This report is an expanded version of a speech given by Steven Miller on November 1, 2008. The speech was part of a public forum on “How Standardized Tests are Ruining Public Education” that took place at the Lansdowne Campus of Camosun College in Victoria, Canada.
With Malign Intent – What’s Behind the Drive for Standardized Testing
It is a great honor to be able to present today. British Columbia teachers are the most steadfast defenders of public education in the English-speaking Americas. Your Charter for Public Education (www.charter.publiced.ca) is a profound and beautiful statement about what public education should be.
I really don’t think we in the US have much to contribute about how to fight. But we do have lots of experience to offer about what happens if you don’t fight.
The US was the first country to establish free, universal public education. The entire world followed suit to one degree or another. It now threatens to be the first to end it.
The process of privatization does not occur openly. It appears differently in every city, taking myriad forms. It raises dozens of complicated issues and many emotions. This hides both the Big Picture and the critical issue of Intent, leaving teachers and parents confused and unable to unite in defense of public education. Testing is central in this campaign.
The great state universities of the US were already privatized in the ‘90s. The University of California, the Universities of Illinois, Virginia etc all receive more of their funding today from corporations than they do from state governments. Now huge corporations are moving rapidly to seize control of K12 public education. The private market that feasts off the public schools is already over a trillion dollars a year. Believe me, they do not intend to stop with only part of the pie.
The result of the struggle against privatization will determine whether public education becomes a right or whether it devolves into being a commodity.
Let’s clarify first the issue of Intent. When the corporate agenda begins to take over, peoples’ first response is shock (though hopefully not awe). Most people wind up telling themselves, “This doesn’t seem right. So why are they doing it?” Something just doesn’t seem right, but people are unclear on exactly what it is.
For example, a big trend in the States is to increase kindergarden to make it an all day class. And the little kids don’t get any naps! How could this be justified? Of course the first thing we are told is that it is all about the kids. Then you find out that they can’t take naps because they need the afternoon to practice their test-taking skills! How, pray, does this help children? This policy is completely age inappropriate.
The privatization campaigns are a cynical attempt to play on the very justified anger of Central City parents at their historically disadvantaged schools. Schools in California, according to a report from Stanford University, have been under-funded by over a trillion dollars in the last 30 years. (See “Getting Down to Facts” (www.ewa.org/library/docs/getting_down_to_facts.pdf) So this anger is very justified, even as the real intent towards privatization is hidden. After all, they keep telling us that privatization is good for everyone.
Here’s how Merrill Lynch described the corporate offensive in their April 9, 1999 report called “The Book of Knowledge: Investing in the Growing Education and Training Industry”:
“A new mindset is necessary, one that views families as customers, schools as retail outlets where educational services are received, and the school board as a customer service department that hears and address parental concerns”.
(Compton and Weiner, The Global Assault on Teachers, Teaching and Teacher Unions. 2008. P 4)
In Oakland, where I teach, district officials have called themselves “CEOs”, principals are touted as “Entrepreneurs”, schools are “revenue centers” and students are “test-takers”.
My small high school – only 260 students – and the most successful in Oakland by both test scores and more authentic measures - is in danger of being closed because the students “ do not generate enough revenue to sustain the budget”.
This is how these people talk to themselves.
Back in the ‘90s, Edward Luttwak, a champion of the free market described the agenda this way. He could be describing public school policy for the US today:
“At present, almost all the elite Americans, with corporate chiefs and fashionable economists in the lead are utterly convinced that they have discovered the winning formula for economic success – the only formula – good for every country, rich or poor, good for all individuals willing and able to heed the message, and of course, good for elite Americans: PRIVATIZATION + DEREGULATION + GLOBALIZATION = TURBO-CAPITALISM = PROSPERITY”. (Thomas Frank, One Market, Under God, 2000. p 17)
Well, you have to give Turbo-Capitalism credit. In the US, as comedian Wanda Sykes has so accurately stated, broke people just bailed out the rich people to a tune of $700 billion!
This statement is a clear statement of Intent to privatize everything, every thing of nature, every human relationship, to broker every aspect of human society under the market – with access only for a price.
Behind such wondrous proclamations, the so-called “free market” line stands revealed as nothing more than a fig leaf for corporate crime. This is the real name for the savage policies of Neo-Liberalism that have forced country after country to eliminate social services even as they turn public resources over to corporations, usually for zero compensation. This has been a world-historic transfer of wealth from the poor to the very rich.
This $700 billion is money that should have been used for the public: to cover health care, to provide educational programs, to protect the environment. The final ignominy is many of the 1.3 families who so far have lost their houses will not be permitted to vote in Tuesday’s election - they don’t have addresses.
New Orleans showed what this new world offers its people. The tragedy wasn’t so much the storm as the response. More federal troops were used in New Orleans than anywhere in the US since the Civil War. Their mission was to guarantee the vast privatization of government services - including firing every public school teacher - and opening up boutique public schools for the rich, while the poor are slammed into under-funded charter schools.
No one spoke this Intent out loud. However, just look at what happened. There can be no doubt than privatization was imposed both politically and militarily. The federal government guaranteed the privatization. That’s good for investment and financial speculation, even if it doesn’t work real well for people.
Central to “turbo-capitalism” was the idea of “securitization”. This is the process of taking individual assets, like your house or a mortgage or the number of times you go to the doctor, and bundling them into large aggragates that can be speculated upon for profit. Securitization is also applied to carbon admissions, water flow and even DNA. We all know that the country of Iceland just went broke. A decade ago they sold the country’s DNA to a private corporation.
BCTF’s outstanding researcher, Larry Keuhn, has shown that that Test scores have been earmarked for securitization since the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement of 1988 officially established test scores as tradeable services or commodities (Larry Kuehn. “The Educational World is Not Flat” in Compton, Weiner sited above).
Test scores are included as tradeable commodities in NFTA and every international treaty on trade since that time. While they still haven’t quite figured out how to set all this up, these legal treaties are a clear statement of Intent.
Lehman Brothers managing director, Mary Tanner, stated at their first conference on privatization in 1996:
"Education today, like health care 30 years ago, is a vast, highly localized industry ripe for change. The emergence of HMOs and hospital management companies
created enormous opportunities for investors. We believe the same pattern will occur in education." (Barbara Miner. "For-Profits Target Education," Rethinking Schools,
Spring, 2002, p 2)
Health Care in the US is the most expensive and least productive in the world. It is also the most profitable for corporations. How did this occur? Back in the ‘90s, industrial groups starting publishing “standards” for hospitals. Then they measured hospitals, both public and private, as to how they were “meeting the standards”. These results were then published in the newspapers.
Of course, public hospitals can never “achieve” at the same level as private hospitals. Their clientele are completely different. Public hospitals treat mainly poor people who delay treatment and come in later. They can never match up to the “same level of achievement” as private hospitals. But publishing the results created a public furor that corporations used to take over public hospitals and make them into private institutions.
We are witnessing the same tactic today in the corporate demand that schools should meet “standards”. This effort is embodied in the drive towards standardized testing. There’s nothing wrong with setting standards and goals for education. But corporations always use the so-called scientific standards to privatize. In the US medical care has always been private, Public schools have always been part of local government. So the same old game is being played once again.
How do you create an education market anyway?
Frederick Hess analyzes education policy for the Business Roundtable. This organization centers the corporate agenda, just as does the Canadian Council of CEOs. This organization is not just another policy group. They have powerful status on Wall Street.
“There are steps that would make K-12 schooling more attractive to for-profit investment, triggering a significant infusion of money to support research, development and creative problem-solving. For one, imposing clear standards for judging educational effectiveness would reassure investors that ventures will be less subject to political brickbats and better positioned to succeed if demonstrably effective. A more performance-based environment enables investors to assess risk in a more informed, rational manner”.
(Educational Entrepreneurship: Realities, Challenges, Possibilities, 2006, edited by Fredrick M Hess, p 252)
“In sum, NCLB represents an enormous challenge to the status quo in public education and has the potential to create a major opening for entrepreneurs inside and outside of the public system. Since NCLB passed, a large number of schools across the country have been identified as ‘in need of improvement’ for failing to meet AYP targets”.
(Educational Entrepreneurshjp. p 80)
Michael Petrilli, former member of the Department of Education under Bush, stated “We want as little regulation as possible so the market can be as vibrant as possible.” (“Bush Profiteers Collect Billions From NCLB”, Daily Kos, March, 30, 2007).
Project Censored has called the story of profiteering from public education one of the most censored stories of 2008.
Frederick Hess provides a very interesting definition of an entrepreneur:
“… educational entrepreneurs are individuals seeking too instigate change in the public education system that will disrupt, transform or radically change the way education is provided. These individuals no doubt seek some individual reward beyond profits, but their activities necessarily extend into facilitating… (the)… creative destruction in the larger system.” Frederick M Hess, ed. Educational Entrepreneurship. P 46).
In Oakland, the schools are run by the Oakland Unified School District. Unified school districts exist in the thousands across the US. The corporate agenda has systematically served to DIS-unify our public schools, closing schools, creating charter schools and often embezzling lots of public money in the process. New Orleans, for example, now has over 50 different school districts, one for each charter school, each with different policies and standards.
So No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is credited with creating the education market for entrepreneurs who claim they can do a better job than public schools AND make a profit. NCLB inforces standardized testing and high-stakes testing. Are there other indicators of a malign intent here?
1) NCLB was never funded. It requires states, school districts and even individual schools to take pay for the increased demands. Once a school is in the “progam improvement” category for 4 years, the school must take money out of the classroom and turn it over to privatizers (the first year this is for after-school programs).
This is the classic model: underfund government services, tout private corporations as saviors and then turn the money over to them.
The real intent is shown by this one simple but unalterable fact. If the goal were to help poor children, then money would flow towards them, rather than be taken from them.
2) Secondly, the US really has two separate school systems. The suburban schools are the best in the world. The inner-city schools are among the worst. This of course is apartheid education. But NCLB is truly insidious here. The threat of NCLB – what forces schools to comply with its demands - is that the federal government will withhold Title I money. This money is to support poor children.
While this threat is crippling to inner-city schools, with high percentages of poor children, it means very little to suburban schools. They usually have dramatically fewer poor students, so the threat is quite significant. Moreover, suburban schools routinely hold fund-raisers, like a Dad’s Pancake Breakfast, that raise hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. This of course is impossible for most inner city schools.
3) California’s CST test that provides each school with a number that is supposed to show how well the school is succeeding. The CAHSEE Test is the high-stakes test that is used as the measure of the students. Like every other standardized test, the scores are not set by psychometircians and statistics experts. They are determined by politicians. (Yes, these are the very same politicians who always refuse to take these tests when challenged to do so).
Both students with documented Special Education needs and students who are new to learning the English language must take and pass these tests or they cannot graduate. How exactly does this help these students? Such a use of testing is neither moral, nor educationally sound.
What would happen if, on the first day of school, you brought your child to class and met the teacher, and that teacher told you that your child’s future would be determined by a one number score that your child achieved on a test in April? You would raise a hue and cry and drive that teacher out of the school. Yet, with the “official trappings” of government, that is exactly what standardized testing proposes to do.
In his important essay about standardized testing ( “The Case Against Standardized Testing” (www.mcte.org/journal/mej07/3Henry.pdf), Peter Henry points out that about the only thing that these supposedly “scientific” tests can predict is the square footage of the test-takers’ principle living space. This of course reflects their socio-economic status. Though it is beyond the scope of this discussion, it is important to understand Henry’s point about how unscientific these tests are.
“Let me say this again because it is terribly important: There are no large-scale, peer-reviewed academic studies that prove, or even suggest, that a high-stakes, standardized testing educational program improves learning, skill development or achievement for students.” (p 45)
Standardized testing alone has siphoned off some $5.3 billion dollars a year in windfall corporate profits. This type of testing, then, is central to the rise of the “educational market” and inevitable paves the way for privatization.
Worldwide, governments spend more money on public education than on any other item, except perhaps for the military. Privatizing public education means the greatest single transfer of public wealth into private hands perhaps in world history.
In reality, public education has never been about the kids. Our public schools have always been structured to serve the labor market.
In 1900, 50%+ of the US population worked in farms. The educational system was designed to support what a rural workforce needed to know in order to work and produce. This gave us summer vacation, so the kids could help bring in the crop on the family farm.
By the 1920s, assembly-line industry was rising and public education was configured to create an industrial workforce. By 1950, 50% of the US population worked in industry and the “factory school” was in place. Students were considered parts on an assembly line that moved from station to station, or from period to period throughout the day, where the workers or teachers could shape them.
OK, time for the quiz. The following statement was made by New York City Superintendent of Schools, William H. Maxwell. What year was it?
“…as a first step, to secure their ends, they (the manufacturers - ed) and their agents, in unmeasured terms, denounced the public schools as being behind the times, as inefficient, as lacking in public spirit.” (Raymond E Callahan. Education and the Cult of Efficiency. 1962, p 13)
The correct answer, of course, is… 1913! At that point assembly lines demanded changes in the way workmen were trained that were qualitatively different than the old apprentice system for training skilled artisans. Corporations attacked public schools across the country until they put a system in place that trained the workers they needed – at no cost to themselves.
By 2000, the computer was the rising technology and today 50% of the US workforce works in various computer assisted “services”. The industrial system of education is today becoming outmoded by technological change to electronics.
New technology always leads to a transformation of the educational system. The question is not whether that system will change, but how. This depends on who controls the technology.
Computers, telecommunication and digital technology today are being configured a certain way. Since they are inherently LABOR-REPLACING technologies, they are being used by corporations to create a global system of computerized production that means that hundreds of millions of people will no longer be able to work. This is already taking place. Look at what has happened to Michigan, Ohio and Central Los Angeles.
The system of education is in the process of being configured to support this kind of workforce. Corporations are quite clear; why should they pay to educate people who will never be allowed to work? The de-skilling of the global workforce inevitably means the de-skilling of the teaching profession.
The global goal for education is to create humans who can read simple directions, rather than novels, who have a basic sense of numeracy, rather than the skills of mathematical thinking, and above all to create people who will believe in corporations and follow orders in a docile fashion.
Hence, corporate privatizers rely on scripted-learning, rather than creating the rich and rewarding curricula that is common in private schools. They pressure older teachers to leave, those who understand that teaching is about care and judgement, rather than standardized testing, and replace them with young people who haven’t been trained as teachers, who will teach to the test, and who will work for a lot less.
Standardized testing is the beginning of the process, not the end. Now we are seeing new stages and new demands and now these are being imposed. Across the board, they conform to the corporate agenda and reduce the quality of education. This is a necessity if you are to make a profit from public schools.
This year, NYC began to implement differential pay for teachers, by using “merit pay” to reward teachers who demonstrate their “value-added” by an increase in their students’ test scores. This program is in various stages of implementation across the country.
Now new forms of testing are being pushed into every school district in our country. These are corporate-written and corporate-assessed mid-term tests called Benchmark Tests. They are coupled to “Pacing Guides”, written by the textbook companies, that purport to guide the teacher through the curriculum by dictating what should be taught each day.
These tests are supposed to be “formative assessments”, meaning that they help the teacher adjust the curriculum based on what kids are learning or not learning. Along with every other testing issue, the idea of formative assessment is not a bad thing in itself. But the idea that corporations are should control this process is sheer nonsense for at least two reasons.
Firstly, any teacher, worth their salt, already knows where each child is in the learning process. Teachers assess students every day in multiple ways. Secondly, if teachers do not have primary control over content, there cannot be, by definition, any real formative assessment, since they cannot deviate significantly from the Pacing Guide. Classroom teachers are losing their autonomy to evaluate their students or to design engaging curricula. Elementary schools in Oakland now test up to 8 or 9 times a semester.
Testing then is one of the major weapons for privatizing public schools. It is the key to re-organizing the schools of the world to fit Turbo-Capitalism in the electronic age.
Corporations are quite clear – in their own words – about the issue of testing and its relationship to privatization. If we lose this battle, we will lose public education.
We dare not shrink from this challenge. Private corporations are engineering a massive change in society without any real public discussion and debate. Let’s open up the discussion about what kind of society people really need.
Corporations are also quite clear that the Industrial System of economy, that has dominated the world for some 200 years, is ending. They consider this a business opportunity and intend to get their first. The campaign to privatize public education by corporations – the most powerful institutions on earth – cannot be taken lightly.
The attack determines and informs our response. If the corporate agenda is to privatize everything and eliminate the public, then our response must be to defend and expand the public in all directions. If people really want things to remain public, they are going to have to fight for it.
If the Neo-liberals are telling us that “earning a living” is obsolete, that all routine work will be done by computers, telecommunications and computer chips, that there are no more jobs. then that’s OK with me. Routine work never paid jack anyway. But why does this have to mean we are all “laid off”? Maybe we need to re-think what “work” really means and what it means “to have a job”.
There can be no doubt, that for the price of the Wall Street bailout, the same electronic technology could be configured to put people before profits. If the market guarantees the power of the private and, by definition, inequality, then the Public is the only guarantee of equality.
In order to win, we will have to transform our public schools into something completely new; we must fight FORWARD, not backwards. The old system didn’t work for most people anyway… and it still doesn’t. It just wasn’t very good. If the Bail Out means anything, it certainly means that we can’t succeed by calling for the good old days to return.
Our fight must be based on a new vision of a future where access to quality education is truly a right for all – one that is supported by vast funding, where public education is marked by achieving our full human potential, and where public education is no longer subordinated to the paltry vision of a labor market that profits from exploitation and deliberately under-educates and mis-educates our peoples.
Corporate Education Or Education As Corporation
NCLB is a means to privatize Education, not to mention a way to ruin it!