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Holding Arne Duncan to a Higher Standard
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America, the elites are very disappointed in you. We’re not keeping up with South Korea and Singapore, they tell us, because you are coddling your mediocre children who are being taught by bottom-of-the-barrel teachers. But have no fear, America, help is on the way! Pearson, the testing company that has gotten rich by making American students fill in little bubbles all day long, is advising the White House on how to whip us all into college-ready shape.
I must be too busy helping my sons with their homework, picking them up from after-school tutoring and helping them fill out magnet school applications to notice how little I expect from them. No greater eminence than New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman thinks that parents “just don’t take education seriously enough.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said “white, suburban moms” need to “change expectations about how hard kids should work.”
It’s not just lazy-bones parents and their middling progeny that are holding America back. Recently, Duncan noted sourly that “a significant proportion of new teachers come from the bottom third of their college class.” After No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have turned the teaching profession into an underappreciated, underpaid collection of glorified test monitors, the only thing that Duncan should give them is an apology. But after insulting parents, their children, and their teachers, I wouldn’t be surprised if Duncan next blamed childhood obesity on P.E. teachers.
“Who wants to go into a workforce where we are constantly asked to go above and beyond to receive little to no credit, or worse, usually very negative feedback and criticism?” asked one of my son’s former teachers who asked to remain anonymous. “Not to mention that we are not compensated adequately or competitively. I think we are all a little crazy to be here honestly.”
Amid all this mediocrity comes Pearson, the company that makes millions on standardized testing contracts in Florida ($254 million), New York ($32 million), and Texas ($468 million), among many others. This month Pearson executives met with Barack Obama and Duncan at the White House to discuss ways to help low-income students get into college. I’ll match every dollar Pearson makes if you don’t think the solution that Pearson proposed was more testing.
Herein lies the conflict that separates Duncan, Friedman and Pearson from parents and teachers. They think the solution is, in Duncan’s words, “new and better assessments” based on the assumption standardized tests provide the best measure for whether our children are learning. Most teachers and an increasingly vocal number of parents believe that excessive testing eats up classroom time better spent writing term papers, conducting science experiments, or discussing literature.
The problem with calling Pearson the “world’s leading learning company” is that researchers can find no evidence that their standardized tests facilitate learning. A recent study by researchers at MIT, Brown, and Harvard found that good schools can raise test scores but not cognitive abilities such as abstract reasoning. In other words, better scores do not mean smarter kids.
In fact, what test scores really tell you, say researchers, is how much money the student’s parents make. The less money mom and dad make, the less likely their child is to do well on a standardized test required for graduation. In Texas, about 76,000 Texas high school juniors-almost a quarter of the entire Class of 2015-have failed at least one state test required for graduation. Pearson sold Texas these tests to ensure college readiness. Instead, a group of students equal to the size of a small city will not graduate from high school.
Parents don’t need to subscribe to Scientific American to know the research proving what they can see with their eyes and feel in their bones. Though great men on high may disagree with me, a lowly parent of public school children, it seems clear that tests don’t make our kids smarter any more than scale makes you fatter. Even Arne Duncan might understand that obvious truth if he stopped taking policy advice from the company that is making all the money from the test, but maybe I’m holding him to too high a standard.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at and on Twitter @JasStanford.