How a Crackpot Education Reform Theory Became National Policy

college studentsIn future generations, historians are likely to tell the following story. Some time during the early 21st Century, a cross section of the top leadership of American society began to panic. They looked at the growing chasm between the rich and poor, the huge size of the nation’s prison population, the growing gulf in educational achievement between blacks and whites and poor and middle class children and decided something dramatic had to be done to remedy these problems.

But instead of critically examining how these trends reflected 20 years of regressive taxation, a futile “war on drugs,” the deregulation of the financial industry, the breaking of unions and the movement of American companies abroad, America’s leaders decided the primary source of economic inequality could be found in failing schools, bad teachers, and powerful teachers unions.

No serious scholar, looking at the economic and social trends of the previous 20 years, or the major innovations in social policy that unleashed the power of big capital, would have given to slightest credence to this analysis of the sources of inequality, but the idea that educational failure was the prime source of all other social deficits took hold with the force of a religious conversion. Corporate leaders, heads of major foundations, civil rights leaders, politicians in both major parties, bought this explanation hook line and sinker and so began one of the strangest social movements in modern American history- the demonization of America’s teachers and the development of strategies to radically transform education by taking power away from them

The consequence of this leap of faith, supported by no serious research, was the idea that there has to be a centralized effort to monitor educational progress though quantifiable measures, coupled with accountability strategies which called for the removal of teachers and the closing of schools, if they didn’t meet those criteria. Through policies developed at the federal level but implemented locally so that they effected every school district in the nation, scrutinizing teacher effectiveness became a national mission introduced with as much fanfare as was America’s efforts to put a rocket in space during the 1950’s and 60’s.

The centerpiece of this mission was that teachers had to be judged on student performance of standardized tests, as there were no other “objective” criteria that could generate meaningful statistical information on a national scale. But America’s states and municipalities did not have consistent testing policies, so federal policies called for universal testing related to a nationally developed set of Common Core Standards, with the loss of federal funding being presented as the consequence of failure to comply.

This all sounds very rational until you look at it from the individual school level. To evaluate teachers via standardized tests, and do it across the board, you have to have tests in every grade and every subject. This not only means tests in English, Math, Science and Social Studies, it means tests in Art, Music and Gym.

mark naisonNo school in any country, at any time in history, ever tried doing something like this, and for good reason. It means that all that goes on in school is preparation for tests. There is no spontaneity, no creativity, no possibility of responding to new opportunities for learning that relate to events that occur locally, nationally, or globally. It also means play and pleasure are erased from the school experience, and that students are put under constant stress, maximized by teachers who know that their own job security depends on student performance.

What you have here, in short, is a prescription for making the nation’s schools a place of Fear and Dread, ruled by test protocols that deaden minds and stifle creative thinking. Make no mistake about it, there are people who stand to benefit handsomely from this insanity, especially the companies who make the tests and the consultants who administer them, but anyone who thinks this level of testing will make America’s schools more effective or reduce social inequality has a capacity for self-delusion that staggers the imagination. Only people with no options would choose to send their children to schools run that way. The wealthy will send their children to private schools which eschew testing, the well organized will withdraw from the system and create their own cooperative schools or engage in home schooling.

Mark NaisonThe sad part about all of this is that the Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration, continues to push this program, with the support of both major parties and a cross section of America’s corporate leadership.

There are not too many other examples in American history where such a crackpot theory guided social policy this way. The last example I can think of was the passage of the Prohibition Amendment to the US constitution, based on the conviction that the banning of alcoholic beverages would somehow create greater social stability and save America from corruption.

Someday, Test Based Education Reform will go the way of Prohibition. But not before incalculable damage is done to the nations children

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent 


  1. Dennis says

    My fiancee spent her first 8 years of education in Chinese schools, and based on what she’s told me, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that there’s no place in the world that uses standardized tests for every subject. She was subject to standardized testing in every one of her classes, including PE class, where they tested her raw times in things like running and swimming. (She apparently had trouble passing PE because she’s not very athletic.) While this has obvious failures in its ability to foster critical thinking skills, kids from China (and other Asian countries like Korea with similar teaching methods) do seem to learn much more about math and science than kids from America. I’m not going to say that spending 10-13 hours a day studying is a healthy/good way of approaching education, but tests are a major part of their educational system and the results, at least in some subjects, speak for themselves.

  2. Ayn Rand says

    === There are not too many other examples in American history where such a crackpot theory guided social policy this way. ===

    What about Austrian economics? Austerity as the solution to a recession is equally crack pot. See Paul Krugman’s blog for details. Of note is that the same people seem to be pushing both crack pot theories.

  3. says

    Powerful piece, Professor. As a teacher I concur. What really bothers me was the lack of push-back by the NEA and AFT at the time all this was occurring. Now, today, they are the biggest offenders and collaborators of this so called: “reform”.

  4. says

    While I think testing has gone way overboard as the sole measure of public education success, I am not against a regiment of tests on the European model that has a minimum level of competence required in order for a student to move on to the next year.

    At LAUSD, testing students who have been socially promoted year after year into grades far beyond their subjective abilities without doing the necessary remediation that becomes more and more difficult after students reach middle school, is the reason the assessment regime is a non sequitur..

    As a 12th grade Government teacher with a single-subject credential and little enough time to teach the course in government that I am charged with teaching, how is it rational to judge me as a teacher, if my students have low elementary school reading abilities, which preclude them from understanding my government. Is there any wonder that these student disrupt classes and ultimately drop out into gangs and the criminal justice system, rather than be humiliated in school by being asked to do things they do not have the fundamental skills in language and math to understand and accomplish.

  5. James says

    The “School-to-Prison Pipeline” didn’t just appear as if by magic. . . it was implemented, with Malice Aforethought, by those who fell in love with the Prussian idea of “schooling;” crush the Critical Thinkers – school is a place to indoctrinate and coerce students into being “Good Citizens,” which is nothing more than a polite euphemism for “Fodder for the Government/Industrial Complex.”

    It isn’t merely Standardized Testing which has made schools a place of “Fear and Dread,” it’s the entire Government-run system.

    the US “Education System” is nothing less than a cancer – the only way to save the patient is to cut off it’s blood supply and remove the tumor.

    Anyone who thinks the solution is to “revamp,” or “restructure,” is delusional.


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