Is the education reform tide turning?

I find that many of my posts at American Times are pretty cynical – what with the apparently coordinated assault on teachers form one state to the next – but there has been one piece of good news lately: president Obama has come out agains the current standardized-testing regime. This is good news for public education in America. It’s also good news for teachers – standardized tests have become the first weapon of faux-accountability wielded against our nation’s educators. And as this recent report from USA Today shows, far from holding teachers accountable, the current testing craze simply incentivizes cheating, while making education and learning boring.

I’ve been pretty critical of this administration’s education reforms – Race to the Top has been little more than No Child Left Behind Part Deux. But if Obama means what he says about testing – and I have no reason to suspect otherwise – then perhaps we’re witnessing a real sea-change. I certainly hope so.

44 replies
  1. 1
    BGinCHI says:

    It always helps to explain exactly what you mean by the “standardized test” problem. Someone from the Dept of Ed needs to get out there and make it clear what all teachers know: teaching for the test only teaches students to pass tests (if that), and not much else.

    The problem here, and one of the reasons the world is leaving us behind, is that we’re setting flawed standards that actually lead to the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve. Sure, students might do better at the standards now set for them. But this pegs them to a flawed standard and disavows the expertise of teachers and of our culture to let students find skills and development in ways that are more creative, messier, and less testable.

    I would say if it’s easy to test, then learning it must not be worth much.

  2. 2
    Redshift says:

    I hope so too. The canard that standardized tests equal “accountability” has been pernicious from the beginning. Ms. Redshift teaches at a community college, and the difference is striking with students who come out of a world where the most important measure of success was doing well on the test, rather than demonstrating solid understanding.

    And as for the USA Today story, it’s a free market success, just like our health care system! If you make people’s jobs dependent on unrealistic gains in test scores (which NCLB mandated), then they’ll find a way to cut out the middle man and produce test scores.

  3. 3
    patroclus says:

    No, the education “reform” tide is not turning. The lying sliming Republicans, throughout the country, have made assaults on education one of their major policy initiatives this year. They want to reduce funding, they want to bust up teacher’s unions, they want to limit collective bargaining, they want to end tenure, they want to smear academics, they want to reduce teachers’ pensions, they want to increase class size, they want to underfund after-school programs, they want to be able to teach creationism as part of a scientific curriculum. In sum, they want to undermine public education in favor of a private profit-based voucher model.

    The lying smearing Republicans control the U.S. House. Whether President Obama supports or does not support the NCLB standarized tests doesn’t really matter because the reality of Republican control means that no significant federal education legislation is likely to be enacted this Session. If the tide is to turn, it will do so only in the next election cycle. The standardized test regime is fixed until at least the next Congress and probably for awhile thereafter.

  4. 4
    FlipYrWhig says:

    Bob Somerby has been harping on the self-congratulatory racket of “education reform” for the past few weeks, and IMHO it’s the type of thing that vindicates his particular brand of never-forget tenacity.

  5. 5
    kdaug says:

    Industrialized, or local?

  6. 6
    E.D. Kain says:

    @patroclus: What I hope, I suppose, is that liberals and Democrats who backed this reform agenda are starting to wake up to how pernicious it is.

  7. 7
    Sly says:

    Teaching to the test, or backwards assessments in edu-lingo, is not problematic in and of itself. Think about what you want your students to learn, design an assessment around that material, and explore all the ways in which that body of understanding can be communicated to students. This has been one of the big pushes, at least in my neck of the woods, for drafting the curriculum at the local level. “UBD” is probably the biggest buzzword teacher applicants need to know around here to even last 30 seconds in an interview (if they can actually land an interview).

    Problem is the only way that works is if you’re the one actually designing your own tests. Otherwise you’re trying to teach to a test someone else made without knowing the learning needs of your students. In New York this problem is somewhat manageable due to the fact that the state basically recycles test questions, but all that does is necessitate “Regents drills” and familiarizing students with test taking protocols that will not exist once they leave high school. No history professor at a university or college is going to put up a political cartoon from the 1870s and ask “Please describe the mood of this image.”

  8. 8
    jwb says:

    @BGinCHI: True, except you can fault the current set of tests at not even being very good at testing what it is claimed they aim to test.

  9. 9
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Making education and learning boring is all part of the parasite overclass’ plan to keep the other 99% in their place, subservient, ignorant, and in many cases, just outright stupid. The teatard idiots, who know something is wrong, but lack the critical thinking skills to do anything but point at the near-by sheriff, wailing like three year olds about birth certificates and argula, are a prime example of what happens when you make education and learning boring.

    William Ayers is an education expert, he seeks to teach critical thinking skills to kids…therefore he must be destroyed as he’s surely an enemy of the parasite overclass.

  10. 10
    jwb says:

    @patroclus: Yes, and the aim is quite consistent with the rest of the GOP assault on government: break education, make it impossible for it to succeed, don’t fix it.

  11. 11
    jwb says:

    @E.D. Kain: You don’t have to worry about liberals and democrats. What you have to worry about are the politically flighty independents who, whenever they start feeling anxious, yield to the whatever simple solution is currently being played by the GOP snake charmers. You know very well how alluring that tune can be.

  12. 12
    Martin says:

    Well, changing the education reform away from testing sure is going to suck in a nation of non-represented, minimum wage teachers.

    The testing push had nothing to do with improving quality, and everything to do with efficiency. If the test is all that matters, you can replace public education with Kaplan. That’s always been the plan.

  13. 13
    Ben says:

    In related news, Michelle Rhee has a history of deliberately cheating to pad her own career: You know how the thing that launched her career was the dramatic improvement in test scores in an impoverished Baltimore elementary school?

    Washington Post did an investigation and found out that her numbers were fudged, majorly. Yet ALL this time she has cited her experience in Baltimore as justification for her tactics.

    Now that the Washington Post investigation found that Michelle Rhee fraudulently misrepresented herself and achievements, she preposterously told the Post that she simply misspoke but at the same time sent out an email to her supporters saying “To our members, this episode is further proof of what we’re up against and why we need your support to get the message out.” By the way, her PAC-like organization has $1Billion dollars, and the support of people like Oprah.

    She’s done precisely the same thing with this USAToday investigation, but going further, saying that the USAToday “absolutely lacked credibility”

    Rhee is a fraud. And she works as an education adviser for Florida Gov. Rick Scott. The former health insurance CEO who plead the 5th 75 times in the largest Medicare fraud case in US history.

    And why does Rhee support Rick Scott’s mission to completely destroy the public school system in Florida? And i’m not exaggerating. If Rick Scott has his way, there will be no more public schools in Florida.

    Rhee: “I think if there is one thing I have learned over the last 15 months, it’s that cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated.”
    September 2008 Aspen Institute’s education summit at the Mayflower Hotel

    Her replacement Kaya Henderson isn’t any better. She’s just Rhee without the combativeness. And she believes in test scores.

    Anyway, if you want a good laugh, check out this youtube video with Rhee and her ‘Rheeisms’ And pass it along

  14. 14
    patroclus says:

    E.D., well, I think Senator Kennedy and the Dems were aware of the compromise inherent in NCLB when they supported its enactment in 2001. That is, in exchange for President Bush’s standardized tests, they essentially increased funding (from 42.2 billion to 54.4 billion from 2001 to 2007) across-the-board for public schools, particularly by increasing ESEA funding. That is, the “deal” was that Republicans would buy into funding the public education model if the Dems accepted the standarized tests, the so-called accountability provisions and the “one great goal” thang.

    But the problem was that the (Bush) Republicans bought into the model but the post-Bush Republicans most certainly have not. Now, the Republicans want the NCLB stuff and they want to decrease funding (and all that other stuff I just summarized).

    NCLB passed overwhelmingly (91-8 in the Senate; 384-45 in the House) based on Kennedy’s (and Bush’s) leadership and the acceptance of their “deal” by both parties. I don’t think Senator Kennedy and the Dems were naive or muddleheaded; they fully recognized the trade-off of the possibly pernicious standardized tests but they wanted the funding.

    Now, however, because the tide has turned, the lying sliming Republicans were not good to Bush’s word and have reneged on the compromise. Now, public education is under assault from them (again). Now, they want the standardized tests but not the funding. Just like on health care (and many other issues) the Republicans are double-crossers; they negotiate in bad faith and their word is worthless.

    I agree that when the lying smearing Republicans pull their usual double-crosses, it makes the Dems who fell for their lies look stupid. But that’s the price America continually pays by putting those liars in power. And as long as they are in power, the tide is in their favor.

    I’m glad President Obama opposes the NCLB standardized tests. But he doesn’t control the House. In the current wicked environment, the only Education Bill that would get out of this House is one that cuts ESEA and Title I funding. I do not wish to see such a policy enacted, so I’d rather have no bill whatsoever.

  15. 15
    Hermione Granger-Weasley says:

    do you believe in the innovation of the market?


    Begone, vile freemarket boggart!
    NCLB is a freemarket solution. Schools funding is determined by standardized test results.
    The invisble hand of the market that just punched American working families in the face is now choking America’s schools.

  16. 16
    Hermione Granger-Weasley says:

    Alas, the dark creature disapparated too soon.
    I was sure it was going to propose its freemarket solution to “help” Our Beseiged Educational Wizards and Wizardettes.
    The freemarket boggarts and conservative deatheaters are salivating over a new program to “fix” teachers with standardized accreditation and standardized certification tests.
    No Teacher Left Behind, I think they are calling it.

  17. 17
    Martin says:

    Can we have HGW banned out of some sort of copyright concern? Anything, I’m begging here…

  18. 18
    Yutsano says:

    @Martin: She’s not slipping back into her creepy stalkerish behavior just quite yet. I think it’s lurking under the surface just itching to come forth.

  19. 19
    Emerald says:

    If Obama’s finally seen the light on übertesting, that’s good news.

    I’m a former education professor. We go through these testing manias every several decades, although this is the worst one I can remember. They tend to end the same way: people finally realize that teaching to the test doesn’t teach much, especially if you use standardized tests.

    I’ve always suspected that NCLB was intended to destroy public schools. First, you turn schools into factories, then you make sure that most schools can’t function and will fail the tests. You use that “evidence” to trash the schools and especially the teachers. Rinse and repeat.

    If that’s the real goal of NCLB, it’s been damned successful so far.

  20. 20
    Barb (formerly Gex) says:

    @Emerald: I believe Neil Bush’s educational software company did really well during this fad. As I recall, Babs Bush “donated” $40K to Katrina with the caveat that it be used on educational software…

  21. 21
    Parallel 5ths (Ionian Steel) says:

    @Yutsano: So blathery, I can’t make heads nor tails of it. Still, a nice change from the buzzword-salad from the academy.

    This blog is haunted by the ghost of Edward Lear.

  22. 22
    Barb (formerly Gex) says:

    Basically, the Wire had this covered. If you evaluate via metrics like this, people juke the numbers. If quality was such an easy thing to evaluate, we’d have no trouble hiring the awesomest best teachers in the first place. It takes dedication and understanding to look for and encourage quality.

  23. 23
    Yutsano says:

    @Parallel 5ths (Ionian Steel): Be gentle, the specter of insomnia is haunting me right now. :)

  24. 24
    Parallel 5ths (Ionian Steel) says:

    Just contemplating this man makes me sleepy. Look at his portrait. He can barely keep his own eyes open.

  25. 25
    Yutsano says:

    @Parallel 5ths (Ionian Steel): Contemplation of a mid-level Austrian composer will do that. Especially since his biggest impact is in how original scores are compiled and edited. Never writing an opera = never making the big time.

  26. 26
    Emerald says:

    @Barb (formerly Gex): Ah, yes indeedy. There was that too.

    Normal Bush family behavior.

  27. 27
    alwhite says:

    I have not seen this change you are talking about. The GOP majority in the MN lege have introduced a bill that will strip teacher tenure and replace it with a system of rewards and punishments (up to firing) based largely on test scores. Its expected to pass.

    And, like ‘No Child Left a Dime’ and ‘Race To the Bottom’ no consideration is given to issues like poverty or homelessness or home language.

  28. 28
    piratedan says:

    we’re penny wise and pound foolish or eating our seed corn or whatever other catchy phrase we need to employ… but imho, we need to do more, not less with educational reform

    1) trash standardized tests, we’re teaching kids to take tests instead of learning material, not exactly what education is for.

    2) quit treating and paying teachers like second class citizens

    3) reduce administrators and hire more teachers

    4) reintroduce, recess, PE, art, music and languages into the curriculum, have the curriculum be accepted nationally instead of basing it on who buys the most friggin textbooks.

    5) allow teachers more time to teach and plan, if it means that we finally trash this archaic agricultural based system of when school is session, that’s fine too.

    6) feed the kids while they are there.

    If Finland can get off their ass and make these changes because they wanted to invest in themselves, I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t do the same.

  29. 29
    Woody says:

    Um, no, the tide is not turning, really at all.

    One thing that FOX/GOP has that the sane world does not: shills that get paid. The paid include media stars directly paid (O’Reilly, Hannity), political stars directly paid (Palin, Huckabee), or fifth-columnist agents who are paid after their usefulness is spent (Michelle Rhee, JoeMentum very soon).

    There is so much to be gained for FOX/GOP to never back down: elimination of unions who stand in the way of Vanderbiltian plutocracy; demonization of professionals who encourage independent thought and systemic doubt (not a good thing for theocracy or FOX); and yet another degradation of political opposition.

    The ‘payment’ for opposing this avalanche of mendacity is . . . the status quo.

    So long as FOX/GOP can shower dollars on shills while the sane world cannot, they will never ever quit. There’s too much money in it, you see.

  30. 30
    Alex S. says:


    Wow, thanks for connecting the dots.

  31. 31
    Peter says:

    @Yutsano: Fear not, she’ll revert to form as soon as she thinks she’s safe in doing so. They always do.

  32. 32
    jfxgillis says:


    Is there something you can do to let me comment at your Forbes site? I’ve registered three times now and it still won’t let me.

  33. 33
    Jim Pharo says:

    I don’t think a few kindly words from President Obama are going to amount to a hill of beans. (What a great visual, b/t/w.)

    We have exactly the education system we want. It teaches little or nothing of value, and it does so at a constantly declining cost. The only money worth spending on education is money that will line the pockets of big corporations or political donors. Teacher compensation is declining, and the costs that remain are being increasingly pushed onto the students and their families (and of course their teachers).

    How can anyone say that this is not the exact outcome intended by our political leaders? Or that we didn’t vote for this when we voted for those leaders.

    What candidate can I vote for — what ballot initiative can I support — that will actually improve the quality of the education that my kids receive? Obama? Please….

  34. 34
    Hermione Granger-Weasley says:


    The GOP majority in the MN lege have introduced a bill that will strip teacher tenure and replace it with a system of rewards and punishments (up to firing) based largely on test scores. Its expected to pass.

    This is part of the model for the freemarket solution to “help” (ie “fix”) teachers that conservative boggarts and deatheaters are are proposing. I like to think of it as No Teacher Left Behind.
    The other part is a proto-bureaucratic paper generator for standardized accreditation and certification programs, to even more rigidly enforce Death Eater Approved Teaching Methods, methods proven to show results.
    Typical boggart speak.

    My philosophy is pretty simple: nobody knows how to teach better than a teacher does.
    I am not saying here that nobody should ever criticize teachers or that there isn’t a discussion to be had about good ways to teach or how to better identify bad teachers.

    A boggarts typically speaks from both sides of its mouth, on any issue except for free market evangelism. That is why they are simple to expose with the ridikkulous! charm.

    @Martin: Cole said EDK (and, btw, ABL also) is perfectly capable of defending himself and his boggartisms.
    Let him.

    Do you need to see the link?

  35. 35
    jcgrim says:

    The tide is NOT turning. Obama shared the stage with Jeb Bush a few weeks ago praising his edu-privatization “non-profit” reform schemes; NONE of which, are supported by independent research.

    States that received Race to the Top are crawling with private/public blood suckers in the testing industry, teacher training industry, and charter school industry. TN has a big-assed contract with a known fabricator to do teacher inservices

    Essentially the horse is out of the barn for the US education-industrial complex, thanks to Bush’s NCLB and Obama and Arne’s RttT. He’s simply placating his base because teachers and parents are pissed and organizing around the country against his disastrous policies.

  36. 36
    Hermione Granger-Weasley says:

    @Jim Pharo: Obama is actually doing some great things.
    The Early Graduation Program was set up by Obama and Biden almost immediately after O’s inaugration. There is also a plan to turn local junior colleges into state-of-the-art votech academies.
    The Heckman Equation outlines what would be a great program to replace the awful freemarket solution legacy programs of NCLB and RttT.
    The Heckman equation is a social justice solution. It is our national shame that 25% of american preschoolers live below the poverty line (while we spend a billion a month to make more Taliban and commit atrocities in an immoral, unjust, and unwinnable war in Afghanistan.)
    The Heckman equation addresses something critical that freemarket solutions can never address– childhood nutrition.

    It’s Simple, It’s Evidence-Based… It’s the Heckman Equation
    James Heckman, a Professor of Economics at The University of Chicago, a Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics, and an expert in the economics of human development, presents his case for investing in early childhood – the Heckman Equation. The Heckman Equation offers a formula for understanding the great gains to be had by investing in early and equal development of human potential.
    INVEST in educational and developmental resources for disadvantaged families to provide equal access to successful early human development.
    DEVELOP cognitive skills, social skills, and physical well-being in children early—from birth to age five when it matters most.
    SUSTAIN early development with effective education through adulthood.
    GAIN more capable, productive and valuable citizens that pay dividends to America for generations to come.

  37. 37
    Hermione Granger-Weasley says:

    @Jim Pharo: Here is a link for the early graduation program– it is being tested in eight states.

  38. 38
    jcgrim says:

    Chair of the Education Dept at the University of Oregon, Yong Zhao’s historical metaphor of Easter Island is fascinating insight into the cultural mindset of our current educational reform. I urge you to read it.

    Race to Self-Destruction: A History Lesson for Educational Reformers

  39. 39
    Stefan says:

    Basically, the Wire had this covered. If you evaluate via metrics like this, people juke the numbers. If quality was such an easy thing to evaluate, we’d have no trouble hiring the awesomest best teachers in the first place.

    There’s a saying in business that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Of course, the other saying is that you soon start to manage only what you can measure, and so the intangible measures of success fall by the wayside.

  40. 40
    Hermione Granger-Weasley says:

    All Juicers:
    Heckman is an ECONOMICS professor.
    See, social justice can be economical!
    The new arms race is human capital.
    We need to maximize our return to investment.

  41. 41
    Hermione Granger-Weasley says:

    @Peter: No. I. Won’t.
    I owe this blog an apology. I commented at TAS the Glibertarian Hivemind for two years when I was a conservative. I have seen ALL these freemarket solutions over and over ad nauseum.
    I thought it was cool and funnie to mock you guys for falling for this same endless conservative crapology.
    But you had never heard it before.

    I was unjust, immature, and wrong.
    I’m sorry.

  42. 42

    I’ll be sharing this with a lot of teachers I know. Good to see someone else besides me sees RTTT as the child-hurting boondoggle it is.

  43. 43
    Triassic Sands says:

    Whether President Obama supports or does not support the NCLB standarized tests doesn’t really matter…

    Not true. Next to his human rights policies, education is the other area that causes me to be critical of President Obama. If he really does pull back from his support for high-stakes testing, that will be good news, and it could help change the discussion in this country — and that really does matter. Unfortunately, Obama has been a staunch supporter of right-wing, free marketeer policies like choice/vouchers/charter schools, merit pay, and the kind of accountability that will ultimately damage kids and our public educational system.

    I think Kennedy may have come to realize what a huge mistake he had made to join with Bush to enact NCLB. Over the years, whenever I’ve heard President Obama speak about education, my heart has sunk. He made a poor choice when he picked Arne Duncan to be his Education Secretary (over Linda Darling-Hammond who advised his campaign). Obama’s support of charter schools, which are one of the major threats to public education in this country, is every bit as dismaying as his (former?) support for high-stakes testing.

    It would be great if this signaled a change in the president’s education policies. No president can be all things to all people, but education is an area about which I care deeply and I’ve been greatly disappointed by Obama’s policies and rhetoric up to now. Fingers crossed.

    (As for his position on testing not mattering because nothing will be done until the next congressional session, I say, it always matters what a president says and supports, even in education. He has the most prominent position in the country and if he supports what are essentially winger policies, he makes it much harder for better informed voices to be heard. If Democrats are going to oppose the free marketeer education agenda, having Obama on their side is absolutely vital.)

  44. 44
    Hermione Granger-Weasley says:

    @Triassic Sands:

    If Democrats are going to oppose the free marketeer education agenda, having Obama on their side is absolutely vital.


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