Tim Slekar is the Dean of the College of Education at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. Early in September, Slekar was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio, an interview recommended to me by a public school teacher who said it is the best statement she has heard of the truth about public education today.
You can listen to Slekar explain what is described in many places as a growing shortage of public school teachers. Slekar believes we are not merely experiencing a shortage of teachers; what is happening instead is an exodus of public school teachers from their chosen profession. If it were a classic labor shortage, explains Slekar, pay would be raised, conditions would be made better, and enrollment in teacher training programs would grow. All of this would attract more people to teaching, according to how a labor market is supposed to work. But, argues Slekar, fewer and fewer people now want to be schoolteachers. He explains that in his office, he has listened as parents of his college students beg their children to choose another profession instead.
Slekar believes that teachers are being driven out of the profession by the impossibility of working under the conditions imposed by test based school accountability, a strategy designed to be punitive. The goal was to make teachers work harder and smarter for fear their schools would receive a low rating. Test based accountability was a bipartisan strategy designed in the 1990s and cast into law in 2002 in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which required schools to test students annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Schools were then judged by their aggregate test scores, and the lowest scoring schools were punished.
Slekar also has a blog, Busted Pencils, where he has covered this subject extensively. In a post last April, Slekar declares: “Accountability—loved by Democrats and Republicans—has almost become a religious movement. In fact the idea of even questioning the usefulness of test based accountability can cause enraged panic in accountability zealots. ‘How will we know what children are falling behind?’ ‘How will we close the achievement gap if we don’t measure it?’ ‘How will we fire bad teachers without the data?’ ‘How will we know what schools to close?’… Time for the hard truth. Test based accountability has done one thing well. Over the past 35 years, we have beyond any doubt, measured and confirmed the achievement gap. That’s it. Nothing else.”
He continues: “However, test based accountability has destroyed the profession of teaching and caused a mass demoralization and ‘X’odus from public school classrooms. Oh, and let’s not forget about the thousands of hours of lost instruction time in the sciences, social studies, arts, music, and anything else that doesn’t conform to basic literacy and numeracy skills.”
There is a book which clearly examines all the problems with test based school accountability, a book written by Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on the construction and use of standardized tests. The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better was published in 2017 by the University of Chicago Press, which is currently offering it on sale at the considerably reduced price of $11.00.
Daniel Koretz demonstrates how standardized testing in schools is corrupted—and how education itself is corrupted—when standardized tests become the basis of high-stakes accountability. The problem epitomizes the operation of Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the education process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)
Koretz demonstrates the many ways that testing undermines education—how scores can be inflated by various kinds of direct test preparation: cutting back on the important subject matter that isn’t tested; spending time within a particular subject on the material known to be emphasized by a particular test; and even in some cases cheating: “The entire logic of our reforms depends on rewarding the schools that do better and punishing those that don’t. However, because in most contexts we can’t separate score inflation from legitimate improvements, we are sometimes rewarding people who game the system more effectively, and we are punishing educators who do good work but appear to be doing relatively less well because they aren’t taking as many shortcuts. On top of that, we are holding out as examples to be emulated programs that look good only because of bogus score gains and overlooking programs that really are good because the teachers using them are doing less to game the system. In other words, the system can propagate bad practice.” (The Testing Charade, p. 64) (emphasis in the original)
Finally there is the problem—confirmed in a recent study by Stanford University’s Sean Reardon—that standardized test scores reflect primarily a school’s or a school district’s aggregate family income. The tests do not accurately measure the quality of the school. In a series of very simple bar graphs, the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s data wonk, Rich Exner also demonstrates the striking correlation of Ohio’s school district grades on the state’s school report card with family income and parents’ level of education.
Daniel Koretz explains the correlation: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)
In the recent Wisconsin Public Radio interview, Tim Slekar emphasizes that in the United States, over a trillion dollars has been spent on standardized tests and the data systems that process the results. As a professional educator, he recommends the money be spent instead to surround children with the best children’s literature because reading is at the heart of education. He would also spend part of the money on wraparound programs to ensure that the poorest children are well fed, they are healthy, and they have care and enrichment in after school programs.
In a recent legislative hearing of the Ohio Senate Education Committee, one state senator twice posed the following question: “How much time should we give those who drove the bus into the ditch to get it out?” This legislator’s attack on teachers epitomizes Tim Slekar’s diagnosis of the cause of an exodus of schoolteachers from their profession.
We now know that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top—and all the state-by-state test based accountability these federal policies spun off—did not improve the education of our nation’s poorest children, who are still being left behind.
I wonder how long it will be before we stop allowing our elected leaders to get away with shifting the blame onto teachers while they—the policymakers—fail to invest the resources and power of government in equitable school funding and in programs to support the needs of our society’s poorest children.