Archives for category: NCLB (No Child Left Behind)

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, reviews historian Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire’s A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. Schneider and Berkshire have collaborated on podcasts called “Have You Heard.”

Thompson writes:

The first 2/3rds of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, by Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire, is an excellent history of attacks on public education. It taught me a lot; the first lesson I learned is that I was too stuck in the 2010s and was wrong to accept the common view of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as a “joke” and a “political naif.” The last 1/3rd left me breathless as Schneider’s and Berkshire’s warnings sunk in.

A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door starts with an acknowledgement that DeVos isn’t the architect of the emerging school privatization tactics. That “radical agenda” has been decades in the making. But she represents a new assault on public education values. As Schneider and Berkshire note, accountability-driven, charter-driven, corporate reform were bad enough but they wanted to transform, not destroy public education. They wanted “some form” of public schools. DeVos’ wrecking ball treats all public schools as targets for commercialization. 

Schneider and Berkshire do not minimize the long history of attacks on our education system which took off after the Reagan administration’s A Nation at Risk blamed schools for “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation.” They stress, however, that it was a part of Reagan’s belief that our public schools and government, overall, were failing, and how it propelled a larger attack on public institutions.

Forty years later, free marketers are driving a four-point assault. They contend that “Education is a personal good, not a collective one,” and “schools belong in the domain of the Free Market, not the Government.” According to this anti-union philosophy, it is the “consumers” who should pay for schooling.

The roots of this agenda lie in the use of private school vouchers that began as an anti-desegregation tool. Because of “consumer psychology,” the scarcity of private schools sent the message that they were more valuable than neighborhood schools. But, neither private schools nor charter schools made good on their promise to deliver more value to families. Similarly, Right to Work legislation and the Janus vs AFSCME ruling have damaged but not destroyed collective bargaining.

Neither did online instruction allow the for-profit Edison schools or, more recently, for-profit virtual education charter chains to defeat traditional schools. Despite their huge investments in advertising spin, these chains produced disappointing outputs. For instance, DeVos claimed that virtual schools in Ohio, Nevada, and Oklahoma had grad rates approaching 100%. In reality, their results were “abysmal.”

To take one example, the Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy had a 40 percent cohort graduation rate, not the 91 percent DeVos claimed. It received a D on the Oklahoma A-to-F Report Card for 2015-16. Also, in 2015, a Stanford study of 200 online charters found that students lost 72 days per year of learning in reading and 180 in math in a 180-day year.

Such dismal results prompted more calls for regulations for choice schools. Rather than accept more oversight, free marketers doubled down on the position that parents are the only regulators. To meet that goal, they borrowed the roadmap for Higher Education for-profits, adopting the tactics that failed educationally but made them a lot of money.

So, Schneider and Berkshire borrow the phrase “Lower Ed” from Tressie Cottom  as they explain how privatizers patterned their movement after Higher Ed where 10 percent of students attended for-profit institutions. Their profits came from the only part of public or Higher Education that could produce big savings, reducing expenditures on teaching. This meant that since the mid-1970s tenure-track faculty dropped by ½, as tenured faculty dropped by 26 percent. Consequently, part-time teachers increased by 70 percent.

Moreover, by 2010, for-profit colleges and universities employed 35,000 persons. They spent $4.2 billion or 22.7 percent of all revenue on marketing and recruiting. 

In other words, the market principles of the “gig economy” are starting to drive the radical “personalized” education model that would replace “government schools.” Savings would begin with the “Uberization” of teaching.  A glimpse of the future, where the value of a teaching career is undermined, can be found on the “Shared Economy Jobs” section of JobMonkey where education has its own “niche.” Teachers could expect to be paid about $15 per hour.

And that leads the system of “Education, a la Carte,” which affluent families need not embrace but that could become a norm for disadvantaged students. What is advertised as “personalization” is actually “unbundling” of curriculum. Algorithms would help students choose courses or information or skills and teachers (who “could be downsized to tech support”) that students think they need.

Worse, this “edvertising” is full of “emotional appeals, questionable claims, and lofty promises.” Its “Brand Pioneers” started with elite schools’ self-promotion and it led to charters adopting the “Borrowing Prestige” dynamic where the implicit message is that charters share the supposed excellence of private schools. And then, charters like Success Academy took the “brand identity” promotions a step further, spent $1,000 per student on marketing SA logo on You-Tube, Twitter, Instagram, baby onesies, and headphones.

Schneider and Berkshire also described the KIPP “Brand Guidelines” video which compares the charter chain to Target, which wouldn’t represent its business differently in different cities. So, it says that every conversation a KIPP teacher has about the school is “a touch point for KIPP’s brand.”

Similar edvertising techniques include the exaggerated size of waiting lists for enrolling in charter chains. Their marketing role is sending the message, “Look how many people can’t get in.”  Charters have even engaged in “market cannibalism,” for instance issuing gift cards for enrolling children in the school.

Worse, demographic trends mean that the competition between choice schools and traditional schools will become even more intense as the percentage of school age children declines, For instance, 80 percent of new households in Denver since 2009 didn’t have children. And even though corporate reformers and DeVos-style free marketers have failed to improve education, their marketing experts have shown an amazing ability to win consumers over.

So, here’s Schneider’s and Berkshire’s “Future Forecast:”

The Future Will Be Ad-Filled;

The Future Will Be Emotionally Manipulated;

The Future Will Be Micro-Targeted;

The Future Will Have Deep Pockets;

The Future Will Tell You What You Want.

Valerie Strauss writes in her Washington Post blog called “The Answer Sheet” about the growing number of states that want waivers from the federal requirement for annual testing. DeVos granted waivers last year but said she would not do it again. But she will be gone. Now it is up to Joe Biden and Miguel Cardona to decide whether it is wise to subject students to high-stakes standardized tests in a year where schools have repeatedly opened and closed, beloved teachers have died, family members have fallen ill, and many families are without food or a secure home.

I am sorry that the Secretary of Education-in-waiting describes the standardized tests as “an accurate tool,” because the only thing they accurately measure is family income, disability status, and English language proficiency. There are cheaper ways to get this information than to subject millions of children to useless standardized tests of reading and mathematics The tests are completely useless and provide no information to teachers about student progress: None. As Strauss points out, the results come in months after the tests were given, the students have different teachers, the teachers seldom see the questions and are not allowed to discuss them, and they never discover how their students answered any given question.

Let me repeat: The tests benefit no one other than the testing corporations, who collects hundreds of millions of dollars. Whatever we want to know about test scores and “achievement gaps” could have been gleaned at far less cost and inconvenience from the biennial National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), which was canceled this spring. The annual tests for individual students in grades 3-8 should have been canceled instead. No high-performing nation gives a standardized test to every student every year as we do.

Strauss writes:

There are growing calls from across the political spectrum for the federal government to allow states to skip giving students federally mandated standardized tests in spring 2021 — but the man that President-elect Joe Biden tapped to be education secretary has indicated support for giving them.

The issue will be an early test for Miguel Cardona, the state superintendent of education in Connecticut whom Biden picked for education secretary, and his relationship with teachers and others critical of giving the exams during the coronavirus-caused chaos of the 2020-2021 school year.

The current education secretary, Betsy DeVos, approved waivers to states allowing them not to administer the annual exams last spring as the coronavirus pandemic led schools to close. She said recently she wouldn’t do it again, but Biden’s triumph in November’s elections means the decision is no longer hers. It’s up to Cardona — assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, as expected — and the Biden administration to decide whether to provide states flexibility from the federal law.

The annual spring testing regime — complete with sometimes extensive test preparation in class and even testing “pep rallies” — has become a flash point in the two-decade-old school reform movement that has centered on using standardized tests to hold schools and teachers accountable. First under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and now under its successor, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, public schools are required to give most students tests each year in math and English language arts and to use the results in accountability formulas. Districts evaluate teachers and states evaluate schools and districts — at least in part — on test scores.

But just how much the scores from the spring tests ever reveal about student progress, even in a non-pandemic year, is a major source of contention in the education world.

Supporters say that they are important to determine whether students are making progress and that two straight years of having no data from these tests would stunt student academic progress because teachers would not have critical information on how well their students are doing.

Critics say that the results have no value to teachers because the scores come after the school year has ended and that they are not allowed to see test questions or know which ones their students got wrong. There are also concerns that some tests used for accountability purposes are not well-aligned to what students learn in school — and that the results only show what is already known: students from poor families do worse than students from families with more resources.

Enter Cardona into this testing thicket. Biden last week surprised the education establishment by naming Cardona, who less than two years ago was an assistant superintendent of a 9,000-student school district. One big factor in his favor for the Biden team was that he has not been a partisan in the education reform wars of the past two decades. Yet he won’t be able to avoid it over this issue.

Last spring, Connecticut, like other states, did not administer spring standardized tests after receiving waivers to the federal law from DeVos.

Cardona has said he wants students to take the exams this spring but with a caveat: He doesn’t want the results used to hold individual teachers, schools and districts accountable for student progress on the scores. (DeVos, too, had said she would have granted that kind of flexibility to states in 2021.)

“This [academic] year, we want to provide some opportunity for them [students] to tell us what they learned or what gaps exist so we can target resources,” Cardona said at a recent news conference before he was tapped by Biden, according to the Connecticut Post.

The education department he heads in Connecticut released a memo in October calling state assessments “important guideposts to our promise of equity.” It said: “They are the most accurate tool available to tell us if all students — regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, disability, or zip code — are growing and achieving at the highest levels.”

Cardona’s press secretary, Peter Yazbak, said the Biden transition team was answering all questions about his role as education secretary. The Biden team did not immediately comment about whether the new administration would consider providing waivers from the tests.

Cardona is already facing a growing chorus of voices who are demanding some flexibility from the federal law, including some that say forcing students to take the tests for any reason is a waste of money and time.

The Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonprofit that represents state education chiefs, released a statement this month calling for unspecified flexibility around the spring testing requirements. While its members are “committed to knowing where students are academically,” it said, “states need flexibility in the way they collect and report such data.” The CCSSO said it wants to work with the Biden administration “on a streamlined, consistent process that gives states the flexibility they need on accountability measures in the coming year.”

Others were more direct, including the two major teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. In a letter to the Biden transition team, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote:

“We know there are concerns that not having this data will make student achievement during covid-19 and particularly deeply troubling equity gaps less visible, that this will mean two years of lost data. However, there is no way that the data that would come out of a spring 2021 testing cycle would accurately reflect anything, and certainly not accurate enough to hold school systems accountable for results. But curriculum-linked diagnostic assessment is what will most aid covid-19 academic recovery, not testing for testing’s sake.

Another issue is whether the tests can be administered to all students safely this spring. Millions of students are still learning remotely from home as the pandemic continues to infect and kill Americans. Though Biden has called for the safe reopening of most schools within 100 days of his inauguration, it is not clear whether that will happen or whether the tests can be securely administered online.

Bob Schaeffer, interim director of a nonprofit called the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which works to stop the misuse of standardized tests, noted that DeVos recently sought the cancellation of the 2021 administration of the national test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) because it could not be administered effectively and securely.

“IF NAEP is cancelled for 2021 due to pandemic-related concerns, how can federal and state mandated exams be administered safely and accurately this academic year?” Schaeffer said. Meanwhile, his group, FairTest, has launched a national effort for a suspension of all high-stakes standardized tests scheduled for spring 2021.

This is why a waiver strategy is so necessary,” it says.

It’s not only state superintendents, teachers unions and testing critics who are looking for flexibility from the federal testing mandate.

As early as June, officials in Georgia said they would seek a waiver from the spring 2021 tests. DeVos’s Education Department denied the request, so this month, state officials agreed to dramatically reduce the importance of end-of-course exam grades for the 2020-2021 school year. They will have virtually no weight on students’ course grades.

In South Carolina, SCNOW.com reported, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, a Republican who is among Trump’s strongest supporters, signed onto a letter calling for a testing waiver for spring 2021, as did Rep. Tom Rice (R).

Scores of Texas state representatives from both sides of the political aisle have joined to ask State Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to seek necessary federal waivers to allow the Texas Education Agency to cancel the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, test in the 2020-2021 school year.

A letter, sent by the office of Democratic Rep. Diego Bernal said: “The covid slide, an academic deficit that the agency has widely recognized, has resulted in students, across the state, being behind grade-level in nearly every subject. Instead of proceeding with the administration of the STAAR as planned, the agency, along with our districts and campuses, should be focused on providing high-quality public education with an emphasis on ensuring the health and safety of students and educators.”

In Ohio, Dayton schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli recently said that that state should seek a federal waiver from the spring standardized testing, WHIO-TV reported. “Using the standardized testing as we typically have done is inappropriate and ineffective,” Lolli said.

“The only thing it does is it rates poverty,” she said. “We know that the lowest scoring schools across this country are schools that have high numbers of children who live in poverty. That’s the only thing we’re doing [by testing] is identifying those locations once again.”

In North Carolina, the State Board of Education in early December tentatively approved a proposal that would have students take the exams but that would ask the federal government if it can have flexibility in how it uses the scores of the tests.

In Colorado, advocates for English-language learners have asked the state Board of Education to cancel ACCESS, the test these students take annually, or to make sure parents know that they can opt their children out without penalty.

Other actions are being taken in other states to persuade officials to seek and lobby for federal waivers, and that is likely to pick up in pace as spring approaches.

Mercedes Schneider urges states to follow Montana’s example and ask for a waiver from the federally mandated standardized tests.

She writes:

This is a school year fraught with quarantine disruption, turnstile attendance, distancing and sanitizing burdens, and spotty internet capabilities.

The very idea of conducting tests in the midst of this chaos is “bureaucratic lunacy,” she says.

Lovers of standardized testing say it’s important to find out whether children have “fallen behind.”

It’s important to know how useless the annual tests are. I’ll say this again and again. The teacher is not allowed to seethe test questions or, if she does, to discuss them, even after the tests. The questions are proprietary materials that belong to the testing company. The teacher is not allowed to know how individual students did on specific questions. They learn nothing about what their students know or don’t know.

The scores are returned 4-6 months after the testis given. The students no longer have the same teacher. The new teacher finds out which students are “advanced, proficient, basic, or below basic.” These are subjective terms, subjectively defined. The students are ranked from best to worst. The scores are highly correlated with family income and education.

Some defenders of the tests say they are needed for “equity” or to “close the achievement gap.” This is nonsense. Tests measure gaps, they don’t close them.

Imagine going to a doctor with a severe pain in your stomach. The doctor gives you a series of tests and says he will get back to you in 4-6 months. When he does, you are either dead or cured. What he tells you is not what ailed you, but how you compared to other people with the same symptoms of your age and weight.


Useless! Absolutely useless.

You know the old line, “Failure is not an option.” Well, we have federal education policy built on the idea that failure doesn’t matter. Failure is not only an option, it is the only option. No Child Left Behind failed; the same children who were behind were left behind. Race to the Top was a failure; no one reached “the top” because of its demands. Common Core was a failure: It promised to close achievement gaps and raise up fourth grade test scores; it did not. Every Student Succeeds did not lead to “every students succeeding.” At some point, we have to begin to wonder about the intelligence or sanity of people who love failure and impose it on other people’s children. Testing, charter schools, merit pay, teacher evaluation, grading schools A-F, state takeovers, etc., fail again and again yet still remain popular with the people who control the federal government, whether they be Democrats or Republicans.

Peter Greene sums up the problem with his usual wit and insight: Democrats need a new vision. They need to toss aside everything they have endorsed for at least the past 20-30 years. The problem in education is not just Betsy DeVos. The problem is the bad ideas endorsed by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Will Biden and Cardona have the wisdom and the vision to understand that?

For four years, Democrats have had a fairly simple theory of action when it came to education. Something along the lines of “Good lord, a crazy lady just came into our china shop riding a bull, waving around a flamethrower, and dragging a shark with a head-mounted laser beam; we have to stop her from destroying the place (while pretending that we have a bull and a shark in the back just like hers).” 

Now, of course, that will, thank heavens, no longer fit the circumstances. The Democrats will need a new plan.

Trouble is, the old plan, the one spanning both the Clinton and Obama years, is not a winner. It went, roughly, like this:

The way to fix poverty, racism, injustice, inequity and economic strife is to get a bunch of children to make higher scores on a single narrow standardized test; the best shot at getting this done is to give education amateurs the opportunity to make money doing it.

This was never, ever a good plan. Ever. Let me count the ways.

For one thing, education’s ability to fix social injustice is limited. Having a better education will not raise the minimum wage. It will not eradicate poverty. And as we’ve just spent four years having hammered into us, it will not even be sure to make people better thinkers or cleanse them of racism. It will help some people escape the tar pit, but it will not cleanse the pit itself.

And that, of course, is simply talking about education, and that’s not what the Dems theory was about anyway–it was about a mediocre computer-scorable once-a-year test of math and reading. And that was never going to fix a thing. Nobody was going to get a better job because she got a high score on the PARCC. Nobody was ever going to achieve a happier, healthier life just because they’d raised their Big Standardized Test scores by fifty points. Any such score bump was always going to be the result of test prep and test-taker training, and that sort of preparation was always going to come at the expense of real education. Now, a couple of decades on, all the evidence says that test-centric education didn’t improve society, schools, or the lives of the young humans who passed through the system.

Democrats must also wrestle with the fact that many of the ideas attached to this theory of action were always conservative ideas, always ideas that didn’t belong to traditional Democratic Party stuff at all. Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire talk about a “treaty” between Dems and the GOP, and that’s a way to look at how the ed reform movement brought people into each side who weren’t natural fits. The conservative market reform side teamed up with folks who believed choice was a matter of social justice, and that truce held until about four years ago, actually before Trump was elected. Meanwhile, in Schneider and Berkshire’s telling, Democrats gave up supporting teachers (or at least their unions) while embracing the Thought Leadership of groups like Democrats for Education Reform, a group launched by hedge fund guys who adopted “Democrat” because it seemed like a good wayto get the support they needed. Plus (and this seems like it was a thousand years ago) embracing “heroes” like Michelle Rhee, nominally listed as a Democrat, but certainly not acting like one. 

All of this made a perfect soup for feeding neo-liberals. It had the additional effect of seriously muddying the water about what, exactly, Democrats stand for when it comes to public education. The laundry list of ideas now has two problems. One is that they have all been given a long, hard trial, and they’ve failed. The other, which is perhaps worse from a political gamesmanship standpoint, is that they have Trump/DeVos stink all over them. 

But while Dems and the GOP share the problems with the first half of that statement, it’s the Democrats who have to own the second part. The amateur part.

I often complain that the roots of almost all our education woes for the modern reform period come from the empowerment of clueless amateurs, and while it may appear at first glance that both parties are responsible, on closer examination, I’m not so sure.

The GOP position hasn’t been that we need more amateurs and fewer professionals–their stance is that education is being run by the wrong profession. Eli Broad has built his whole edu-brand on the assertion that education doesn’t have education problems, it has business management problems, and that they will best be solved by management professionals. In some regions, education has been reinterpreted by conservatives as a real estate problem, best solved by real estate professionals. The conservative model calls for education to be properly understood as a business, and as such, run not by elected bozos on a board or by a bunch of teachers, but by visionary CEOs with the power to hire and fire and set the rules and not be tied down by regulations and unions. 

Democrats of the neo-liberal persuasion kind of agree with that last part. And they have taken it a step further by embracing the notion that all it takes to run a school is a vision, with no professional expertise of any sort at all. I blame Democrats for the whole business of putting un-trained Best and Brightest Ivy Leaguers in classrooms, and the letting them turn around and use their brief classroom visit to establish themselves as “experts” capable of running entire district or even state systems. It takes Democrats to decide that a clueless amateur like David Coleman should be given a chance to impose his vision on the entire nation (and it takes right-tilted folks to see that this is a perfect chance to cash in big time). 

Am I over-simplifying? Sure. But you get the idea. Democrats turned their backs on public education and the teaching profession. They decided that virtually every ill in society is caused by teachers with low expectations and lousy standards, and then they jumped on the bandwagon that insisted that somehow all of that could be fixed by making students take a Big Standardized Test and generating a pile of data that could be massaged for any and all purposes (never forget–No Child Left Behind was hailed as a great bi-partisan achievement). 

I would be far more excited about Biden if at any point in the campaign he had said something along the lines of, “Boy, did we get education policy wrong.” And I suppose that’s a lot to ask. But if Democrats are going to launch a new day in education, they have a lot to turn their backs on, along with a pressing need for a new theory of action.

They need to reject the concept of an entire system built on the flawed foundation of a single standardized test. Operating with flawed data is, in fact, worse than no data at all, and for decades ed policy has been driven by folks looking for their car keys under a lamppost hundreds of feet away from where the keys were dropped because “the light’s better over here.”

They need to embrace the notion that teachers are, in fact, the pre-eminent experts in the field of education.

They need to accept that while education can be a powerful engine for pulling against the forces of inequity and injustice, but those forces also shape the environment within which schools must work. 

They need to stop listening to amateurs. Success in other fields does not qualify someone to set education policy. Cruising through a classroom for two years does not make someone an education expert. Everyone who ever went to the doctor is not a medical expert, everyone who ever had their car worked on is not a mechanic, and everyone who ever went to school is not an education expert. Doesn’t mean they can’t add something to the conversation, but they shouldn’t be leading it.

They need to grasp that schools are not businesses. And not only are schools not businesses, but their primary function is not to supply businesses with useful worker bees. 

If they want to run multiple parallel education systems with charters and vouchers and all the rest, they need to face up to properly funding it. If they won’t do that, then they need to shut up about choicey policies. “We can run three or four school systems for the cost of one” was always a lie, and it’s time to stop pretending otherwise. Otherwise school choice is just one more unfunded mandate.

They need to accept that privatized school systems have not come up with anything new, revolutionary, or previously undiscovered about education. But they have come up with some clever new ways to waste and make off with taxpayer money.

Listen to teachers. Listen to parents in the community served by the school. Commit to a search for long term solutions instead of quick fixy silver bullets. And maybe become a force for public education slightly more useful than simply fending off a crazy lady with a flamethrower. 

President-Elect Joe Biden will soon announce his choice for Secretary of Education. He promised to choose a person with experience as a teacher. He said he wants a Secretary who is committed to public education. Here is my choice.

I can’t think of anyone better qualified to be Secretary of Education than Dr. Leslie T. Fenwick, other than Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, who is chair of the Biden education transition team and has taken herself out of the running.


Dr. Leslie T. Fenwick is Dean Emeritus of the School of Education at Howard University.


She has been a teacher, a teacher educator, a scholar, and a dean. She taught middle school science in Toledo, her hometown. 


She understands the most important needs of American education: adequate and equitable funding; experienced teachers; and a commitment to equity and inclusion.


I have watched her lectures online, and I was blown away by her wisdom, her articulateness, and her deep understanding of the needs of children, teachers, and schools.


Leslie Fenwick is steeped in knowledge of teaching and learning, and she knows the details of federal policy. 


She is the perfect person to clean up the mess that Betsy DeVos created, to reverse four years of an administration that sought to demolish civil rights protections, to defund public schools
, to fund private and religious schools, and to impose financial burdens on college students who are deep in debt or were defrauded by for-profit institutions.

After twenty years of failed federal policies of high-stakes testing and punishment for schools and teachers, American education needs bold and forceful leadership, not incremental change.


Leslie Fenwick knows that public schools are an essential element of American democracy. They are community institutions that belong to the public, not to entrepreneurs or corporate chains. 

She will support schools instead of closing them. She will support teachers instead of threatening them.

She is a strong and clear-thinking leader.


She respects educators.


She is an inspiring speaker.

She would be the ideal Secretary of Education for the Biden administration. 

If you want to show your support for Dr. Fenwick, please sign the NPE Action petition and tweet your support:

Here is the petition: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/dr-leslie-fenwick-for-us-secretary-of-education

For twitter: contact @joebiden @DrBiden @Transition46


Bob Shepherd returned to teaching after many years in the education publishing industry, where he developed curriculum and assessments. He writes about what changed while he was away. Thanks to State and federal mandates, he found himself ensnared by stand

I taught at the beginning of my career, had a successful career in educational publishing, and then returned to teaching at the end of my career. What a difference these years made!!!!

At the beginning of my career, I had English Department Chairpeople who were highly experienced teachers. The general attitude of administrators was that English teachers were the experts on English, History teachers the experts on History and the teaching of History, etc., and they pretty much stayed out of stuff that wasn’t their business. We in the English Department would hold regular meetings and discuss what was and wasn’t working in our classes, choose curricula, share tips and lesson plans and materials (many of which we had developed), and set policies and procedures. Once a year, the English Department chairperson would do evaluations of the teachers in his or her department. We made our own tests. There was enormous opportunity for innovation because we could actually discuss with one another various pedagogical approaches and curricular materials and make our own decisions. Our discussions/debates about pedagogy and curricula were vigorous and spirited. Many of the teachers were older women who had been doing the job for years. They were, almost to a person, scholarly and highly knowledgeable. The kids learned a lot.

I loved teaching. The only reason I left was that the pay wasn’t great. I started a family, and the year I left, I almost tripled my salary.

Flash forward 25 years. When I returned to teaching, everything was micromanaged. We still had department meetings, but these had devolved into sessions in which the Department chairperson read to us the latest mandates from our administration or from the state. Curriculum materials were chosen for us and were HORRIBLE, test-preppy crap. We were expected to follow a day-by-day script from the state. Formal evaluations were done four times a year by APs or the Principal, using mandated checklists, and in addition, there were four other informal evaluations and a system of demerits for not completing an enormous list of requirements (if, for example, an AP came into one’s classroom and the standard, bellwork, essential question, daily vocabulary, and homework for the hour’s lesson weren’t posted on the board; if one’s Data Wall or lesson plan book (each class had to have a two-page lesson plan in a folder) were not completed and up to date; and so on (there were hundreds of such requirements–far too many for anyone to keep track of them). In short, the Department Chairperson and the teachers had lost all autonomy. We were expected to do enormous amounts of test prep because what mattered–to the evaluations of the students, of us, of the administrators, and the school–were the scores on the invalid, sloppy, ridiculous state tests. My pay depended upon the school’s state rating based upon those demonstrably invalid tests.

And the teachers had changed. They were mostly young. They were not scholarly and not knowledgeable. “What’s a gerund?” the 26-year-old English Department Chairperson asked me, looking at the month’s required grammar topics. “Oh, what’s that book?” a fellow English teacher asked me about a volume I was carrying. Never heard of this guy. YEETS?”

“Yeats,” I said. “His collected poems.”

“Oh, I don’t read poetry,” she said.

The Reading Coordinator informed us that our 9th graders had to read ALL of the Odyssey, in her words, “the ENTIRE NOVEL.” She freaking thought that The Odyssey was a novel!!! When we met to discuss a classical literature unit, she had no idea that the term referred to the literature of ancient Greece and Rome.

And there was enormous churn. Between a quarter and a third of the teaching staff every year.

To teach at all sanely, I had to pretend to be following the rules while secretly making my own curricular materials in the form of handouts.

I spent most of my time carrying out required tasks that were of ZERO value to my students, most of the related, in one way or another, to supposed “accountability.”

The profession had been utterly ruined in the name of “reform.”

Peter Handel writes at Truthout that President-Elect Biden must change education policy if he wants to heal the nation. By his choice for Secretary of Education, Biden must acknowledge the damage done to America’s children by the high-stakes testing regime of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Bush’s law and Obama’s program were kissing cousins; both were disasters that hurt the most vulnerable children.

Handel quotes Lee-Ann Gray, a clinical psychologist, who says that the American school system is nothing short of traumatic for many Black students and other students of color. In her book, Educational Trauma: Examples From Testing to the School-to-Prison Pipeline, she exposes how schooling in the U.S. routinely undermines students’ mental health, limits their potential, and, in the worst cases, causes lifelong harm.

As a new administration is poised to take the reins of government, Gray says it is time to demand both widespread changes to the U.S. education system and public measures to address the mental health crisis facing many marginalized students. She urges Joe Biden to start by re-examining Race to the Top, an Obama-era education program that ties funding to performance, and instead begin cultivating compassionate alternatives that promote learning and well-being.

Gray told Handel:

As a clinical psychologist, certified in treating trauma, I observed blatant and overt traumas in the youth presenting for care in California. It was especially evident to me when the prevalence rate of ADD/ADHD rose to the point that teachers were identifying it and referring students to psychiatrists for prescriptions. I saw that schools in America perpetrated little t traumas every day, everywhere. Francine Shapiro, the creator of EMDR, a trauma treatment, indicated that shame, slights, humiliation, embarrassments and failures are smaller traumas that can accumulate to critical symptoms. The rate of bullying and the negative effects of testing are riddled with little t traumas. Standard education protocol in the U.S., with its emphasis on testing, intense competition and conformity, is a breeding ground for little t trauma. This is particularly problematic in low-income schools where students are dehumanized and often face multiple oppressions before entering the classroom.

Finally, I knew I was seeing trauma when I stumbled across psychologist Alice Miller’s concept of “poisonous pedagogy,” which describes how harmful practices are perpetuated in the name of education. From high-stakes testing to harsh discipline to inadequate mental health support, poisonous pedagogy is rife in U.S. schools.

She added:

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT) are two federal reward programs offering schools extra funds for higher test scores. They essentially use a market demand model to demonstrate that students are learning, when, in fact, learning cannot be measured in this way. Testing is a very flawed measure of student success. Moreover, the model used to evaluate school scores is even more flawed in that teachers’ careers depend on the scores of students they’ve never taught. Ultimately, these two federal incentive funding programs bind teachers’ hands so that they aren’t able to employ their professional expertise.

There is more to this thoughtful interview. Open the link and read it.


Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider have written a valuable new book called A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School. They recently published an opinion article in The New York Times in which they demonstrate the role of Betsy DeVos in the “school reform” movement. They point out that Congress rejected her primary policy goal–sending public funding to private voucher schools–and that the new Biden administration is certain to reverse her assault on civil rights enforcement in education.

Her major accomplishment, they argue, was not one that she aimed for. She managed to disrupt the bipartisan consensus on national education policy, embraced by both the Bush and Obama administrations. That consensus consisted of high-stakes testing and charter schools. Because DeVos advocated for charters and vouchers, many Democrats now view them warily and recognize that school choice was always a conservative policy. DeVos was never a huge supporter of high-stakes standardized testing except to the extent that test scores could be used to harm public schools. Her primary interest was defunding public schools and helping religious schools. Thanks to DeVos, the Democratic party may have fallen out of love with school choice.

They write:

More than three decades ago, conventional Republicans and centrist Democrats signed on to an unwritten treaty. Conservatives agreed to mute their push for private school vouchers, their preference for religious schools and their desire to slash spending on public school systems. In return, Democrats effectively gave up the push for school integration and embraced policies that reined in teachers unions.

Together, led by federal policy elites, Republicans and Democrats espoused the logic of markets in the public sphere, expanding school choice through publicly funded charter schools. Competition, both sides agreed, would strengthen schools. And the introduction of charters, this contingent believed, would empower parents as consumers by even further untethering school enrollment from family residence...

Through her attention-attracting assault on the public education system, Betsy DeVos has actually given the next secretary of education an opportunity — to recommit to public education as a public good, and a cornerstone of our democracy.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about whether the mandated federal tests should be administered this spring. When the pandemic was first acknowledged last March, Betsy DeVos offered waivers to states that wanted to suspend the testing. Although Biden has publicly expressed disdain for standardized testing, there has been no hint of whether he will appoint a Secretary of Education with instructions to do as much as DeVos did in deferring the annual testing.

My view: Resumption of standardized testing is completely ridiculous in the midst of a pandemic. The validity of the tests has always been an issue; their validity in the midst of a national crisis will be zero. They will show, even more starkly, that students who are in economically secure families have higher test scores than those who do not. They will show that children in poverty and children with disabilities have suffered disproportionately due to lack of schooling. We already know that. Why put pressure on students and teachers to demonstrate what we already know? At this point, we don’t even know whether all students will have the advantage of in-person instruction by March.

If anything, we need a thorough review of the value, validity, and reliability of annual standardized testing, a practice that is unknown in any high-performing nation in the world. We are choking on the rotten fumes of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Here is a letter sent by several organizations in support of high-stakes standardized tests.

Politico wrote yesterday:

TESTING TIME — A major test awaits President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for Education secretary. The question is whether to waive federal standardized testing requirements this spring for K-12 schools for a second year or to carry on, despite the pandemic. There’s no easy answer.

— A host of education and civil rights groups say statewide testing will be important to gauge how much students have fallen behind during the pandemic, particularly for the most vulnerable kids. Even before the coronavirus, “The Nation’s Report Card” revealed children across the country have fallen behind in reading, with the largest drops among lower-performing students.

 Statewide testing will “give us a snapshot, if an incomplete snapshot, of what happened this year. How close did students get to the standards?” said Brennan McMahon Parton, director of policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign.

— Teachers unions and standardized test opponents, however, say this isn’t the time. “Battle lines are being drawn,” said Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, a group that opposes what it calls the misuse of standardized tests. “The vast majority of parents and teachers think it’s ridiculous to believe that you can get meaningful results from a standardized test in the middle of a pandemic.”

Andrew Ujifusa writes in Education Week about the battle over whether to resume standardized testing as mandated in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Pressure is growing for schools to get some kind of relief from traditional standardized tests as coronavirus cases reach new highs, and education officials in at least a few states are responding. 

In Washington, President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will have to decide whether to grant states waivers from federally mandated tests soon after he takes office Jan. 20. But the validity and usefulness of tests during the pandemic has been a concern for months. And at this point, states are clearly not content to wait for input or leeway from any new U.S. Department of Education leadership about the issue in general. 

  • On Thursday, the Georgia state board of education voted to virtually eliminate the role state standardized tests play in students’ course grades this school year. Board members voted 10-3 to make several end-of-course exams count for just .01 percent of those grades, down from the normal 20 percent, the Associated Press reported. State Superintendent Richard Woods backed the moved. Woods sharply criticized U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ announcement in September that states should not expect testing waivers for the 2020-21 school year, a position that could change after Biden’s inauguration of course. 
  • South Carolina announced a similar move late last month regarding end-of-course exams; districts will be allowed to decide how much those tests count for students’ grades, instead of the typical 20 percent. The Post and Courier reported that district leaders welcomed the decision
  • On Nov. 19, the Virginia education department announced that students can take “local assessments” instead of the state Standards of Learning exams in history, social science, and English writing. “The waivers and emergency guidance will simplify the logistics of SOL testing this year and ensure that [the] COVID-19 pandemic does not unduly prevent any student from earning a diploma,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane. However, the state did not adopt those changes for the science, reading, and mathematics tests required by federal law; Lane told state school board members that it’s “unlikely” the feds will waive those tests. 
  • Earlier this month, California announced it would replace traditional Smarter Balanced exams with shorter versions of the test, EdSource reported. 
  • A bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers say they want state superintendent Mike Morath to either cancel state STAAR exams this school year, or at least not use them to rate schools and districts. “The last thing they all need right now is the extra and added stress of STAAR,” state Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat, told the Texas Tribune, referring to educators, parents, and students. Morath gave a noncommital response to the idea, although last summer he said he wanted the exams to be administered as usual. Like all states, Texas got a federal waiver last spring not to give exams that are typically required by the Every Student Succeeds Act. (“STAAR” stands for “State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.”)

This kind of momentum isn’t universal. Utah recently announced that it plans to forge ahead with its regular standardized exams. “We believe there’s actually an increased need for us to be able to attain data that can inform and enlighten us about the impacts of this pandemic on student learning,” state Assistant Superindendent Darin Nielsen said, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. 

Last summer the Council of Chief State School Officers stressed that while state leaders must be “nimble and innovative” in what tests are used and what they’re used for during the pandemic, “Assessment tools must continue to play a key role in our education system.” On Friday, a coalition of groups including the National Urban League, UnidosUS, and the Education Trust called on the federal government not to grant waivers from exams because “our families and communities cannot afford to go two years without knowing how well our students are doing in school.” The groups also hailed recent federal guidance on assessments and accountability released in October.

“At the end of the day, there’s going to be an asterisk around any 2020-21 [test] results if they’re given,” Stephen Pruitt of the Southern Regional Education Board told our colleague Sarah D. Sparks in July. 

Even more than an asterisk, the pandemic should underscore that the traditional standardized tests mandated by federal law simply haven’t worked as desiged, and push the Biden administration and others to rethink the entire system, said Joshua Starr, the CEO of PDK International, a professional association of educators. 

“This is the time to actually challenge the assumption that the state testing regimes will give us what we want,” said Starr. “I have no confidence that state standardized tests this year will do that. I don’t know that they’ve ever done that, and they certainly won’t do it this year.”

While Starr said that formative assessments, for example, could be useful to students and educators. But he said that in general, given the pandemic’s clear and disproportionate impact on underserved students and communities, education leaders should move straight into directing more resources and support to students and families in need, without depending on tests to do so. 

The ability of tests to discern trend lines in a typical fashion has also been disrupted beyond the point of being useful, including for accountability, said Daniel Koretz, a research professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who focuses on assessments. And more broadly, he said, potential disruptions for students at home and other factors unique to the pandemic present an environment that tests simply can’t control for. 

“Even for diagnostic testing, there is a pretty high risk I think that we would not be able to trust comparative data,” Koretz said, adding, “I wouldn’t want to see what little instruction we’re able to give kids now consumed by test prep.” 

Jan Resseger is always worth reading. She thinks deeply about the issues and synthesizes brilliantly.

In this post, she asks and answers what’s at stake in the election tomorrow for our nation’s public schools.

She believes that therere is a chance for fresh thinking about how to help schools instead of punishing them.

If Joe Biden is elected President, I believe our society can finally pivot away from an artificially constructed narrative about the need to punish so called “failing” public schools, and away from the idea that school privatization is the key to school improvement. During Betsy DeVos’s tenure, our two-decades old narrative about test-and-punish education reform has faded into a boring old story fewer and fewer people want to hear anymore, but nobody has proclaimed an alternative.

Will Biden liberate our students, teachers, and schools from the grip of twenty years of oppressive, destructive, stifling federal policies? Or will he feel loyal to the failed ideas of Race to the Top? Will he encourage the states to repeal VAM? Will he grant blanket testing waivers for this spring? Will he urge Congress to rewrite the “Every Student Succeeds Act” to eliminate the annual testing mandate? We will find out later, and we will push as hard as we can for genuine change.