I was stunned when early in April, the PBS NewHour brought in Margaret Spellings and Arnie Duncan to explain the meaning of a “Learning Heroes” survey showing that while parents think their children are doing fine in school and recovering from the disruption of Covid, standardized test scores show that our kids aren’t doing so well at all.
Nancy Bailey exposes the likely bias of Learning Heroes, a “campaign” funded by the Gates Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and other foundations supporting corporate-style, test-and-punish school reform. Couldn’t this be another attempt to expose so-called “failing schools”?
I suspect that several of us wrote to the PBS NewsHour to challenge the bias of the “experts” they brought in to comment on education policy. I was especially grateful when Diane Ravitch captured the problem in her letter to the NewsHour: “Spellings and Duncan spent years promoting failed policies and are now called upon by PBS to comment on the outcomes of their punitive and ineffective ideas. They are in no position to say where we went wrong, because they were the architects of the disaster. You really should invite dispassionate experts to review their record, rather than invite those who imposed bad ideas.”
The NewsHour‘s segment featuring Margaret Spellings and Arne Duncan worries me. In the context of today’s wave of school voucher legislation across the states and the far-right Republican culture war to ban so-called “Critical Race Theory” or any mention at school of human sexuality and gender, to ban books, and to deny academic freedom in colleges and universities, have those of us who have spent two decades pushing back against test-and-punish school accountability strayed from our message? The problems launched by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top remain with us today but our protest is no longer so well harmonized.
Public education policy has never been at the center of the national news, and it is likely that there are people who never paid attention to how the public schools went off track after the Clinton White House got behind Goals 2000 and charter schools and as the Bush administration brought us No Child Left Behind with its mandated testing and rating and ranking of public schools by test scores. After Arne Duncan bribed state legislatures—as the mere qualification to apply for Race to the Top grants—to change state laws to incorporate test-and-punish policies like school turnarounds, the transformation of traditional neighborhood schools into charter schools, and the evaluation of teachers by students’ test scores, maybe the the state-by-state implications got lost in scanty statehouse reporting.
It is worth reviewing the books by education policy experts that expose the damage as corporate school accountability emerged—Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System and Reign of Error, Daniel Koretz’s The Testing Charade, and more recent updates like Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire’s A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. Ravitch almost perfectly summarizes what happened as schools faced the sanctions of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. As you read the following passage from Reign of Error, you will be struck, a decade after that book was published in 2013, by how the cycle she describes continues to operate in Chicago, Oakland, Cleveland, Detroit and other big cities.
“The federally mandated regime of annual testing generates the data to grade not only students and teachers but schools. Given unrealistic goals, a school can easily fail. When a school is labeled a ‘failing school,’ under NCLB or a ‘priority’ or ‘focus’ school according to the metrics of the Obama administration’s program, it must double down on test preparation to attempt to recover its reputation, but the odds of success are small, especially after the most ambitious parents and students flee the school. The federal regulations are like quicksand: the more schools struggle, the deeper they sink into the morass of test-based accountability… As worried families abandon these schools, they increasingly enroll disproportionate numbers of the most disadvantaged students…. Low grades on the state report card may send a once-beloved school into a death spiral. What was once a source of stability in the community becomes a school populated by those who are least able to find a school that will accept them. Once the quality of the neighborhood school begins to fail, parents will be willing to consider charter schools, online schools, brand-new schools with catchy, make-believe names, like the Scholars Academy for Academic Excellence or the School for Future Leaders of Business and Industry. In time, the neighborhood school becomes the school of last resort… When the neighborhood school is finally closed, there is no longer any choice.” (Reign of Error, pp. 319-320)
It isn’t merely the scholars of education policy who have been concerned about the problems with test-and-punish school accountability. Last year Lily Geismer, a professor of history at Claremont-McKenna College, who focuses on recent political and urban history, explored the failure of neoliberal policy coming out of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council and the Clinton administration to address our society’s structural economic inequality with solutions that involved public-private partnership. In Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality, Geismer traces the history of the development of charter schools as a supposed “solution” for parents in some of the nation’s underfunded big city school districts.
Geismer devotes an entire chapter, “Public Schools Are Our Most Important Business,” to the Clinton administration’s developing education policy beginning with Vice President Al Gore’s meetings with, “leading executives and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley. The so-called Gore-Tech sessions often took place over pizza and beer, and Gore hoped for them to be a chance for the administration to learn from innovators of the New Economy…. One of these meetings focused on the problems of public education and the growing achievement gap between affluent white suburbanites and students of color in the inner city…. The challenge gave venture capitalist John Doerr, who had become Gore’s closest tech advisor, an idea… The tools of venture capital, Doerr thought, might offer a way to build new and better schools based on Silicon Valley’s principles of accountability, choice, and competition… Doerr decided to pool money from several other Silicon valley icons to start the NewSchools Venture Fund. NewSchools sat at the forefront of the concepts of venture philanthropy. Often known by the neologism philanthrocapitalism, venture or strategic philanthropy focused on taking tools from the private sector, especially entrepreneurialism, venture capitalism, and management consulting—the key ingredients in the 1990s tech boom—and applying them to philanthropic work… Doerr and the NewSchools Fund became especially focused on charter schools, which the Clinton administration and the Democratic Leadership Council were similarly encouraging in the 1990s.” (Left Behind, pp. 233-234)
From today’s perspective nearly three decades later, focusing specifically on charter schools, Geismer exposes the tragic limitations of Clinton’s experiment in using: “the resources and techniques of the market to make government more efficient and better able to serve the people. Clinton and his allies routinely referred to microenterprise, community development banking, Empowerment Zones, mixed-income housing, and charter schools as revolutionary ideas that had the power to create large-scale change. These programs, nevertheless, uniformly provided small or micro solutions to large structural or macro problems. The New Democrats time and again overpromised just how much good these programs could do. Suggesting market-based programs were a ‘win-win’ obscured the fact that market capitalism generally reproduces and enhances inequality. Ultimately, the relentless selling of such market-based programs prevented Democrats from developing policies that addressed the structural forces that produced segregation and inequality and fulfilled the government’s obligations to provide for its people, especially its most vulnerable.” (Left Behind, pp. 9-10)
Now, in The Education Myth: How Human Capital Trumped Social Democracy, Jon Shelton, a professor of “Democracy and Social Justice” at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, has published a new book again examining how our society went wrong by imagining that economic inequality could be ameliorated merely through holding public schools accountable for expanding opportunity. Manufacturing jobs were exported through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and in 1996, Bill Clinton collapsed the social safety net by ending welfare with a bill called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—which utterly failed to create work opportunity and branded the poor as irresponsible. Beginning with Lyndon Johnson, Shelton writes, and continuing through the Carter, the Reagan, the George Herbert Walker Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations, politicians became laser-focused on education, which they imagined would expand human capital and workforce readiness and cure America’s growing economic inequality. Shelton explains: “Clinton’s view… was based on the mythology that embracing meritocracy and investment in human capital could paper over any negative repercussions caused by dismantling the government safety net and making American jobs more susceptible to capital flight.” (The Education Myth, p 161)
Shelton identifies No Child Left Behind as the embodiment of the Education Myth: “At root, the very premise of the bill—that punishing schools for the scores of their students would improve the schools’ performance—was simply flawed, particularly when school districts did not have the ability to raise students out of poverty or alleviate the trauma of racism…. NCLB ignored the broader economic structures that might lead a student to succeed or fail in school as well as the relationship between where a student got an education and what job would actually be available to them.” (The Education Myth, p. 173)
Many of us remember Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone as one of only a handful of Democrats who, in 2001, voted against the No Child Left Behind Act. To expose the foolish illusion that by reforming the public schools without ameliorating child poverty, our society can close the opportunity gap between America’s poorest and wealthiest children, Shelton quotes Wellstone’s condemnation of the No Child Left Behind Act: “The White House bill will test the poor against the rich and then announce that the poor are failing. Federally required tests without federal required equity amounts to clubbing these children over the head after systematically cheating them.” (The Education Myth, p. 172)
As public education advocates, we need to find ways to keep this history alive.