentic public schools while pushing for school privatization.

 

He is director of the Center for School Change, a Minneapolis charter school cheerleading organization, that’s received at least $1,317,813 in grants to undermine neighborhood schools and replace them with fly-by-night privatized monstrosities.

 

He’s written extensively in newspapers around the country and nationwide magazines and Websites like the Huffington Post.

 

But it all started for Nathan back in 1987 when he happened to see an advertisement on TV, according to Ember Reichgott, the former Minnesota State Senator who originally proposed the first charter school bill.

 

The ad was called “Ah, Those Marvelous Minnesota Schools,” writes Reichgott.

 

 

It dared to dispute the Reagan administration’s propaganda hit piece “A Nation at Risk” which painted public schools as failures that needed to be disrupted and replaced.

 

 

Well Nathan wasn’t about to take it.

 

According to Reichgott’s book, “Zero Chance of Passage: The Pioneering Charter School Story”, Nathan:

 

“…talked with the Minneapolis Foundation, among others, about what they might do. ‘The Minneapolis Foundation decided it was time to introduce into Minnesota some pretty radical ideas,’ said Nathan. So plans got underway for the Itasca Seminar, with a focus on public education.”

 

This seminar was instrumental in turning the tide in Minnesota that ultimately birthed the most infectious school privatization virus on an unwitting nation.

 

Nathan had always been a fan of transferring public services to private control. In fact, he had just finished lobbying for privatization in the National Governors Association. Now back in Minnesota, he joined together with Kolderie, a former journalist and self professed “policy entrepreneur” who had been pushing for the same thing since at least the 1970s.

 

Their ideology – expounded by southern segregationists and people like the divisive economist Milton Friedman – was extremely unpopular, but they were about to get a break.

 

In 1988, Albert Shanker, the union hero President of the American Federation of Teachers, had just given an infamous speech to the National Press Club praising the idea of a new concept called “charter schools.”

 

However, he wasn’t talking about the modern idea of a charter school. Shanker was building off an idea originally proposed by Ray Budde, a little-known professor of education from upstate New York.

 

It was Budde who actually coined the term “charter school.” He thought school boards could offer “charters” directly to teachers allowing them to create new programs or departments.

 

Shanker liked this idea because of his own teaching experience in East Harlem where administrators constantly got in the way of educators. “One of the things that discourages people from bringing about change in schools is the experience of having that effort stopped for no good reason,” he said.

 

Nathan saw in this an opportunity and invited Shanker to speak at the Itasca Seminar. His goal was to hide his side’s privatization aims under the shadow of progressive unionism.

 

 

And it worked. In fact, if you look up the history of charter schools, you’ll STILL find people who insist they were invented by Shanker.

 

 

With this cover, the Citizen’s League, which was underwritten by the Minneapolis Foundation, was able to pass a bill requiring mandatory statewide standardized testing. The bill, authored by the Minnesota Business Partnership put forth the evaluation system necessary to demonize the public schools and prepare the way for the ultimate goal – privatization.

 

 

In 1991, the same forces passed the nation’s first charter school bill.

 

 

But let’s be clear on this – the charter schools created in this bill and the “charter schools” talked about by Shanker and Budde are very different concepts.

 

 

Nathan and Kolderie wrote the majority of the bill and they stripped out almost everything any educator had ever proposed.

 

 

According to Budde’s conception, charters would be authorized by school districts and run by teachers. Central office administrators would step out of the way, but charter schools would still operate within collective bargaining arrangements negotiated between districts and unions.

 

 

Instead, Nathan and Kolderie proposed that schools be authorized by statewide agencies that were separate from local districts. The state had the power, not communities or their elected representatives. That meant charters could be run not just by teachers but also by entrepreneurs. And that’s almost always who has been in charge of them ever since – corporations and business interests.

 

 

This was the goal Friedman and the deregulators had been fighting for since the 1950s finally realized – almost the same goal, it should be noted, as that behind school vouchers.

 

 

From the start, this was a business initiative. Competition between charters and authentic public schools was encouraged. And that included union busting. Thus charters were free of all the constraints of collective bargaining that districts had negotiated with their unions. The needs of workers and students were secondary to those of big business and the profit principle.

 

 

Shanker eventually realized this and repudiated what charter schools had become. But by then the damage was done.

 

 

Shanker hadn’t created charter schools. He had suggested something very different. And that suggestion was used to help usher in a concept that has haunted our public school system ever since.

 

 

Kolderie had been working on it for two decades, and with Nathan’s help it became a reality.

 

 

With the backing of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the two men went on to push a version of this same bill from legislature to legislature. Kolderie even boasts of helping 25 other states enact charter school legislation.

 

 

Today 43 states are afflicted with charter schools enrolling about 6% of the students in the country. An additional 4% go to private and parochial schools some of which are funded with school vouchers.

 

 

This distinction between charter and voucher schools is important to political pundits, but it’s really just hair splitting.  It’s like saying vanilla chocolate swirl ice cream is nothing like chocolate vanilla swirl.

 

 

Consider: charter schools are privatized schools paid for with taxes. Voucher schools are private schools paid for with money diverted from taxes.

 

 

False distinctions like these are another way of managing public perception just like the pettifogging contrast between for-profit and non-profit charter schools. Again they’re pretty much the same thing. They can each cut services to students and pocket the left overs – the only difference is which loopholes they have to jump through and how they designate their tax status.

 

 

They are both the flowering of the deregulationist dream of destroying public education and replacing it with business-operated schools. They are attempts to destabilize, defame and destroy public education.

 

 

And though the plan has worked for decades, here’s hoping that the current political pause represents the beginning of a change of course.

 

 

Kolderie and Nathan’s monster has devoured too many schools and with them too many children’s hopes of an excellent education.

 

 

It’s time to pin the monster down with facts and shove a stake through its heart.

 


 

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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Charter Schools Were Never a Good Idea. They Were a Corporate Plot All Along

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America has been fooled by the charter school industry for too long.

 

The popular myth that charter schools were invented by unions to empower teachers and communities so that students would have better options is as phony as a three dollar bill.

 

The concept always was about privatizing schools to make money.

 

It has always been about stealing control of public education, enacting corporate welfare, engaging in union busting, and an abiding belief that the free hand of the market can do no wrong.

 

Charter schools are, after all, institutions run privately but paid for with tax dollars. So operators can make all decisions behind closed doors without public input or accountability. They can cut student services and pocket the difference. And they can enroll whoever the heck they want without providing the same level of education or programs you routinely get at your neighborhood public school.

 

In essence, charter schools are a scheme to eliminate the public from public education paid for at public expense.

 

 

But whenever anyone brings up these facts, they are confronted by the bedtime story of Albert Shanker and his alleged advocacy of the industry.

 
So grab your teddy bear and put on your jammies, because here’s how it goes:

 
Once upon a time, hero president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Al Shanker had an idea. He wanted to make laboratory schools where educators would be freed of regulations so they could experiment and find new pedagogies that worked. Then these innovations could spread to the rest of the school system.

 

One day in 1988, he gave a speech at the National Press Club and subsequently published a column in the New York Times advancing this idea.

 

And he called it – Dum, Dum, DUM! – charter schools!
The second act of the story opens in the mid-1990s when Shanker had largely turned against the idea after it had been co-opted by business interests.

 

He dreamed of places where unionized teachers would work with union representatives on charter authorizing boards, and all charter proposals would include plans for “faculty decision-making.” But instead he got for-profit monstrosities that didn’t empower workers but busted their unions.

 

If only we’d stuck with Shanker’s bold dream!

 

Or at least, that’s how the story goes.

 

Unfortunately it’s just a story.

 

It’s not true. Hardly a word of it.

 

Shanker did not come up with the idea of charter schools. He wasn’t part of the plan to popularize them. He didn’t even come up with the term “charter school.”

 

If anything, he was a useful patsy in this stratagem who worked tirelessly to give teachers unions a seat at the table where he then discovered they were also on the menu.

 

The real origin of charter schools goes back decades to at least the 1950s and the far right push for deregulation.

 

When the afterglow of the atomic bomb and the allied victory in Europe had faded, there was political backlash at home to roll back the amazing economic successes of the New Deal. Social security, strong banking regulations, deposit insurance, a minimum wage, job programs that put millions of people to work – all of that had to go in favor of right wing ideology.

 

A cabal of mostly wealthy, privileged elites wanted to do away with these policies in the name of the prosperity it would bring to themselves and their kind. They claimed it would be for the good of everyone but it was really just about enriching the already rich who felt entitled to all economic goods and that everyone else should have to fight over the crumbs.

 

Never mind that it was just such thinking that burst economic bubbles causing calamities like the Great Depression in the first place and made the conditions ripe for two world wars.

 

Show me the money!

 

However, this really didn’t go anywhere until it was combined with that most American of institutions – racism.

 

Even before the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board decision struck down school segregation, many white people said they’d never allow their children to go to school with black children.

 

In the South, several districts tried “freedom of choice” plans to allow white kids to transfer out of desegregated schools.

 

In 1952 and ’57, governments in two states – Georgia and Virginia – tried out what became known as the “private school plan.” Georgia Gov. Herman Talmadge and community leaders in Prince Edward County, Virginia, tried to privatize public schools to avoid any federal desegregation requirements. Each student would be given a voucher to go to whatever school would enroll them – segregated by race.
The plan was never implemented in Georgia and struck down by the federal government in Virginia after only one year as a misuse of taxpayer funds.

 

But these failed plans got the attention of one of the leading deregulation champions, economist Milton Friedman.

 

He sided with the segregationists citing their prejudice and racism as merely “market forces.”

 

In his seminal 1955 tract, “The Role of Government in Education,” he wrote:

 

“So long as the schools are publicly operated, the only choice is between forced nonsegregation and forced segregation; and if I must choose between these evils, I would choose the former as the lesser. Privately conducted schools can resolve the dilemma … Under such a system, there can develop exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools.”

 

Throughout the 1970s, school voucher proposals were widely understood as a means to preserve school segregation, according to education historian Diane Ravitch. But they couldn’t gain any traction until privatizers came up with a new wrinkle in the formula – the charter school.

 

Charter schools are really just school vouchers with more money and regulations.

 

In the case of vouchers, we use tax dollars to pay for a portion of student enrollment at private and parochial schools. In the case of charters, we use tax dollars to pay for all of a student’s enrollment at a school that is privately managed. The only difference is how much taxpayer money we give to these privatized schools and how much leeway we give them in terms of pedagogy.

 

Charter schools can do almost whatever they want but they can’t blatantly teach religion. Voucher schools can.

 

Other than that, they’re almost the same thing.

 

In order to get the public to support school privatization, Friedman thought we’d need to convince them that they didn’t need the burden of self-government. This was especially true of minorities.

 

In his 1981 book Free to Choose, Friedman and his wife Rose suggested the necessity of convincing black voters that they didn’t need Democracy. School privatization could be pitched as a system that would “free the black man from dominion by his own political leaders.”

 

The opportune moment came in 1983 with the publication of the Reagan administration’s propaganda piece A Nation at Risk. Using bogus statistics and outright lies, the report painted our public school system as a failure and set up the false urgency that school deregulationists needed.

 

From this point forward, a series of supply side lawmakers, policy wonks, economists, billionaires and CEOs came out of the woodwork to push for school privatization which culminated in the first charter school law in 1991 in Minnesota.

 

In the middle of all this tumult came Shanker’s National Press Club speech in 1988.

 

Ronald Reagan was still in office and it’s hard to overstate the threat he posed to unions having infamously fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.

 

Shanker was trying to ride the tide of public opinion in favor of deregulation and privatization. He accepted the bogus criticisms of schools in A Nation At Risk and offered to restructure schools to fix the problem. Like so many union leaders after him, Shanker gave away much of the power of his people-driven movement so as not to come across as obstructionist. He didn’t think teachers unions could oppose the rising tide of privatization without offering innovations of their own.

 

It’s true that he called these reforms “charter schools” but he didn’t invent the term. He borrowed it from a little-known Massachusetts educator, Ray Budde, who meant by it something very different from what it has become. Budde thought school boards could offer “charters” directly to teachers allowing them to create new programs or departments.

 

Shanker’s proposal wasn’t nearly the first time a public figure had suggested restructuring public schools.

 

In the late 1960s after helping provide justification for school desegregation, sociologist Kenneth Clark advocated for alternative school systems that could be run by groups as diverse as universities to the Department of Defense.

 

Shanker’s contribution was not nearly as powerful as subsequent apologists have claimed. He was one voice among many. Though his comments were useful to the deregulators, they ignored everything of substance he had said beyond the myth that he supported their efforts at school privatization.

 

According to journalist Rachel Cohen, the true architect of the charter school concept as it appears today wasn’t Shanker, Budde or Clark. It was Minnesota “policy entrepreneur” Ted Kolderie.

 

He was at the heart of the issue pushing for school privatization from the 1970s through the 1990s.

 

Throughout the 1970s, Kolderie lobbied for a plethora of ways for private industry to provide government services – including education – through an initiative known as Public Service Options (PSO). By 1981, the focus narrowed almost exclusively to education.

 

In several reports, he blamed the bogus failure of public schools on the democracy of the school boards. Though he didn’t use the term “charter school,” his conception was essentially the same as the modern charter school: independent schools accountable only through market forces and a set of contractual obligations. He thought they could be run by almost anyone – universities, corporations, nonprofits— even public school districts – if state law could be amended to allow it.

 

That’s pretty much a charter school – a privately run learning institution that’s publicly financed.

 

Why doesn’t Kolderie get the credit? Why the emphasis on Shanker who had very little to do with what ultimately became law?

 

Because Kolderie and others wanted to hide behind the union. They wanted their policy to have a friendlier public image than that of a shadowy puppet master.

 

Shanker walked right into their trap.

 

He even agreed to give another speech in favor of charter schools in October 1988 at the Minneapolis Foundation’s annual Itasca Seminar for political and business leaders.

 

With continued lobbying from the corporate sector and right wing ideologues, three years later the state was the first to pass a charter school law.

 

And the die was cast.

 

Sure charter school cheerleaders like to give Shanker the credit today, but the legislation that was eventually passed and funneled to other states through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) had little resemblance to anything Shanker said.

 

It was the deregulation and privatization model first conceived in the 1950s, funneled through Friedman and now Kolderie.

 

And make no mistake – the overall plot wasn’t simply to enact charter schools. That was merely the foothold that enabled subsequent school voucher bills and tax scholarship plans (vouchers lite). The end game was made clear by Friedman time and again – the complete destruction of public schools.

 

While speaking to rightwing lawmakers at a 2006 ALEC meeting, Friedman explained that school privatization was always about “abolishing the public school system.”

 

Here is an excerpt from Friedman’s ALEC speech:

 

“How do we get from where we are to where we want to be—to a system in which parents control the education of their children? Of course, the ideal way would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it. Then parents would have enough money to pay for private schools, but you’re not gonna do that. So you have to ask, what are politically feasible ways of solving the problem. The answer, in my opinion, is choice…”

When Minnesota proposed the first charter school law, the state teachers union fought against it. But tellingly Shanker refused to speak out during legislative debates.

 

And this was due in part to the rise of the neoliberals.

 

School privatization was the brainchild of the far right. But as the ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s, so dawned a new type of political figure – the social progressive with distinctly right wing economic views.

 

In 1989 when the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) named Bill Clinton as chairman, it also founded its own think tank—the Progressive Policy Institute. Kolderie worked closely with the DLC and even wrote its first policy paper on school privatization.

 

Clinton was an immediate convert, embracing Kolderie’s proposals as he traveled around the country making speeches even though he knew it was unpopular with teachers unions. Clinton ruffled so many feathers that Shanker, himself, commented, “It is almost impossible for us to get President Clinton to stop endorsing [charters] in all his speeches.”

 

Though the first charter school law came a year later, in 1990 Wisconsin passed the first school voucher program. Since it was pushed through with mostly Republican support, this provided cover for neoliberal charter supporters. Though there was little difference between the two policies, neoliberals could distinguish themselves by criticizing school vouchers while endorsing their ideological cousins the charter schools.

 

So we had the two major political parties both supporting different flavors of the same school privatization.

 

It allowed Democrats to stop supporting more funding for social programs and schools while weakening the main driver of such policies – labor unions. This allowed the neoliberals to be economically as conservative as their “adversaries” across the aisle while publicly pretending to support progressivism.

 

Today, there are charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia educating nearly three million students.

 

This does not now – and never did – represent any ideal offered by Shanker or unions.

 

His dream of teacher-run schools as laboratories of innovation may or may not have merit, but not at the expense of making different rules for different schools. Where regulation is important, it is important for all schools. Where it is too restrictive, all schools should be freed from its requirements. All teachers should be allowed to innovate and take a leadership role in their schools.

 

When Shanker spoke about “charter schools,” he was not a visionary. He was leading us down a dead end. He was foolishly offering an olive branch to an inferno. That doesn’t mean he started the blaze or even that it was his idea.

 

Yet even now you can read propaganda that says otherwise on the AFT’s own Website – “Restoring Shanker’s Vision for Charter Schools” by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter. It’s funny how Potter, a former charter school teacher, and Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation – which loves charter schools – both want to keep the happy face on an ugly idea. And sad that one of the largest teachers unions can’t face up to one of its heroes biggest mistakes.

 

If charter schools have a face, it should be Kolderie’s or Friedman’s – or perhaps it should be the industry’s most famous modern champion Betsy Devos.
Charter schools are no progressive dream.

 

They are the corporate paradise of spending tax dollars with zero accountability, zero transparency and as much deregulation as possible. They are the continued destabilization of public education in the knowledge that the edifice cannot stand without support indefinitely.

 

Public education will crumble and fall just as the architects of school privatization always knew it would.

 

Unless we take a stand and take back our power.

 

To do that we need to understand where charter and voucher schools came from and who is responsible.

 

Charter schools do NOT represent a good idea that was perverted by the corporate world. It is an essentially bad policy that should be abolished immediately.

 


NOTE: This article owes a debt to the reporting of Rachel Cohen.


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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School Field Trip Turns Into a Tour of Our Nation’s Unhealed Scars

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You’ve got to be a little crazy to take a bunch of teenagers on a field trip – especially overnight and out of town.

 

But that’s what I did, and – yeah – guilty as charged.

 

For the second time in my more than 15-year career as a public school teacher, I volunteered along with a group of parents and other teachers to escort my classes of 8th graders to Washington, DC, and surrounding sights.
 
And I never regretted it. Not for a moment.

 

Not when Jason bombed the bathroom in the back of the bus after eating a burrito for lunch.

 

Not when Isaac gulped down dairy creamers for dessert and threw up all over himself.

 

Not when a trio of teenage girls accidentally locked themselves in their hotel room and we needed a crowbar to get them out.

 

But as I stood in Manassas, Virginia, looking at a statue of Stonewall Jackson, the edge of regret began to creep into my mind.

 

There he was perched on the horizon, ripped and bulging like an advertisement for weight gain powder.

 

“We call him the superman statue,” the park ranger said.

 

And as I stood amongst the confused looks of my western Pennsylvania teens, I felt a wave of cognitive dissonance wash over me like a slap in the face.

 
Stonewall Jackson, a lanky Confederate General whose horse was too small for him, here mythologized, enshrined and worshiped like a hero. Yet he was a traitor to our country.

 

They call him Stonewall because the union army couldn’t get through his battle lines. He was like a wall the North could not break through.

 
So what?

 

He was fighting to preserve human slavery. Who cares how well he fought or how great his tactics? He was on the losing side of history.

 

We shouldn’t be praising him. He should be forgotten, at best a footnote in a record that celebrates those fighting to overturn human bondage, not those battling to uphold it.

 

But the confusion didn’t start at the statue. It began before our tour bus even arrived at the national park.

 

I teach Language Arts, not history, but I had never heard of the battle of Manassas. I knew it was close to Bull Run, a nearby creek where the two Civil War battles of that name were fought.
 
It was only when the park ranger was showing us the sights (of which there weren’t many) that the truth became clear.

 
Even today more than 150 years since Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Court House, the two sides can’t agree on the names of the battles.

 

In the South, they name them after the nearest city or town. In the North, we name them after the nearest geologic landmark.

 

So even though this battle took place on a farm in northern Virginia, we still can’t agree even on what to call the confrontation – much less its import to our shared history.

 

Before we stepped out onto the battlefield, the park service treated us to a short documentary film about the site and its history – “Manassas: End of Innocence.”

 

The film was narrated by Richard Dreyfus. I marveled at hearing Mr. Holland nonchalantly inform us that this first battle of the Civil War marked the titular “end of innocence.”

 
I’m still not sure who suffered such an end. Was it the nation, as a whole, which had never before experienced such a bloody war among its own citizenry, pitting brother against brother? Was it the North who had not until this point realized the South would resist with shot and shell?  Was it the South who had not yet tasted the bitterness of Northern aggression?

 

The latter seemed to be the narrator’s implication.

 
Dreyfus painted a scene of peaceful life on the farm shattered by the sneak attack of union soldiers.
 
THAT is what marked this “end of innocence.”

 
“Innocence!?” I thought.

 

These people were not innocent. They owned slaves. Mrs. Judith Carter Henry, the 85-year-old who refused to evacuate her farm and was killed in the fighting, owned another human being.

 

In my book, that disqualifies you from any kind of innocence.

 

And that’s what this whole war was essentially about. Should people be allowed to own other people?

 
The answer is an unequivocal – NO.

 

The fact that an entire segment of our population still drags its feet on that question has implications that reverberate through our history and up through our last Presidential election.

 
A few days before venturing to Manassas, my students and I toured Washington, DC. We stopped in front of the White House.

 
I’d been there before. It’s a popular place for protests of every kind. But never had I seen it so crowded with discontent.

 

Political critics had set up booths and tents. They even brought speakers to blast out music to accompany their protests. My favorite was the song “Master of the House” from Les Miserables booming from a booth with multicolored “F- Trump!” signs.

 

But as we took our picture in front of that iconic Presidential manor, itself, partially built by slaves, I couldn’t help noticing another kiosk across the way – one selling MAGA hats.
 
In fact, they were everywhere.

 
A few students even bought them – cheap red knockoff baseball caps with a slogan of dog whistle hatred emblazoned on the front.

 

Make America Great Again? Like when union troops couldn’t get passed Stonewall Jackson?
 
We hit many more famous sites.

 

We went to the Jefferson memorial and all I could think about was Sally Hemings. We went to the FDR memorial and all I could think about were the Japanese internment camps. We went to the Martin Luther King memorial and all I could think about was how the struggle continues.

 

We didn’t talk much about what we were seeing. We just raced through the experience of it – going from one to another – gotta’ get back on the bus in time to hit the next one.

 
We had a really good time together on that field trip. Me, included.

 

But we took a lot more home with us than souvenirs.

 
It wasn’t just sight seeing or a vacation from the normal school day.

 

We toured the historic scars of our nation.

 

Scars still red and ripe and bleeding.

 

Will they ever heal, I wondered.

 

Will our nation ever become whole, healthy and clean?

 

I suppose that depends on us.

 

Because the first step to healing them is recognizing that they’re still there.


 

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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The Forgotten Disaster of America’s First Standardized Test

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana (1905)

 

The merry-go-round of history continues to spin because the riders forget they are free to get off at any time.

 

But we rarely do it. We keep to our seats and commit the same stupid mistakes over and over again.

 

Take high stakes standardized testing.

 

It was a disaster the very first time it was attempted in America – in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1845.

 

Yet we continue to prescribe the same error to students in schools today.

 

Judging learners, schools and teachers based on standardized assessments has the same problems now as it did 174 years ago. Yet we act as if it’s the only accurate way to assess knowledge, the only fair and equitable way to assign resources and judge the professionalism of our schools and teachers.

 

IT IS NONE OF THOSE THINGS.

 

If we simply remembered our history, we’d know that. But our collective amnesia allows this bad policy to reappear every generation despite any criticisms or protests.

 

So let me take you back to Boston in the middle of the 19th Century and show you exactly where things first went wrong and how they still go wrong in nearly the same way.

BOSTON SCHOOLS

 

Even back then Boston had a history of excellent schools.

 

One of the country’s most prestigious institutions – the city Latin School – was founded in 1635 and had a list of alumni that reads like a who’s who of American history up through modern times. This includes Cotton Mather, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leonard Bernstein and even Santayana, himself!

 

But Boston wasn’t known just for educating the elite. The city’s school committee had opened the nation’s first public high school in 1821. This wasn’t a charity. The community funded its public schools relatively well and took pride in its students’ accomplishments.

 

Testing was a much different affair in the early 1800s than it is today.

 

At the local English Grammar Schools, most examinations were strictly oral. Students were questioned in person about the various subjects in which they had received instruction. Teachers tested students’ memory in a recitation to find out whether or not they were proficient in the subject at hand.

 

The purpose behind such an assessment wasn’t to assign a grade like children were eggs or melons. It was to give the teacher information about how much his students had learned and where the students’ teacher should begin instruction next year.

 

However, critics complained that such assessments weren’t impartial and that a written exam might be better. Unfortunately, having every student complete one was impractical before the pencil and steel pen came into common usage in the late 1800s. Besides, teachers – then called School Masters – were trusted to use their judgment measuring student achievement and ability based on empirical observation of students’ day-to-day work.

 

It should also be noted that many more teachers were men at this time. This changed by the 1920s, when the majority of educators were women while most men had fled to the administrative offices. As this transformation took place, it accompanied greater trust in administrators and decreasing confidence in classroom teachers. And if you don’t see the sexism in that, you aren’t paying attention.

 

This shift began with standardized testing – an innovation first introduced by a Massachusetts lawyer and legislator named Horace Mann.

HORACE MANN’S TEST

 

To this day Mann remains a somewhat controversial figure. To some he was a reformer seeking to modernize education. To others he was a self-serving politician looking to increase his own power and that of his party no matter what the cost.

 

In 1837, Mann was appointed secretary of the newly created State Board of Education. As a member of the Whig Party, he wanted to centralize authority. To do that, he needed to discredit the history of excellence in Boston.

 

Mann had traveled abroad to see the innovations of European schools and concluded that Prussia’s schools, in particular, were far superior to America’s. His remarks were included in a highly publicized 1844 report that demanded action lest our country’s children be left behind. (Sound familiar?)

 

When other prominent Whigs including his friend Samuel Gridley Howe were elected to the School Committee and later the examining committee, Mann had everything he needed to make a change.

 

Howe dispensed with the oral exams in favor of written tests, what today we’d call short-answer exams. Without any warning to teachers or students, this new committee came to Boston’s grammar schools with preprinted questions. Teachers and administrators were furious. Students were terrified.

 

The examiners picked 530 out of the city’s approximately 7,000 students — allegedly the best below high school age – and made them take the new exams. This was about 20 or 30 children from each school. Students had an hour to write their responses on each subject to questions taken from assigned textbooks -geography, grammar, history, rhetoric, and philosophy.

 

Most failed.

 

A contemporary report on the exams concluded that the results “show beyond all doubt, that a large proportion of the scholars in our first classes, boys and girls of 14 or 15 years of age, when called upon to write simple sentences, to express their thoughts on common subjects, without the aid of a dictionary or a master, cannot write, without such errors in grammar, in spelling, and in punctuation.”

 

Examiners explained in a subsequent report that they had been looking for “positive information, in black and white,” exactly what students had learned. Teachers took no offense at that goal, but complained that the test questions had not pertained to what students had been taught.

 

Howe and his examiners countered that they had ensured their new assessment was valid with field testing – a practice that modern day corporations like Pearson and Data Recognition Corp. still do today.

 

Howe’s committee gave the same test in towns outside of Boston, including Roxbury, then a prosperous suburb. In all, the committee tested 31,159 students the previous summer. The result – an average score of 30 percent correct.

 

However, the wealthy Roxbury students outscored all the other schools. Therefore, they were made the standard of excellence that all other schools were expected to reach.

 

So when Boston students – all of whom did not have the privileges of Roxbury students – didn’t achieve the same scores, they were deemed failing, inadequate, losers.

 

Thus Mann could justify criticizing the district, firing teachers and administrators and consolidating control over the city’s schools.

BACKLASH

 

The result was pandemonium. Howe issued a scathing report lambasting the schools and even naming individual teachers who should be fired. Mann published the results in his influential Common School Journal and these kinds of tests started to appear at urban schools across the country.

 

However, Bostonians were not all convinced. Editorials were published both for and against the tests.

 

Every aspect of the exam was disputed – and in similar ways to the testing controversies we still see today.

 

To start, raising the stakes of the exams invited cheating. One teacher was caught leaking questions to his students before the testing session began.

 

The assessments also showed a racial achievement gap that far from helping diagnose structural inequalities was instead weaponized against the very people working hardest to help minority students learn. Examiners criticized the head teacher of the segregated Smith School because his African American students had scored particularly low. He was accused of not seeing the potential in black children. Never mind that these students were the most different from the Roxbury standard in terms of culture and privilege.

 

The tests also began the endless failing schools narrative that has been used by ambitious policymakers and disaster capitalists to get support for risky and unproven policies. Rivalries began between city and suburban schools with Bostonians wondering why their schools had been allowed to get so much worse.

 

Much of the criticism came back on Mann and Howe who reacted by throwing it back on the teachers for doing such a bad job.

 

In the end, a few educators were let go, but the voters had had enough of Mann.

 

Parents accused him of deliberately embarrassing students and in 1848 he was not re-elected to office.

 

The tests were given again in 1846, but by 1850, Boston had abandoned its strategy and reverted to non-standarized exams that were mostly based on oral presentations.

 

The experiment deeply disturbed many people. No one could explain why there was a discrepancy between scores of rich vs. poor students. The original justification of these exams was that they would eliminate partiality and treat students fairly and equally. Yet the results showed a racial and economic bias that didn’t escape contemporaries. In 1850 as the tests were being discontinued, the chairman of the examination committee wrote:

“Comparison of schools cannot be just while the subjects of instruction are so differently situated as to fire-side influence, and subjected to the draw-backs inseparable from place of birth, of age, of residence, and many other adverse circumstances.”

 

And that’s how standardized testing began.

 

It was a political power play justified by so-called universal testing.

 

Numbers, charts and graphs were used to mesmerize people into going along with policies that were never meant to help children learn, but instead to gain power for certain policymakers while taking it away from others.

HISTORY OF STANDARDIZED TESTING

 

In the years that followed, standardized testing became much more efficient. In 1915, the first test was given with multiple-choice questions – Frederick J. Kelly’s Kansas Silent Reading Test. It was roundly criticized and eventually disowned by Kelly for focusing almost exclusively on lower order thinking skills.

 

Then in the 1920s eugenicists like Robert Yerkes and Carl Brigham went a step further with similar IQ tests to justify privileging upper class whites from lower class immigrants, blacks and Hispanics. Their work was even used to justify the forced sterilization of 60,000 to 70,000 people from groups with low test scores, thus preventing them from “polluting” the gene pool. Ultimately this lead Brigham to create the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) to keep such undesirables out of higher education. It is still in wide use today.

 

It wasn’t until 1938 that Kaplan Inc. was founded to tutor students in these same tests. Stanley Kaplan, son of Jewish immigrants, showed that far from assessing learning, these tests merely assessed students’ ability to take the tests. Thus he was able to provide a gateway to higher education for many Jews and other minorities who had been unfairly excluded because of testing.

 

In the 1960s black plaintiffs began winning innumerable lawsuits against the testing industry. Perhaps the most famous case is Hobson v. Hansen in 1967, which was filed on behalf of a group of Black students in Washington, DC. The court ruled that the policy of using tests to assign students to tracks was racially biased because the tests were standardized to a White, middle class group.

 

And then in 2001, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation revved the whole thing up into overdrive. With bipartisan support, he tied federal funding of schools to standardized test performance and annual academic progress – a policy that was only intensified under President Barack Obama who added competitive grants for additional funding based on test performance under Race to the Top.

 

Since then, standardized testing has grown from a $423 million industry before 2001 to a multi-billion dollar one decades later. If we add in test prep, new text books, software, and consultancy, that figure easily tops the trillion dollar mark.

 

Despite hundreds of principal, teacher, parent and student protests, tens of thousands of opt outs and a slew of lawsuits, high stakes testing continues to be the law of the land.

 

Yet the problems today are almost the same as those in Boston nearly two centuries ago.

LEGACY

 

These tests are political smokescreens used to stop policymakers from having to enact real reforms like equitable funding, wraparound services and addressing the trauma our most impoverished students deal with everyday. Instead, we push a school privatization and testing industry that makes trillions of dollars for corporations at the expense of our children.

 

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

 

Here’s hoping that one day we remember and get the heck off this runaway merry-go-round.


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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Diane Ravitch’s New Book is a Fun and Breezy Romp Through the Maze of School Policy

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Imagine you could talk with Diane Ravitch for 10 to 15 minutes everyday.

 
That’s kind of what reading her new book, “The Wisdom and the Witt of Diane Ravitch”, is like.

 
You’ve probably heard of Ravitch before.

 

She’s the kindly grandmother you see on the news who used to think standardized tests and school privatization were the way to go but actually had the courage to pull an about face.

 

She’s that rare thing in public policy – a person with the honesty to admit when she was wrong — and even lead the resistance to everything she used to believe in!

 

Now she champions teacher autonomy, fair and equitable school funding and authentic public schools with duly-elected school boards.

 

Her new book is full of shorter pieces by the education historian from all over the mass media – The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Huffington Post and even her own blog.

 
You’ll find an article explaining why she changed her mind about school reform nestled next to a reflection on what it’s like to grow up Jewish in Texas. Here’s a succinct take down of President Obama’s Race to the Top next to an article extolling the virtues of student activism in Providence. Ever wonder what Ravitch would say to her mentor Lamar Alexander about our current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos? It’s in there. Ever wonder what books on education she would recommend? It’s in there.

 
This new book from Garn Press is more personal than anything I’ve seen from Ravitch on the shelves before. And that’s because it’s not part of a sustained argument like “The Life and Death of the Great American School System,” or “Reign or Error.” It’s a collection of vignettes taken from the last decade of her writing. These are flashes of inspiration, snippets of thoughts, bursts of criticism and humor.

 
They’re perfect for perusing and really quite addictive.

 
I found myself jumping from an article in the first 20 pages to one at the end to another in the middle. There’s no reason any of it needs to be read chronologically though they are organized in the order of publication.

 
It’s really a lot like talking to Diane, something that I’ve had the privilege to do on a few occasions. Like any conversation, topics come up organically and you go from one to another without rhyme or reason.

 

 

At least that’s how I read the book.

 
It would be perfect in your school’s teachers lounge. Educators could pick it up at lunch or during their planning periods and use it as a springboard to talk about almost any issue that comes up during the day.

 
Well, it would be perfect if we ever actually had that kind of time.

 
I found myself repeatedly interrupted when trying to read it. But that’s actually not a problem. Given the brevity of the articles and their impressive concision, it doesn’t matter if you have to put a bookmark in the middle of a chapter here or there. It’s easy to pick up the thread and continue later.

 
There are so many highlights, but one of my favorites is “Don’t Like Betsy DeVos? Blame the Democrats” where she writes:

 

 

“I contend that it is immoral, unjust, and inequitable to advocate for policies that hurt 95% of students so that 5% can go to a private school. It is even more unjust to destabilize an entire school district by introducing a welter of confusing choices, including schools that open and close like day lilies. Why don’t the advocates of school choice also advocate for funding to replace the money removed from the public schools?”

 
Or how about “Flunking Arne Duncan”? I must admit, the title alone made my heart give a little cheer. Ravitch gives the former Education Secretary the following report card which deserves to be blown up to poster size and displayed in every classroom in the country:

 

 

“Report Card: Arne Duncan
Fidelity to the Constitution                                       F
Doing what’s right for children                               F
Doing what’s right for public education                F
Respecting the limits of federalism                        F
Doing what’s right for teachers                               F
Doing what’s right for education                            F”

 
As a public school teacher, I must admit getting an inordinate amount of pleasure from Ravitch’s criticism of the fools and frauds writing school policy. But she has a lot to say on so many subjects – standardized testing, Common Core, even the basic greed underlying the whole political mess.

 
Consider this gem from “What Powerful and Greedy Elites are Hiding When They Scapegoat the Schools”:

 

 

“I have nothing against the wealthy. I don’t care that some people have more worldly goods than others. I understand that life’s not fair. I just harbor this feeling that a person ought to be able to get by on $100 million or so and not keep piling up riches while so many others don’t know how they will feed their children tonight.”

 
I could offer a dozen more quotes from the book. My copy looks like a rainbow with all the different colored highlights I’ve made through its 451 pages.

 
So if you want my advice, go out and buy “The Wisdom and Wit of Diane Ravitch.” It’s a fun and breezy romp through the maze of school policy.

 
Just keep a good supply of highlighters and bookmarks handy.


 

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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‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ Has Never Been More Important Than It is Today

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The biggest mistake people make about “The Diary of Anne Frank” is to assume it’s about a little dead girl.

 

 

It’s not.

 

 

Anne Frank is not dead.

 

 

Not in 1945. Not in 2019.

 

 

Anne was a Dutch Jew hiding from the Nazis with her family and four others in a loft above her father’s former factory in Amsterdam.

 

 

The teenager is the most famous victim of the Holocaust, but her story doesn’t end when she succumbed to typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in the closing days of WWII.

 

 

Because it’s a story that never ends.

 

 

Her physical self may be gone, but her spirit remains.

 

 

In the 1990s, she was a Muslim Bosniak child killed by Christian Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.

 

 

In the 2000s, she was a Christian Darfuri in Western Sudan killed by Arab militias.

 

 

A decade ago, she was a Palestinian toddler torn to pieces on the West Bank – a victim of Israeli bombs.

 

 

 

And, yes, today she is a brown skinned Central American girl fleeing from violence to the United States only to be forcibly separated from her family and thrown in a cage.

 

 

 

Not only is Anne Frank not dead, she is more alive than most people who draw breath, whose hearts still pump blood, whose eyes shrink from the violence, prejudice and hatred all around them.

 

 

 

Perhaps that’s why it is so hard to teach her Diary in my 8th grade class.

 

 

It’s not a particularly difficult book.

 

 

Her prose is uncomplicated. Her ideas clear.

 

 

In fact, she jumps right off the page and into the classroom.

 

 

But that’s what makes her so difficult for me, the teacher.

 

 

Every year I help bring her to life for my students. And I suffer her loss all over again each time.

 

 

I think everyone sees something different in Anne.

 

 

My students see themselves in her. Or they see their friends or siblings.

 

 

Her problems are their problems. They, too, can feel closer to one parent than another.

 

 

They, too, can hate to be compared with a “perfect” sibling.

 

 

They, too, feel all the emotions and frustrations of growing up – the confusion, passion and hurt.

 

 

For me, though, it is different.

 

 

I don’t see Anne primarily as myself. I see her as my daughter. Or perhaps I see my daughter in her.

 

 

A precocious child hunched over a book scribbling away her deepest thoughts? Sounds like my precious 10-year-old drawing her comic books, or writing her stories, or acting out melodramas with her dolls and stuffed animals.

 

 

I want to take her somewhere safe, to keep her away from the Nazis, to conceal her from all the evil in the world.

 

 

After teaching the book for almost a decade and a half, it was only this year that I hit upon a new perspective. I realized that if Anne had survived, she would be almost the same age as my grandmother.

 

 

And for a moment, an image of her was almost superimposed over my Grandma Ce Ce. There she was – a physical Anne, a living person. But then it was gone.

 

 

When speaking about her to my students, I try to be extremely careful of their feelings. I make it exceedingly clear from the very beginning where her physical life ends.

 

 

She and her family are in hiding for 25 months before the Nazis find and send them to concentration camps. Only her father, Otto Frank, is left.

 

 

I don’t want any of that to be a surprise.

 

 

Yet it is.

 

 

Every time.

 

 

My classes stare back at me with shocked expressions when we reach the last page.

 

 

That can’t be the end. There has to be more.

 

 

So we read first hand accounts of Anne in the camp.

 

 

But that can’t be all, either. Can it?

 

 

So we learn about her legacy – about the Anne Frank House, the Academy Award winning film, and how her book is an international best seller.

 

 

Somehow her spirit still refuses to die.

 

 

I think it’s because she has become more than just a victim. More even than a single physical person.

 

 

We know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. We know that 5 million non-Jews were also killed. But no matter how many documentaries we see, or how many pictures we look at – none of them come alive in quite the same way as Anne.

 

 

She is a face for these faceless.

 

 

She irreparably humanizes the other.

 

 

Once you read her Diary, you can’t forget that smiling little girl whose light was so suddenly snuffed out.

 

 

We can go numb at the numbers – the sheer scale of these atrocities.

 

 

But with Anne, it becomes something personal.

 

 

On Dec. 24, 1943, Anne wrote:

 

 

“I sometimes wonder if anyone will ever understand what I mean, if anyone will ever overlook my ingratitude and not worry about whether or not I’m Jewish and merely see me as a teenager badly in need of some good, plain fun.

 

We see you, Anne.

 

 

And because we do, we see beyond you, too.

 

 

We see you in the continuing horrors of our age.

 

 

Because your death is never in the past tense. It is always present.

 

 

Your eyes look out at us through the victims of our day, too.

 

 

And your words ring in our ears:

 

“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.” (May 7, 1944)

 

 

We have not prevented it.

 

 

It continues.

 

 

Hatred and prejudice and murder echo through our human interactions.

 

 

All while the history fades.

 

 

According to a 2018 study, only 22 percent of millennials say they’ve even heard of the Holocaust.

 

 

I don’t think any of those young adults read your Diary, because my students remember you.

 

 

That’s why I’ll never stop teaching your story.

 

 

In the vain hope that by remembering you, they’ll see your eyes on the faces of all the future’s would-be victims.

 

 

In the vain hope that caring about you will help them care about the faceless strangers, the propagandized others.

 

 

In the vain hope that knowing your face will force their eyes to see – actually see – the faces of those who are demonized and dehumanized so someone will care when the boot comes down on their visage.

 

 

So that someone will stop the boot from ever coming down again.

 

 

In one of her last entries, on July 15, 1944, Anne wrote:

 

 

“I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.”

 

 

That time has come for us all.

 

 

Anne’s Diary remains to remind us – a clarion call to empathy and action.


 

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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Standardized Testing is a Tool of White Supremacy

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Let’s say you punched me in the face.

 

I wouldn’t like it. I’d protest. I’d complain.

 

And then you might apologize and say it was just an accident.

 
Maybe I’d believe you.

 

Until the next time when we met and you punched me again.

 

That’s the problem we, as a society, have with standardized tests.

 

We keep using them to justify treating students of color as inferior and/or subordinate to white children. And we never stop or even bothered to say, “I’m sorry.”

 

Fact: black kids don’t score as high on standardized tests as white kids.

 

It’s called the racial achievement gap and it’s been going on for nearly a century.

 

Today we’re told that it means our public schools are deficient. There’s something more they need to be doing.

 
But if this phenomenon has been happening for nearly 100 years, is it really a product of today’s public schools or a product of the testing that identifies it in the first place?

 

After all, teachers and schools have changed. They no longer educate children today the same way they did in the 1920s when the first large scale standardized tests were given to students in the US. There are no more one-room schoolhouses. Kids can’t drop out at 14. Children with special needs aren’t kept in the basement or discouraged from attending school. Moreover, none of the educators and administrators on the job during the Jazz Age are still working.
 

Instead, we have robust buildings serving increasingly larger and more diverse populations. Students stay in school until at least 18. Children with special needs are included with their peers and given a multitude of services to meet their educational needs. And that’s to say nothing of the innovations in technology, pedagogy and restorative justice discipline policies.

 

But standardized testing? That hasn’t really changed all that much. It still reduces complex processes down to a predetermined set of only four possible answers – a recipe good for guessing what a test-maker wants more than expressing a complex answer about the real world. It still attempts to produce a bell curve of scores so that so many test takers fail, so many pass, so many get advanced scores, etc. It still judges correct and incorrect by reference to a predetermined standard of how a preconceived “typical” student would respond.

 

Considering how and why such assessments were created in the first place, the presence of a racial achievement gap should not be surprising at all. That’s the result these tests were originally created to find.

 

Modern testing comes out of Army IQ tests developed during World War I.

 
In 1917, a group of psychologists led by Robert M. Yerkes, president of the American Psychological Association (APA), created the Army Alpha and Beta tests. These were specifically designed to measure the intelligence of recruits and help the military distinguish those of “superior mental ability” from those who were “mentally inferior.”
 

These assessments were based on explicitly eugenicist foundations – the idea that certain races were distinctly superior to others.
 
In 1923, one of the men who developed these intelligence tests, Carl Brigham, took these ideas further in his seminal work A Study of American Intelligence. In it, he used data gathered from these IQ tests to argue the following:
 

 

“The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it.”

 

 
Thus, Yerkes and Brigham’s pseudoscientific tests were used to justify Jim Crow laws, segregation, and even lynchings. Anything for “racial purity.”
 

People took this research very seriously. States passed forced sterilization laws for people with “defective” traits, preventing between 60,000 and 70,000 people from “polluting” America’s ruling class.
 
The practice was even upheld by the US Supreme Court in the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision. Justices decided that mandatory sterilization of “feeble-minded” individuals was, in fact, Constitutional.

 
Of the ruling, which has never been explicitly overturned, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
 

Eventually Brigham took his experience with Army IQ tests to create a new assessment for the College Board – the Scholastic Aptitude Test – now known as the Scholastic Assessment Test or SAT. It was first given to high school students in 1926 as a gatekeeper. Just as the Army intelligence tests were designed to distinguish the superior from the inferior, the SAT was designed to predict which students would do well in college and which would not. It was meant to show which students should be given the chance at a higher education and which should be left behind.
 

And unsurprisingly it has always – and continues to – privilege white students over children of color.

 
The SAT remains a tool for ensuring white supremacy that is essentially partial and unfair – just as its designers always meant it to be.
 
Moreover, it is the model by which all other high stakes standardized tests are designed.

 
But Brigham was not alone in smuggling eugenicist ideals into the education field. These ideas dominated pedagogy and psychology for generations until after World War II when their similarity to the Nazi philosophy we had just defeated in Europe dimmed their exponents’ enthusiasm.
 

Another major eugenicist who made a lasting impact on education was Lewis Terman, Professor of Education at Stanford University and originator of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. In his highly influential 1916 textbook, The Measurement of Intelligence he wrote:
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“Among laboring men and servant girls there are thousands like them [feebleminded individuals]. They are the world’s “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” And yet, as far as intelligence is concerned, the tests have told the truth. … No amount of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable voters in the true sense of the word.

… The fact that one meets this type with such frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and negroes suggests quite forcibly that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up anew and by experimental methods.

Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding” (91-92).

 

This was the original justification for academic tracking. Terman and other educational psychologists convinced many schools to use high-stakes and culturally-biased tests to place “slow” students into special classes or separate schools while placing more advanced students of European ancestry into the college preparatory courses.

 
The modern wave of high stakes testing has its roots in the Reagan administration – specifically the infamous propaganda hit piece A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform.

 
In true disaster capitalism style, it concluded that our economy was at risk because of poor public schools. Therefore, it suggested circumventing the schools and subordinating them to a system of standardized tests, which would be used to determine everything from teacher quality to resource allocation.

 
It’s a bizarre argument, but it goes something like this: the best way to create and sustain a fair educational system is by rewarding “high-achieving” students.
 

So we shouldn’t provide kids with what they need to succeed. We should make school a competition where the strongest get the most and everyone else gets a lesser share.

 
And the gatekeeper in this instance (as it was in access to higher education) is high stakes testing. The greater the test score, the more funding your school receives, the lower class sizes, the wider curriculum, more tutors, more experienced and well compensated teachers, etc.
 

It’s a socially stratified education system completely supported by a pseudoscientific series of assessments.

 
After all, what is a standardized test but an assessment that refers to a specific standard? And that standard is white, upper class students.
 
In his book How the SAT Creates Built-in-Headwinds, national admissions-test expert, Jay Rosner, explains the process by-which SAT designers decide which questions to include on the test:

 

“Compare two 1998 SAT verbal [section] sentence-completion items with similar themes: The item correctly answered by more blacks than whites was discarded by [the Educational Testing Service] (ETS), whereas the item that has a higher disparate impact against blacks became part of the actual SAT. On one of the items, which was of medium difficulty, 62% of whites and 38% of African-Americans answered correctly, resulting in a large impact of 24%…On this second item, 8% more African-Americans than whites answered correctly…”

 
In other words, the criteria for whether a question is chosen for future tests is if it replicates the outcomes of previous exams – specifically tests where students of color score lower than white children. And this is still the criteria test makers use to determine which questions to use on future editions of nearly every assessment in wide use in the US.
 

Some might argue that this isn’t racist because race was not explicitly used to determine which questions would be included. Yet the results are exactly the same as if it were.

 
Others want to reduce the entire enterprise to one of social class. It’s not students of color that are disadvantaged – it’s students living in poverty. And there is overlap here.
 

Standardized testing doesn’t show academic success so much as the circumstances that caused that success or failure. Lack of proper nutrition, food insecurity, lack of prenatal care, early childcare, fewer books in the home, exposure to violence – all of these and more combine to result in lower academic outcomes.

 

But this isn’t an either/or situation. It’s both. Standardized testing has always been about BOTH race and class. They are inextricably entwined.

 
Which leads to the question of intention.

 
If these are the results, is there some villain laughing behind the curtain and twirling the ends of a handlebar mustache?
 

Answer: it doesn’t matter.
 

As in the entire edifice of white supremacy, intention is beside the point. These are the results. This is what a policy of high stakes standardized testing actually does.
 

Regardless of intention, we are responsible for the results.
 

If every time we meet, you punch me in the face, it doesn’t matter if that’s because you hate me or you’re just clumsy. You’re responsible for changing your actions.
 
And we as a society are responsible for changing our policies.

 
Nearly a century of standardized testing is enough.

 
It’s time to stop the bludgeoning.
 
It’s time to treat all our children fairly.
 

It’s time to hang up the tests.

 


NOTE: This article expands upon many ideas I wrote about in an article published this week in Public Source.


 

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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