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Test and Punish: How The Texas Education Model Gave America Accountability Without Equity
Author: John Kuhn
Publisher: Park Place Publications, Austin, TX
I first encountered John Kuhn’s name about a year ago while reading his article “The Pundit’s Miseducation” on The Educators Room (TER). As an education reform advocate I was inspired. His ideas were provocative, moving, and reflective of the value that our society needs to place on education. I immediately pored through the remainder of his TER articles and began searching for more writings authored by this man who had articulated many of my feelings and ideas about change. A couple of months ago, I came across Test and Punish, Kuhn’s latest endeavor in articulating the core issues of American education.
Kuhn’s work is a clearly articulated, intently researched support of public education, teachers, educational equity, and student-focused schools. In its entirety, it is an anthem for the education reform movement for the next fifteen years, beginning with the claim that American schools have been taken hostage by a “punitive… punish-first- and-ask-questions-later approach…” (28) to education. Piece by piece, Kuhn puts together a compelling narrative, which demonstrates the extent to which American schools must work to heal from nearly thirty years of reformation disaster.
Test and Punish begins and ends with, as Kuhn would say, the great state of Texas. Kuhn establishes his initial narrative by detailing the case of Edgewood ISD v. Kirby and recounting a series of anecdotes surrounding the institutionalization of funding disparity in education. Supported by a review of Texas Court cases, he also makes a compelling argument for San Antonio as the womb of inequality. Pointing to political pundits, business leaders, and well-to-do parents as the purveyors of these ideas, Kuhn asserts, and supports with pages of researched writing, that “all [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][parties] demanded protection of the status quo that disproportionately benefited… their businesses and their children” (16).
Using the Edgewood case as his springboard, Kuhn moves quickly into drawing policy connections between the early reforms of Texas, Ross Perot (Independent party Presidential candidate in 1992 & 1996), Sandy Kress (Dallas ISD reformer, and board member of Pearson), Rod Paige (creator of the so-called “Houston Miracle of 1995”), and eventually former President George W. Bush. Along the way, Kuhn points to each reformer’s zealous commitment to accountability that has been used to mask the true underlying issue in education: poverty.
Kuhn draws on his journalistic savvy to map out the path that testing reform took from Texas to Washington. From high atop the Washington politic, he asserts, testing and accountability joined forces with punitive punishment and propagandic rhetoric to form a “test-and-obliterate” culture bent on replacing the “joy of learning” with the “duty of learning” (57).
But Kuhn does not rest on the typical reformer argument that testing has merely destroyed learning. He takes the link between testing, punishment of schools, and Washington’s role in this process one step further by demonstrating a clear corporate reform agenda fueled by Pearson, the largest provider of education testing in the United States. Kuhn’s introduction of Pearson in chapter 5 of his book astutely underscores his central argument, and bolsters the greater purpose of his work. By demonstrating a clear linkage between Pearson and our elected officials -- as well as their subsequent appointees -- Kuhn points to what many on both sides of the political aisle would argue is a major blockage in American politics: corporate interests. In doing so, Kuhn also emphasizes the irony of this corporation-driven education reform, noting that despite a disdain for oversight in business practices, corporate reformers seem to find any means necessary to justify more regulation in the education industry (58).
In one of his more moving chapters, Kuhn provides support and admiration for recently lauded education reformer Diane Ravitch (fittingly, a Texan). On the cutting edge of the test-and-punish movement as Assistant Secretary of Education during the G.W. Bush administration, Ravitch played a significant role in the push for increases in government involvement in education. She was a staunch supporter of standardization, testing, punitive accountability for schools, and a primary architect of No Child Left Behind. But, in 2011, Kuhn points out, Ravitch “revealed a 180-degree turn in her thinking” in which she presented unprecedented independent critical thought of the institution that was her creation (81). He describes it as “Balm For Hurting Educators” (83). In his (at times) gushing praise for Ravitch, Kuhn reveals an in-depth tale of this reformer who had considered the status quo, disliked it, and has been moved to change. He also showcases his reverence for a fellow educator who maintains an inspired “and timeless vision of education” that “opens the human heart and mind,” much like himself (89).
At its heart, Kuhn’s Test and Punish embodies the spirit of education reform. His research, thinking, and articulation demonstrate the professionalism that educators must pursue as they weather the storm that is upon teaching and learning. Furthermore, Kuhn’s final chapters point to allies that Reformers must look to in order to fortify their position: parents, non-profit organizations, alliances of teachers, and many more. Kuhn’s writing provides a strong sense of foundation-moving hope, something that few reformers are willing to provide in a reform era of complain first, solve later.
For those looking for the balm that Kuhn claims is Ravitch’s work, take the time to give his writing a chance and you will find a thoughtful piece that goes far beyond anti-testing rhetoric.
John Kuhn, author of Test and Punish, is the superintendent of Perrin-Whitt CISD in Perrin, Texas. He blogs at www.edgator.com and many of his articles can be found on The Educators Room.