John Kuhn is superintendent of a small school district in Texas. But his voice is mighty and powerful. Those who have heard him wish he were Commissioner of Education for the state of Texas or in another position where everyone would learn from his wisdom.

Kuhn was the first person to be named to the honor roll for his eloquence and courage in support of public education.

November 02, 2012 07:21 PM CDT November 02, 2012 09:04 PM

Point Person: Our Q&A with John Kuhn on school’s over-reliance on testing

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The Dallas Morning News

Published: 02 November 2012 07:21 PM
John Kuhn, superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt school district in Jack County, northwest of Fort Worth, is active speaking out and writing critically about public-education reformers. He’s gained some fame for his oft-quoted “Alamo letter” from 2011, in which he vowed never to surrender the fight for his students. Now that more than 850 Texas school boards have signed on to a resolution against over-reliance on high-stakes testing, we asked Kuhn what that movement is all about. (This is a longer version of the Q&A that appears in print.)
You’ve said some very pointed things about education reformers, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and their impact on schools. What worries you the most?
What worries me most as both a dad and an educator is the outsized influence of test-makers, statisticians, and economists on modern educational decision-making. Unfortunately, our wizards of data are not wizards of humanity, and they have foolishly elevated impersonal forces as the drivers of education.
The education of children is above all a human endeavor. We aren’t programming answers into computers; we are inspiring and encouraging and challenging and coaxing and pushing and pulling and hoping and praying and hugging and wiping tears and watching ballgames and telling them how nice they look in their prom dresses. The value of the factory model touted by today’s educational Taylorists is quickly disproved by its absence of the holistic and humane methods employed in the best private schools. Middle class kids need and deserve more art in their lives than the arrays of bubbles they pencil in. Elite reformers want what’s best for their kids, but they often only want what’s most efficient for yours and mine.
Ultimately, I want for my kids what caring parents, like our president, want for theirs: a thorough, non-standardized education of the whole child. Today we are so busy raising test scores that we are forgetting to raise children. The little red schoolhouse is fast becoming a little red widget factory, and that’s wrong for kids and detrimental for our future well-being as a people.
To what extent are your concerns shared by other local educators?
We are nearing critical mass. I only speak for myself, but there are hundreds of Texas schools suing the state in a lawsuit that has been called “the granddaddy of school finance lawsuits.” They aren’t suing for more money but rather for sensible policies and an honest accounting by the state of the costs of its mandates. Reduced education funding sometimes happens during hard times, but reduced regulation? Our recent $5.4 billion school funding reduction came with a brand new $500 million dollar contract with the London test-shop Pearson.
There are also hundreds of school boards in Texas that have signed a resolution that says standardized tests are strangling education and draining it of its vibrancy and excitement for learners. The resolution—started in Texas—has spread to several other states. Then there are Texas parents forming groups like Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, Texas Parents Opt Out of State Tests, and Kids Can’t Wait. School board members have organized initiatives like last session’s “Make Education a Priority” movement. Over 20 school districts are participating in the Texas High Performance Schools consortium; they will pilot a new way of holding teachers and students accountable for learning that embraces modern technology instead of tools inspired by 19{+t}{+h} century scientific management theory. They will hopefully develop a new, less punitive and misleading accountability methodology that reduces the onslaught of bubble tests that our kids face today.
Are my concerns widely shared by local educators? I would guess yes, but I can’t prove it. Many educators prefer to keep quiet and keep their jobs (which aren’t as secure as they used to be) so you won’t hear too many speak out publicly about the burdensome and sometimes near-impossible demands they face. In fact, an educator who speaks up is usually condemned fairly quickly as an apologist for the status quo. Meanwhile, the real status quo is the expensive and ineffective testing-and-labeling we’ve been doing for 30 years in Texas.
Put it in human terms. What’s not happening in the classroom today because of focus on standardized testing?
High schoolers must pass five EOC tests per year; they’re often placed in remedial classes if they don’t pass. Sophomores may be losing one or two periods for a remedial class. That’s one or two electives gone. As time passes, some will stack up tests they failed two years ago, last year, and tests they face this year. A struggler who might flourish because of a trade won’t get his hands dirty. This is one size fits all; all kids are going to college whether they want to or not.
Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken notes that Texas has a shortage of welders and plumbers, but our system is built so that students most likely to benefit from technical training won’t get it. We’re channeling would-be highly-paid technicians not into available industry-recognized certification programs but rather into schedules that feature a paucity of hands-on experiences, so they can focus on their tests.
In elementary school, strugglers lose art, recess, music, or PE. We tell at-risk students to stay in school; then we take away classes they most enjoy. When we reduced education to a competition, we condemned exploration and discovery and settled for rote proficiency.
How does this affect how a teacher teaches?
Teachers face a perverse incentive to drill and kill in the classroom and focus intensely on the narrow curriculum that is tested. Principals face the temptation to enforce scripted approaches that overemphasize test prep. Marketers are pitching materials keyed to STAAR with great zeal; districts face an onslaught of big promises: “Raise STAAR Scores Now!” Some teachers and schools resist a test-centered approach in favor of a child-centered approach; but with livelihoods on the line if scores don’t rise, it’s as if teachers are being asked to teach under hanging anvils.
Teachers and administrators agree with the need for accountability and want to be held accountable for our results. What we ask for are honest measures that take into account all factors that contribute to our success or failure. Educational outcomes do not solely hinge on teacher quality. There are home and community and funding factors in play, but accountability gurus are happy to leave those variables out of their formulas. No one but the teachers are up for criticism in their world of selective accountability.
The U.S. Department of Education has chosen to set a 100 percent standardized testing pass rate as the goal, with constant classroom duress as the main motivator for teachers and students and absolutely no pressure on legislators to provide equitable resources from school district to school district. We shouldn’t be surprised to see unintended consequences as schools struggle to attain the impossible: getting 100 percent of their kids to pass the almighty bubble test by 2014. What’s good for test scores isn’t always what’s good for kids, but our punitive accountability fetish has established test scores as the measurably more important of the two.
But aren’t there poor teachers who fail to prepare their students, and don’t test scores help establish that?
Yes, poor teachers exist. No, a poor test score doesn’t establish poor teaching. It’s not that simple. A terrible teacher in an $8,000-per-pupil school may obtain higher scores than a wonderful teacher in a $4,000-per-pupil school. Those extra funds impact outcomes by providing smaller classes, fewer leaks in the roof, more and newer instructional materials, and various supports that aren’t available at the other school.
Our current system dissuades the best teachers from teaching in our toughest schools because they will be facilely scapegoated for things outside their control. Pinning everything on the classroom teacher lets policymakers and budget writers off the hook pretty easily. Accountability only falls on teachers, and politicians laugh all the way to re-election.
What does your “child-centered approach” look like, and how does the state make sure that all students learn the fundamentals?
Tom Pauken’s approach is child-centered, with multiple paths to graduation: a math/science path, humanities/fine arts path, and a technical/vocational path. Students get ownership of their education and focus on their strengths instead of adhering to one-size-fits-all mandates from outsiders. Elementaries need a well-rounded curriculum including core classes, arts, physical education, and recess for unstructured play.
Test advocates pretend a $500 million plan to test every student every year is the only way to monitor learning and that everyone who opposes this bamboozle opposes accountability. But many of us who wish to reform reform support smart testing using sampling techniques at certain grades to save limited instructional time and education dollars.
There are many additional ways to monitor outcomes if Texans will think outside the testing contract straightjacket. Online portfolios, NAEP scores, ACT-PLAN and PSAT scores, grades and passing rates, graduation rates, college-acceptance rates, dropout rates, and student surveys are just a few that come to mind. We can also require all graduates to show they are college-ready by means of college acceptance and/or ACT/SAT scores, or show they’re career-ready by obtaining an industry-recognized vocational certification prior to graduation. This isn’t hard; it just isn’t what lobbyists want to hear.
I admit that I am not sold on STAAR. I do not agree with the allegation that I therefore oppose accountability. In fact, I want accountability even for the accountability merchants.
More than 850 Texas school boards have passed resolutions objecting to the over-reliance on standardized testing. What impact do you expect that to have in next year’s lawmaking session?
I don’t know. I suspect that voting parents calling their representatives will have more impact than school board resolutions. It was telling months ago how quickly and publicly some Texas moms rebuked a prominent testing advocate when he accused superintendents of “scaring mom” over the testing issue. Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock said in a hearing last session that officials were getting lots of phone calls from parents about overtesting. At the same time, I understand that lobbyists representing the testing firms won’t go down without a fight.
I would like to note that these resolutions were adopted by elected local trustees. In Texas schools, school board members are often parents and involved community members; they are regular folks. This is representative democracy in action—local citizens are using the resolution to let their voices be heard alongside the lobbyists in Austin. If our leaders truly want to represent their constituents, the resolution will indeed influence their actions.
Why fight? Don’t you have a lot of common ground with advocates of standardized testing — high school graduates who are prepared to go into the workforce, onto more training or onto college?
I don’t think I have much common ground with folks who set impossible targets (100 percent of students must pass their standardized tests in 2014, under No Child Left Behind) and ignore the effects of funding injustices (Academically Unacceptable districts get funded an average of $1,000 less per student than Exemplary districts). These policies don’t help kids; they help to torpedo public schools.
Texas leaders have worshipped test-and-punish technocrats for over 20 years, and yet a testing advocate recently wrote “Wake Up – Schools Are Failing.” He says the solution is to “stay the course,” i.e., more of the same. But why are schools failing after two decades with accountability hawks in charge? When will their prescriptions work? It’s telling that Texas private schools are allowed to utilize the state’s testing system but politely say, “No thanks.”
Meanwhile, the universal failure of Texas public schools is preordained for 2014 — guaranteed by those who came up with the federal accountability targets — and news of their failure will be music to the ears of some. But to many of us, the school is still the heart of the community.
Our sons and daughters still grow up in the glow of Friday night lights, just as they have for generations. We still put their pictures in the paper when they do well at the spelling bee or win an essay contest; we still burn a bonfire and crown our small-town royalty. My son and I recently looked at my dad’s yearbook photo from 1951. Dad was a Pirate, and now, 60 years later, my sons and my daughter are all Pirates, too.
Some people may want a charter school or a virtual online school for their kids, and that’s fine — but many of us simply want Texas to stop undermining our humble community schools by carpet-bombing them with tests, paperwork, and inane targets … and maybe pat our hard-working teachers on the back once in awhile, too. To me, these things are worth fighting for.
These are the same public schools that educated the greatest generation and taught the Americans who won the space race. News of their demise is greatly exaggerated.
This Q&A was conducted via email and condensed by Dallas Morning News editorial writer Rodger Jones. His email address is John Kuhn can be reached at