Can the Left and Right Find Common Ground on Common Core and High-Stakes Testing?

I recently wrote about an event called Occupy the DOE, where many of the speakers espoused radical views on education and society. While I disagreed with the extreme left-wing views of many of the speakers, I didn’t disagree with everything said during the 4-day event. In fact, several times I had to remind myself that I wasn’t listening to a Tea Party event or homeschool conference as speaker after speaker railed against high-stakes testing and the Common Core.

Parents and activists from across the political spectrum object to excessive testing and the implementation of Common Core in their states; there is much common ground to be found. But it’s important to dig beneath the surface and consider exactly what you’re signing up for when you join a movement to eliminate high-stakes testing or block the Common Core. Some groups have more than just the best interest of your child as their top priority and you may inadvertently be drafted into the public school monopoly-protection movement.

A group called “United Opt Out” organized the Occupy the DOE event in front of the Department of Education in April. Their mission statement claims that they are “dedicated to the elimination of high stakes testing in public education,” saying that high stakes testing is

destructive to ALL children, educators, communities, the quality of instruction in classrooms, equity in schooling, and the democratic principles which underlie the purposes of public education.

There is a lot to unpack in that statement, but hyperbole aside, many parents whose children attend public school do have legitimate complaints about high-stakes testing and its negative influence on education. In fact, the testing culture is sometimes cited as a reason parents remove their children from public schools for homeschooling or private schools. As states march forward with the implementation of the Common Core standards, teachers, parents and even many unions fear that schools will double-down on the worst aspects of the testing culture and lose even more local control, so in many aspects, parents and activists on both side of the political spectrum can find areas of agreement.

Timothy Slekar, a former teacher, is now an associate professor of teacher education at Penn State Altoona. At the Occupy the DOE rally he described a parent-teacher conference where he and his wife were told that their son had failed a writing test because of a technicality. They felt that the formulaic requirements of the writing test were stifling their son’s creativity and they decided then to opt out of all future high-stakes testing for their son. “This disastrous system was forcing his teachers to comply with the powers that be.” He said,

The [tests] were forcing Luke to parrot sentences in a pre-ordained structure so that a low-paid temp worker would be able to score it. … Our son was not going to take part in a system that forced the teachers to comply with educational mandates constructed by politicians. … We were opting out.

Slekar now works with United Opt Out to advocate for reform: “This means advocating for the ultimate freedoms; the freedom to think, the freedom to imagine, the freedom to create, and the freedom to dream.”

As an advocate for homeschooling, school choice, and liberty, I could not have said it better myself.

Gerald J. Conti, a social studies teacher at Westhill High School in Syracuse, N.Y., recently made news when his resignation letter was published in the Washington Post. He wrote that his profession no longer exists and lamenting the loss of freedom he and his fellow teachers have experienced in recent years:

I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that  “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”…I now find that this approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. STEM rules the day and “data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. … This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more appropriate to the assembly line than to the classroom.

I think we would probably all agree that we don’t want “zombie-like adherence” to anything and we certainly don’t want our children to settle for a “shallow and generic” curriculum.

Most parents whose kids have taken one form or another of the state-mandated achievement tests know this testing drill. No Child Left Behind promised to improve the quality of education in the country, in part by requiring states to impose tests proving that students achieved federal benchmarks. A few years ago I wrote a piece about how low the standards really are on these tests. For example, the Ohio “Graduation” Test is really a 10th grade proficiency test and students need to answer fewer than half of the questions correctly to pass the test. Schools across the state proudly display “EXCELLENT” banners bragging that their graduates passed a 10th grade proficiency test. Everyone just averts their eyes when 39% of Ohio graduates sign up for remedial classes their first year of college.

So at a basic level, parents and educators are on the same page in their desire to reform the current way we do testing and mandate curriculum in our schools. Unfortunately, the Common Core train is rolling across the country, promising more of the same high-stakes testing.

But parents and educators (education activists in particular) diverge when it comes to whose interests are at stake. While parents are concerned first and foremost about their children, teachers also have an interest — for better or worse — in preserving their careers and the monopoly of the public schools.

Slekar, the former teacher from Pennsylvania, explained,

Look, learning to write for a low-paid temp worker so that you get the right score so that a teacher and school won’t get punished is not the learning I want for my child or any child in any public school. This is not the promise of public education and this is not accountability. This is fear, intimidation, and blame, and I will not let my children take part in it anymore. No more false labels of “failing,” “below basic,” “needs improvement.” This is the language imposed on us by standardized tests and pushed by the reform movement. It is meant to destroy powerful public schooling and relegate most children to menial jobs in a dead-end economy that only creates wealth for the powerful. No more. [emphasis added]

Note the concern that the school will be “punished” and that the testing will “destroy powerful public schooling.” Preserving the “powerful” system seems to be an equivalent goal to desiring a good education for his son.

While most parents are primarily concerned about their individual children and making sure they get a good education, those in the “Opt-Out” movement see high-stakes testing and the Common Core as part of a diabolical plan aimed at destroying public education, their profession, and even “democracy” itself. [Obligatory reminder that our form of government is a constitutional republic, not a democracy.]

This is a conspiracy of Bilderberg or Trilateral Commission proportions — and, by the way, the billionaire corporate enemies are all connected.

Former assistant secretary of education and early endorser of No Child Left Behind Diane Ravitch told NPR that,

I came to the conclusion … that No Child Left Behind has turned into a timetable for the destruction of American public education. I had never imagined that the test would someday be turned into a blunt instrument to close schools — or to say whether teachers are good teachers or not.

Peggy Robertson, a United Opt Out activist, speaking at the Occupy the DOE rally, insisted that teachers need no outside accountability and can be trusted to determine if their students are progressing:

We do not need these tests. Teachers already know how to assess their learners. We are professionals. We are reflective practitioners. Mainstream media, end the mass amnesia. Tell the people that teachers already know how to assess their learners.

When discussing the issue of high-stakes testing and the Common Core, parents and teachers — left and right, conservative and liberal —can often find common ground because almost everyone has some objections to these intrusions into local classrooms. But it’s important to understand that the common ground may only extend so far. The agenda at the Occupy the DOE event and the United Opt Out movement extends far beyond objecting to standardized tests, and parents who join this movement may also be inadvertently signing up to fight against other education reforms that they support:

  • Teach for America
  • Charter schools
  • Merit/performance pay for teachers
  • Right-to-work and other public sector union reforms

In addition, one of this group’s biggest objections to the Common Core is that corporate (read: capitalist) interests provide funding for the effort. Many in the traditional public education monopoly believe that education should be all public, all democratic, all the time. Any variation must be defeated and destroyed. There is a broad thread of Occupy/1% mentality running through this movement. Diane Ravitch regularly rants about the influence of the “Billionaire Boys Club” on education, and Phil Cantor, a teacher and union organizer in the Chicago Public Schools, said at the Occupy the DOE event that they must “counter the obscene money and power of the corporate reformers.”

As you work in your community and state to reform the current testing culture in your schools and as you battle to stop Common Core and other federal interference in local education (it seems like everyone hates the Common Core), consider to what extent you want to remove accountability from classrooms. In a country where as many as a third of high school graduates who attend college must take remedial classes, hearing teachers say, “We do not need these tests; we are professionals; tell the people that teachers already know how to assess their learners” may not be good enough. Parents — and taxpayers — need some reasonable assurance that good teachers are teaching well and that students are learning. And they also need to know that there is a quick, efficient way to get rid of the bad teachers. Students First has an excellent plan for a balanced approach to evaluating student achievement and teacher success (check out the video below to see how it works in the D.C. schools).

Also consider whether the movement you are joining is opposed to school choice. A majority of parents support charter schools and want educational choices for their children. And does the movement you’re joining hate corporations and profit and blame capitalism for the evils in society? Are you on board with that?

When this issue comes up in your community and your school district, be an informed information consumer. Ask a lot of questions and demand answers. Make sure you know what you’re signing up for when you join a movement so that you’re not unintentionally drafted onto a team that supports causes you ideologically oppose.

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