About John Kuhn

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His ''Alamo Letter'' and YouTube videos of his 2011 speech at a Save Texas Schools rally went viral, as did his 2012 essay ''The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.'' He has written two education-related books, 2013's Test-and-Punish (Park Place Publications) and 2014's Fear and Learning in America (Teachers College Press).
courtesy discoveryeducation.com

courtesy discoveryeducation.com

Voucher advocates are in an absolute tizzy over a recent paper from the pro-education-reform Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

It is truly a thing of beauty. Jay P. Greene is not amused. He is a titan in the ed-reformer ranks and the blog-host of such dandies as “New Column on Florida’s Anti-Testing Nihlists” (sic) wherein one finds wisdom touting the timeless benefits of testing and accountability such as: “Since the advent of testing and reform, the nation’s most highly respected measure of academic achievement shows strong gains in Florida.” Precisely as a result of testing and accountability, mind you, Greene’s guest poster Matthew Ladner argues that “Florida’s residents and students are getting more of what they want, need and deserve from the public education system today.”

Jay P. Greene’s blog contends–or did, in 2012–that testing is an absolute boon for guaranteeing a quality education.

Long live testing!

But Jay P. Greene doesn’t think that way anymore. When the folks at Fordham had the unmitigated gall to suggest that voucher schools and tax-credit scholarship programs serving more than 10 students be subjected to the same testing regimes that traditional schools are subjected to–because, you know, accountability–Jay P. Greene became apoplectic, whatever that means.

Jay P. Greene said this: “test results fail to capture most of the benefits produced by choice schools.”

Down with testing!

Isn’t it Diane Ravitch’s line that standardized tests fail to account for many of the benefits realized by schools? Or are Jay P. Greene’s sudden insights regarding the obvious limitations of standardized testing as a quality assurance tool somehow exclusively tied to testing conducted in “choice schools”? It’s all very confusing, isn’t it?

(Pro-testing Jay P. Greene needs to be careful or anti-testing Jay P. Greene might get placed on Diane Ravitch’s Honor Roll.)

So, in case you’re confused, let me summarize Jay P. Greene’s innovative arguments: Standardized test results and consequences driven almost exclusively by them are wonderful ways to hold public schools accountable, up to and including shutting down public schools, because public schools are funded by taxpayer dollars and the taxpayer has a right to expect accountability for the effective use of his or her taxes. On the other hand, standardized test results and consequences driven almost exclusively by them are terrible ways to hold voucher schools and tax-credit scholarship programs accountable, even though voucher schools and tax-credit scholarship programs provide the exact same service and are also funded by taxpayer dollars and the taxpayer would normally be right to expect accountability for the effective use of his or her taxes but is (for some reason) not right in expecting those things of voucher schools and tax-credit scholarship programs.

It’s the same public dime, isn’t it?

Look, you can have public funding with public accountability, or you can have an absence of public accountability and an absence of public funding. You can’t have the public funding and sidestep the public accountability. Sorry, that isn’t how it works.

And if choice advocates don’t like the public accountability system as it snarls at their weaker choice schools, someone should remind them that they all cheered as it tore “failing” public schools limb from limb. Oh, and they also insisted for years that choice schools would leave public schools in the dust, performance-wise. That was one of the reasons for promoting a choice system, wasn’t it?

Jay P. Greene can’t have it both ways. Either public funding should come with test-and-punish accountability, or it shouldn’t. There’s no need to parse that statement when applying it to “kinds” of publicly-funded schools, unless you’re trying to get by with something.

And, honestly, either way is probably fine with most of my peeps (you know, the “anti-testing nihilists”) who are probably more wound up about Jay P. Greene and Company’s blatant double standards–dating back to the dawn of corporate education reform–than they are about testing itself. (On a side topic, this is also the ethic among educators and their friends–pro-fairness–that animates much of the resistance to the Common Core. Many don’t oppose standards, per se; they oppose the cynical deployment of standards to create a testing shock that will then be used to justify a hostile private takeover of public education.)

These scary anti-testers (and, really, isn’t Jay P. Greene now officially an “anti-testing nihilist” too? Welcome to the club, Jay!) will probably get a whole lot quieter once there is fairness in accountability and publicly-funded schools of all stripes are treated the same way. That’s what it will take for the ed reform wars to end. Reformist concern trolls might as well keep their “can’t we all just get along for the sake of the kids” rhetoric to themselves; as long as they are asking for (and getting) policy favoritism, public education supporters will fight, write, blog, agitate, advocate, rally, strike, and opt out.

Especially when spokespeople like Jay P. Greene are pro-favoritism in education policy, rather than either pro- or anti-testing.

Well, the rub is this: fairness in school accountability is really bad for business, isn’t it? If all schools have to compete by the same rules, how is a start-up supposed to get a leg-up?

Hat tip to the increasingly semi-reasonable Rick Hess (not getting carried away) for highlighting the quotes from the formerly pro-test, now anti-test-but-pro-test-depending-of-course-upon-which-publicly-funded-school-will-have-to-give-the-test-and-get-the-labels-based-on-the-test Jay P. Greene.

So, the voucher movement has not surprisingly come out strong for stern test-based accountability for traditional schools, and for no test-based accountability for voucher schools and tax credit programs. This does not appear to be a very credible position to people of the fair-minded persuasion, though it does serve the fierce desires of certain constituents in the ed game. (Down with testing for privately-run schools; up with testing for publicly-run schools!)

Jay P. Greene is not alone among public education haters suddenly joining Team Ravitch in condemning corrosive standardizing testing. The Cato Institute also lashed out at Fordham (and inadvertently channeled/embraced/emulated/bolstered Diane Ravitch), writing this: “By forcing every school to administer the same tests, states would…stifle diversity and innovation… Common Core-aligned tests create a powerful incentive for schools to teach the same concepts in the same order at the same time.”

I haven’t found it yet, but I’m half-certain that line was cribbed from either EduShyster, United Opt-Out, or The Answer Sheet. I’ve heard that Cato Institute is now under consideration as an honorary BAT. (I’m only shocked that Twitter hasn’t yet tagged CATO’s line a #corespiracy.)

Hess, while somehow concluding that he agrees with Jay P. Greene and the Cato dudes he had only just dashed against the stones of logical consistency, rightly noted the infuriating hypocrisy that prior to seeing the light about testing (which occurred at the precise moment, it must be noted, when it was merely suggested that testing be applied to their choice schools) “many choice advocates have long slammed districts and promoted school choice by pointing to reading and math scores.” (Um, first of all, der; and second of all, wouldn’t the “many choice advocates” in this quote include one Frederick Hess? And in stating his agreement with the people he just undressed, Hess’s conclusion to the article is what one might call counterintuitive, if by “counterintuitive,” one means that he proved one point and then disowned it at the end of the article, using logic apparently from another dimension.) At least Hess has “sympathy for those who feel like (Jay P.) Greene’s position constitutes something of a bait-and-switch, with choice advocates are (sic) changing the rules when it suits them.”

By the way, I don’t want sympathy. I want education policies that aren’t 100-proof sabotage chased with naked double standards.

And wait. “Feel like?” We “feel like” a guy going suddenly from pro-testing to anti-testing is “something of” a bait-and-switch. It’s a feeling, not a fact? Really? That’s like saying we “feel like” water is “somewhat” wet.

Then again, I remember how generous the reformers have always been about Ravitch’s change of heart.

Being adamantly pro-testing while the tests are used to undermine traditional public schools and then flipping a switch and becoming thoughtfully anti-testing when the same tests threaten to gauge the quality (or publicize the lack thereof) of private schools that are funded with public money doesn’t “feel like” a bait-and-switch.

It *is* the height of cynicism.

(H/T to EduShyster for trailblazing new ways to use the asterisk. Not since “@” was called upon for service in sending emails

[probably by Bill Gates] has a punctuation mark been so ennobled.)

Let’s not soften what Jay P. Greene has done here, Mr. Rick Hess. He has switched his opinion to its polar opposite when the same logic he long applied to the schools he wants to kill was applied (entirely fairly) to the schools he wants to save and replicate. Jay P. Greene even tossed out this gem to bolster his point: “score increases may well be just an artifact of…schools deciding to start prepping students for that high-stakes test… Fordham is confusing real learning increases with test manipulation.”

What? Standardized test scores don’t accurately reflect quality of education? Didn’t Jay P. Greene’s blog once call people who think that way about testing “nihilists”? At any rate, I have been told (by reformers) that test prep is just fine if the tests are built on the standards that kids were supposed to be mastering. What happened to that chestnut?

Where was all this refreshing nuance when Jay P. Greene was pro-standardized test? Oh, I know where it was: Diane Ravitch was using it, and Jay P. Greene was blasting her for it. The test-and-obliterate shoe is now on the voucher-y foot, and our friends in the choice movement are suddenly all-excuses.

New motto for the reformers: “Test them. Don’t test us.”

That way, when traditional public schools fail the tests, the powers that be can close them and give their funding to someone else. And, miracle of miracles, that someone else will be able to run a voucher school that can never fail and never be closed and never lose its funding, because they will never give the tests and never publish the results.

Is this approach really in the public interest?

Situational accountability, you might call it. Accountability for thee and not for me. Unfairness has always been the rallying cry of the reform critics’ movement, and it always will be because it was never the golden apple of education reform that disgusted us but rather the writhing worms that from the start found a welcome home there.

I also love how at the end of his article, Hess is suddenly “concerned about relying too heavily on reading and math scores.” Wow, did this just occur to him? Hess sounds like Gerald Bracey, only he’s about three decades late to the “let’s keep an eye on the risks inherent in all this testing-and-punishing” party.

Accountability politics have been used to drive a stark narrative about public schooling since at least 1983. Now that the same sharp sword is merely imagined against the throat of voucher schools, advocates are squealing, “No fair.”

Bad news for the voucherites, though. When vouchers are widely introduced, the general public won’t be deferential enough to buy the “no tests for us” line as long as tests are used to judge traditional schools. That dog won’t hunt. People aren’t that dumb. The shock of their doctrine will shake their schools, not only ours.

Hey, while I’m extolling the virtues of reformers like the almost-honest Hess (I would drop the “almost-” if it hadn’t been for his “some may feel like this 180 degree change of opinion may be something of a hint of a smidge of a trace of a bait-and-switch” bit of airbrushing) and my new test-resisting comrade Jay P. Greene, let me also pat one Alexander Russo on the back, if only for highlighting this piece from Jacobin magazine. (There’s a middling chance that Russo may be linking to it solely because he likes to highlight disagreements in union town.)

I like Randi Weingarten. I’m not in a collective bargaining state, but her willingness to engage with critics on Twitter has always impressed me. She has been wrong on a some occasions, but we all have. Holding hands with Bill Gates a few times (joint appearances, joint statements, that sort of thing) was always going to be a tough sell when he has dough-horned into place a bunch of suspect policies that, despite the “we just want to help kids” rhetoric, seem to echo the tape-recorded priorities of folks like Jonah Edelman more than those of parents, students, teachers, and communities.

Embracing VAM, then, was also a mistake. She is calling it a sham today, and I am with her. I’m also with the group that celebrates this shift rather than wanting to punish her for not doing it sooner. Having said that, though, I’ve noticed that even Bill Gates has taken to speaking in general terms softly against VAM and over-testing, even while letting the value-added and standardized fires his organization stoked continue to burn unabated through our schools, as Anthony Cody has noted. My state only recently signed off on a federal waiver that requires standardized test scores to be tied to teacher evaluation. (Implementation of this policy will be a huge fight in Texas, I predict. We’ll see.) But these kinds of VAM-nostic comments from Gates smack of triangulation when the Gates Foundation is at the same time withholding a $40 million grant it had offered the Pittsburgh school district because the union and management won’t agree to partially test-based standards for punishing teachers that are “more stringent than those used to evaluate teachers elsewhere in Pennsylvania.”

That’s teacher-mean Gates. Cue teacher-kindly Gates: “as states and districts rush to implement new teacher development and evaluation systems, there is a risk they’ll use hastily contrived, unproven measures.” Kindly Gates also notes that education leaders must be “careful to build a system that provides feedback and that teachers trust…”

Agreed. But while he says this, the actions of his Foundation come way too close  to saying, “VAM is bad; now use it or give us back our money.” (Too close for my comfort, anyway, and probably the comfort of lots of public school advocates, who–remember–are supposed to trust these systems, and, presumably, the people pushing them)

So union members are understandably a bit cautious about Weingarten’s “VAM is a sham” campaign. Is it also triangulation, meant merely to calm the sheep until they are coaxed irrevocably in the privatizers’ chute for a good fleecing? I hope it isn’t.

So is Russo linking to this piece because he loves Karen Lewis’s approach to unionism in Chicago, which is touted in the piece but is decidedly not as pro-reform as Russo’s “This Week in Education” blog? (I know, tweets do not equal endorsements. It appears that Russo just thought this was an interesting take, and it is.) Anyway, the article definitely endorses a more confrontational approach by teacher organizations because, as it notes, collaboration has gotten teachers some of the following winning policies:

1. a “Camden…school superintendent who was never a school principal and barely taught.” (Not at all uncommon for quote-unquote-CEOs to run schools; and this kind of business-values leadership has resulted in pretty uniformly anti-community and anti-teaching-as-a-profession governance processes at the local level.)

2. “music and gym teachers…have received unsatisfactory evaluations because students’ math or language arts scores on standardized tests haven’t risen enough…” (Emphasis in original; I love how reform-reformers like me always use exasperated italics and exclamation points when we note that teachers are getting evaluated poorly [and potentially fired] because they fail to raise the test scores of kids they don’t actually teach in subjects they don’t teach [in fact, I had a hard time just now resisting using italics on “they don’t actually teach”]; the plain offensiveness and ludicrousness of this inexplicably-common policy seems so plain to us because we think, “That could happen to me,” and we can’t figure out how non-teachers aren’t recoiling violently when they hear about such clearly unethical policies, which makes us feel very alone and forsaken by our neighbors.)

3. “prinicipals trained by the Broad Academy to demand the power to fire teachers at will, with no legal or contractual protections.”

Anyway, the point of the article is that union leadership should accede more to bottom-up democratic principles in charting the path of the union. I’m no union expert by any means, but my only critique of the article is a simple question: union leadership is elected, isn’t it? If so, isn’t that where the membership exerts its pull.

Anyway, the article is very insightful. It notes that a recent issue of the AFT’s American Educator magazine doesn’t include anything that “explains that the neoliberal project is based on destroying unions, especially teachers unions” which is “a reality that won’t go away if teachers show that we want to work with politicians who do the bidding of powerful elites who are explicit about their aim to marketize education.” And, indeed, that aim seems pretty transparent to many of us.

That quote is in fact a good snapshot of the criticism many teachers have of reform as a whole. They don’t possess the trust in reform that Gates insists is necessary in order for it to fulfill the stated aims of reformers and help improve our schools and nation. Reform skeptics believe that not only VAM but all of education reform is a scam. (For many, this includes the great standardizing hope, the Common Core State Standards.) And the reformers don’t appear to be doing anything more than cosmetic, anything empowering or significant, to build trust among teachers or to listen to them. Except maybe, temporarily, for Hess and Fordham, and my feeling is that this nugget–that voucher schools should face accountability too–is an aberration and will likely be quickly followed by a retraction and a coalescing of the ranks around the precious double standard that the school choice movement must protect in order to guarantee an eventual victory in its war of attrition against public education.

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