Response to Dianne Feinstein

23 Aug

Senator Feinstein, I am responding to you via open letter to address not just you but as many leaders as possible about education policy in America. At the outset, I want you to know that I have admired you since those horrible days when Dan White killed Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone and you were called upon to lead a wounded city. This message is not an attack on you, but rather, it is an attempt to educate about a harmful and widely held misconception regarding education testing.

In the message to me you wrote:

“I recognize that standardized tests have clear limitations and are not a cure-all for our nation’s education challenges; however, I also believe testing is an important tool for measuring student and school performance in order to ensure that every child receives a quality education. Standardized testing makes it possible for parents to see the progress their child is making and teachers to know when to correct course in their instruction.”

Now, I realize that this view, though unsupportable, is and has been for some time the belief of a majority of politicians and education bureaucrats in our nation’s capital. In the past, I did not appreciate how deeply this idea had permeated political thought. It therefore left me completely confused about why both Republican and Democratic leaders abandoned their own principles when it came to education.

I wondered, “Why have Democrats adopted test and punish policies that have clearly become a key tool for destroying public schools? Why have people like Barack Obama advocated charter schools that are little more than publicly financed private schools with little accountability? Why do Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton all seem to believe that a massive testing program will protect schools in poor and minority neighborhoods?”

On the other side of the isle, it is just as strange. Since the days of Abraham Lincoln, Republicans have stood for individual rights and local control but for two decades they have authored laws transferring control of education from local communities to the federal government. George H. W. Bush signed legislation that promoted federal involvement in local schools and his son sponsored, as his signature achievement, the “No Child Left Behind” law that gave control of school policy to the federal government.

Why is Jeb Bush such a long time and until recently vocal proponent of federal standards of education (the poorly written common core and next generation science standards)? Why did Orin Hatch vote against the Murphy opt-out amendment to the “Every Child Achieves Act?” Why was even Ronald Regan’s secretary of education, Terrell Bell, an early leader promoting the federalization of public education?

A very witty blogger named Peter Greene posted a comment about the recent education policy debate by Republican presidential candidates:

“GOP pols have the message– local control is great and the American Way and they totally support it except when they have to take it away from places that suck. Parents should be free to choose from an assortment of great schools, or at least from the assortment of charter schools that we say they should have. And parents who want to exert local control by keeping their community school intact (like, say, the hunger strikers of Chicago or the protesters of Newark)– well, they can’t have it.”

I started to wonder if our entire political class had become completely corrupted by money and power. Fortunately, that did not really make sense to me. I now believe I have plumbed the essence of the dilemma. Our political leaders do not understand the limitations of testing and especially standardized testing. The truth is that standardized testing is incapable of evaluating teacher or school quality, but there is a widely held belief it can.

A book written in 1999 by the education writer Alfie Kohn points directly at the disconnection:

“… it is an open secret among educators that much of what the scores are indicating is just the socioeconomic status of the students who take them. One educator suggests we should save everyone a lot of time and money by eliminating standardized tests, since we could get the same results by asking a single question ‘How much money does your mom make?’”[1]

That is the point. Standardized testing has a tremendous correlation to the economic conditions of the neighborhood in which the students live. This is the only variable that does have a high correlation with testing results. The environmental component of test results is so strong that it completely masks inputs like quality of teaching or quality of school. For the past more than a decade we have been mistakenly destroying great schools in poor communities based on a widely held misunderstanding of what the data means.

The famed education measurement expert, Gene V Glass, announced this month that he is no longer working in education measurement, because of its misuse. He asserted:

“The degrading of public education has involved impugning its effectiveness, cutting its budget, and busting its unions. Educational measurement has been the perfect tool for accomplishing all three: cheap and scientific looking.”

Last spring I heard Professor Yong Zhao speak. In his often humorous remarks he said that American students have never compared well on international testing. He then said, “The real question is why America is still here?” This instigated much laughter. The point is that standardized testing could not elucidate the greatness of America’s schools.

Here are a couple quotes from Professor Zhao’s latest book:

“’Out of the one billion people who have been educated in Mainland China since 1949, there have been no Nobel prize winner,’ Zheng wrote in an article. ‘This forcefully testifies [to] the power of education in destroying creativity on behalf of the [Chinese] society.’”

“The only way China will win the global competition of the future is for the West to begin educating the way China does.” [2]

I realize that when the federal government spends large sums of money there must be some form of accountability. Standardized testing has no real benefit to schools and misleads governance. It does not provide meaningful feedback to parents or teachers and it does serious harm to the classroom by narrowing curriculum and encouraging drill and skill pedagogy.

It is a mistake for congress to make specifics of education policy such as requiring standards and testing, the tool of accountability. I can think of three requirements that congress could make of states receiving title I funding that would significantly improve schools:

  1. All teachers must be fully certificated for the course they teach. (Professionalism is important for success in the classroom.)
  2. No classes can have more the thirty-two students. (Class size is very important especially in communities suffering the ravages of poverty and these are the very communities title I is designed to support.)
  3. All schools must successfully win accreditation by their regional accrediting association. (As I have written about this in other posts, this is real accountability by professional educators looking deeply into school function and giving important feedback.)

As we know, the “Every Child Achieves Act” (S. 1177) to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Public Law 107-110) passed the Senate and will be conferenced with the House reauthorization bill, the “Student Success Act” (H.R. 5). Both laws enshrine federal requirements for standards, testing and remediation of schools that are judged failures by this regime. Therefore, I urge you to stop this bill until the profoundly damaging and wasteful testing requirements are removed. Please protect public education from circling vultures.

1) Kohn, Alfie. The Schools Our Children Deserve, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, © 1999, page 77.
2) Zhao, Yong. Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Jossey-Bass a Wiley Brand, ©2014

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5 Responses to “Response to Dianne Feinstein”

  1. NY Teacher August 25, 2015 at 12:37 am #

    32 students? Outrageously high maximum. Great idea, very bad number. A maximum of 24 students is much more reasonable, but still too many in a high needs district.

    • tultican August 25, 2015 at 4:32 pm #

      In California where it is not unusual to have more than 40 students in a class a maximum of 32 to start a school year would be wonderful.

      • Betsy Marshall August 28, 2015 at 3:15 am #

        So if the “normal” in California were 60 students per class then 40 would be ‘wonderful’ by your reasoning?

      • tultican August 28, 2015 at 2:14 pm #

        If you think it is politically possible to get the senate and the congress to agree that no class in the US should have more than 24 students, I am with you. I believe 32 student maximum might be a more achievable goal and if the largest class had 32 students, class sizes would be significantly reduced from today’s level.

  2. Karen Wolfe August 27, 2015 at 10:26 pm #

    Tom, this is an excellent, comprehensive look at where we’ve gone wrong and a good start at how to fix it. I wish every presidential candidate would read it.

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