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courtesy the Boston Globe
courtesy the Boston Globe

Last week, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan co-authored an article in Huffington Post touting what they call this administration’s “comprehensive plan to help every child develop a strong foundation for future success.”  According to these two cabinet officials, “success” means that the students will grow up to to be productive and contribute to the economy.  The key to rebuilding a solid middle class in this country, they write, is to invest in early childhood education.  Our federal government, which has no constitutional mandate to provide (or fund) an education for young Americans, has continued to insist (ever since the Industrial Revolution) that education is about creating workers who can add to the bottom line of the country’s GDP.  And therein lies the rub of our modern “reform” movement.

The fundamental conflict between the experts in education – the teachers and the students – and those inflicting the “reform” mandates on them is what each party believes is the true purpose for a universal, free education.  We teachers, in contrast to the government, might argue that education at its core is about growing capable, successful, and whole human beings.   Skills like critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and analysis are what can help our students pursue their goals and dreams.   But those skills only make true inroads when the students themselves aren’t hungry, tired, abused, constantly moving from school to school, or feeling the massive pressure of the high stakes requirements they must now meet.

Unfortunately, policy makers and corporate-based “reformers” insist that these are not the skills necessary for their productivity-based national goals, and that the societal abuses these children face are not factors in their success or failure.  Instead, “achievement” is measured by mediocritized high stakes standardized tests in the very narrow (though still valuable) skill sets of reading, writing and math.  While states struggle to fund the basic needs of their students, schools, and teachers (now made even more difficult by the sequestration cuts), the federal government insists that states should now make even more effort to fund early childhood education.

Secretary Duncan is at the forefront of recent efforts that not only insist on high stakes standardized testing, but also the added level of pressure that makes those tests the dependent factor in states receiving education funding and in teacher evaluations.  Not only has the federal government insisted on massively unfunded or underfunded testing mandates since No Child Left Behind, but the new “Race to the Top” has further created a competition-based model that pits schools and states against each other.  And now, in their new push for early childhood education, Secretaries Sebelius and Duncan declare in their article that they have presented

policies and investments that will improve the quality and effectiveness of early education through the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge, which rewards states that raise the bar on quality…

In fact, their push to declare that every state should provide preschool and that more funding for Head Start should fall within the auspices of Race to the Top simply means that even younger children will now be at the mercy of the high-stakes competition the federal government insists on in order to provide the most meager funding assistance.  In Secretary Duncan’s perspective, “raising the bar on quality” means evaluating teachers based on high stakes tests, it means holding states hostage to anti-union measures, and an overall blame-the-teachers methodology of education reform.

What the government, policy makers, and corporate reformers don’t seem to grasp is that placing more and more pressure on teachers, and making them the scapegoats for the ills in education, won’t ever reform our education system into a positive, productive institution.   Forcing more and more competition, high stakes testing, and test-based evaluations won’t make better schools or higher achieving students.  Without addressing the other factors so many of our students must face on a daily basis (from exposure to violence to hunger), the problems will remain.  Without actually providing the resources and funding for this constant stream of mandates and requirements, the problems will remain.   By making the teachers and students the enemies of reform instead of treating them like the experts they are, and asking them to lend their expertise to making system work better for all, the problems will remain.

These next few months, millions of American children will sit down to hours of testing.  They will stare at computers and try to remember the practice tests they did with their teachers.  They will pour their efforts into writing essay responses and using their multiple-choice skills.  Some of them will understand that the result of their test will determine if their school gets money, and they will feel more pressure.  Some of them will not care because they sense the futility in taking test after test after test that have no connections to their real lives.  Some of them will do just fine despite it all.  And in the end, what have we accomplished for them?

“Reformers” insist this is the best way to deal with what they see as the deficits in our education system.  Yet year after year, results show how these methods are doing nothing to improve our schools or help our students.  Teachers around the country have done their best to prepare their students for this testing season.  All the while, they’ve wished they did not have to send their young charges to testing rooms or require them to spend hours in front of computer screens when they could be learning how to actually love learning.  So far, however, according to the continued efforts of policy leaders like Secretary Duncan, the purpose of education is to continue with this constant competitive, high stakes treatment of our students and teachers.

Perhaps it’s time, as our students sit down to these tests this spring, that we as a country ask ourselves honestly: is this really what education is about?

To buy Cari’s book that details her sudden unemployment, “How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks” please click here


Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online...

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