Betraying Public Education in the Name of Reform

by Jennifer Rockne
April 2000

The following account was written for publication in Colorado, one of the “leading” states (following Florida, Texas and a few others) in instituting destructive high stakes testing. However, this is part of a national education-for-profit agenda that will spread quickly absent citizen awareness and opposition.

Headlines after the Colorado State Legislature passed Governor Owens’ school reform package declared victory for Owens. Unfortunately Owens’ win is a huge loss for many children in public schools throughout Colorado.

Owens’ bill mimics policies being promoted in several states in the name of improving schools with “standards and accountability.” But accountability too often is code for more control over classroom activity by people not in classrooms. Learning opportunities for crucial skills not measured by standardized tests may be diminished because people who don’t know much about education have decided it’s time to invoke tough standards.

Consider carefully that the primary opposition came from those who actually do the educating–and, as our children’s schools are transformed into giant test-prep centers, increasingly from parents as well. Owens’ bill mandates that some schools will fail regardless of objective achievement standards because they will be graded against other schools as if they were rivals in a zero-sum game. What a great way to discourage sharing of ideas and resources and to teach children that they live in a world of cutthroat competition!

Under Owens’ plan, schools grades will be based exclusively on standardized test results, stigmatizing schools that are working to meet the needs of the lower income, learning challenged, or non-native English speakers who typically are low on the bell curve already. Owens’ bill then will grant failing schools two years to dramatically boost test scores against other schools (by 2.5% annually) or local control will be stripped away and given to state or outside management. Didn’t Owens run as a Republican, the party that espouses more local control? Unfortunately his legislation is based on the corporate privatization agenda, not true conservative values.

Some standardized testing certainly is valuable. Common sense suggests we should determine what our educational goals are, then check in periodically to see how successful we have been at meeting them. Some goals can be measured by such tests, but unfortunately assessment threatens to dominate the educational process–with severe consequences.

Proponents of Owens’ fix will point to Texas where in-state standardized test scores improved dramatically. However the results of a University of Texas study last year prove the score increases are not due to improved student learning and do not translate to performance on national standardized tests.

As schools are driven to drill students in preparation for standardized exams, important opportunities for students to become critical and curious learners are sacrificed. For example, the voucher system implemented in Florida last year, which Owens’ agenda models, forced a shrunken curriculum of only test score-enhancing subjects, to the detriment of social studies and science courses whose content is not included in standardized tests. Theyve also cut back field trips that inspire kids with new experiences in favor of test-taking fairs.

Students in some of the failing Florida schools are offered rewards such as televisions and video game stations for producing top standardized test scores. Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation tend to be inversely related: the more people are rewarded for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. We should be wary of damaging students motivation since learning becomes a chore when it is reward-driven.

Affluence is a primary factor in predicting test scores, yet our Governor wishes to impoverish further the poor schools while giving financial rewards only to the elites (under Owens’ bill, only “A” schools and schools showing the greatest improvement will be eligible for designated award dollars.) Research also demonstrates when teachers ultimately focus on raising standardized test scores, they tend to change their teaching style, and students’ performance actually declines. In one 1990 Colorado study, teachers were asked to instruct their students on a specific task. About half the teachers were told their students must “perform up to standards” on a subsequent test. The rest of the teachers simply were invited to “facilitate the children’s learning” on the same task. The students in the latter groups outperformed the groups whose teachers were faced with standards.

Studies in other states having reformed education also indicate that teachers are teaching the test, according to a survey conducted at the University of Texas. The pressure of performance standardized testing places on teachers and administrators has driven some to cheating for the sake of maintaining jobs and schools. They have excluded special education students from testing, altered answers, and passed test questions from school to school, sometimes to extremes. A recent investigation in New York revealed a standardized testing cheating scandal dating back a decade that involved 52 educators at 32 different schools. In Austin, Texas a grand jury indicted an independent school district for allegedly manipulating student information to disqualify low scores. Is this what we want?

Teachers in standards-oriented classrooms have their ethics challenged and discretion diminished, removing most opportunity for students to play an active role in designing their own learning. The wide-ranging and enthusiastic exploration of ideas that characterize the best classrooms cannot survive when emphasis is on preparing students to test.

To question our reliance on lectures, worksheets, and memorization, we must confront the possibility that we spent a good chunk of our childhood doing things that were every bit as pointless as we suspected. Active learners participate in their own education. They acquire facts and skills, but in a context and for a purpose. Students can learn skills within interesting problems, developing critical abilities for life beyond the classroom as members of civic society a role for which rote memorization of facts does not prepare them.

We always should strive to improve public education, but we should look to those involved in classrooms for ideas before following the model promoted by corporate think tanks behind the Governors agenda. Their privatization agenda is clear to anyone who reads the fine print; stripping schools of local control and hand-delivering them to corporate management is likely unless the public gets involved.

The right to a quality, public education is one of the truly great American institutions. Owens and other privatizers who seek to undermine our right should be recognized as traitors to the American ideal of equal rights and opportunity. Calling all Colorado citizens who care about protecting and improving public education: the time to act is now.


Look for these books by Alfie Kohn:

  • The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and Tougher Standards –the title speaks for itself.
  • Education, Inc. is a collection of essays explorings corporate influence in the education.
  • What To Look For In A Classroom is a collection of essays on various educational topics largely challenging pervasive myths in the field.
  • . . .and this one by Susan Ohanian: One Size Fits Few: The Folly Of Educational Standards
  • Alfie Kohns website is a rich source for resources, information and ways to turn concern into effective action in our childrens education.

Suggestions for motivated folks to act:

  • Talk informally to friends and acquaintances about the issues anywhere you go!
  • Write a letter to the editor of a local or regional paper.
  • Write to or visit your state legislators about the issue.
  • Attend and speak out at school board meetings and other community forums on education.
  • Refuse to participate in state and district testing programs. Really. It’s a growing trend that can play a key role. Parents can keep their kids home on testing days to protest this use of school ti and make sure other parent know this is almost always an option–even when they call the tests “mandatory.”