A year ago Congress overwhelmingly approved George W. Bush’s education agenda, imposing new testing and school accountability mandates that are among the most sweeping federal interventions in the nation’s classrooms in recent history. On top of the states’ existing blizzard of testing and accountability measures, Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act” required states to impose yet another layer of annual testing of all schoolchildren from the third through the eighth grade, in both reading and math, in order to qualify for federal assistance to schools serving low-income students. Schools that fail to meet annual growth targets for test scores are embroidered with a Scarlet A, branding them a failing school. Parents of children “trapped in failing schools,” as the Bush team has described it, are invited to transfer their children to supposedly better schools–in other words, the ones with better test scores.
The entire scheme is erected upon a pie-in-the-sky proposition: that turning public education into a pseudo-marketplace in which schools compete on the basis of test scores for their “customers,” i.e., parents and their children, will not only improve educational quality across the board but also wipe out the thorny achievement gaps between races and classes.
The only catch to this seemingly elegant, market-driven solution to education reform is that there’s virtually no evidence that it works. Indeed, after nearly two decades of such “reforms” at the state level following the 1983 diatribe against America’s schools known as A Nation at Risk, the evidence is overwhelming that the Bush approach is, at best, counterproductive to the aims of education and, at worst, a cynical ploy to privatize the nation’s public schools.
Whether the explanation is unabashed greed or merely certain habits of mind in a capitalistic society governed by the professional classes, American policy-makers, while tone deaf to the unfolding educational fiasco they are wreaking, have been mesmerized by regulatory models and corporate-inspired quick fixes that presume school improvement is limited only by the degree to which you can bribe people or punish people on the basis of their performance on standardized tests.
In postmillennium America, the very idea of teaching and schooling as a human-centered, humanistic endeavor is being expunged from our collective lexicon. Under the corporate model of education, schools are businesses and kids are “products,” who are trained to serve the labor needs of American industry. At an alarming rate, the teaching force is being de-skilled, as teachers are transformed from professional practitioners to mere cogs of state and federal education agencies, regulatory bodies that define good teaching as mindless, repetitive drills aimed at raising test scores.
In short, the nation is in the throes of de-humanizing its schools, a de-evolutionary process that no doubt was the inspiration for Deborah Meier’s new book, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization. As the co-principal of the Mission Hill School in Boston and founder of Central Park East School in East Harlem, Meier has long been an advocate for the notion that a democratic society is sustainable only to the extent that it nurtures democratic ideals from the ground up, starting with children. In her previous book, The Power of Their Ideas, an account of her experiences in East Harlem, Meier made the case for the small public school as perhaps the last, best place for nurturing democratic notions among the young.
In her new book, Meier builds on those earlier themes and does so in reaction to a dangerous time indeed for public education and democratic principles. As the title of her book suggests, Meier argues that the dominant paradigm for public schools, with its excessive reliance on standardized curriculums and externally imposed standardized testing to measure, sort and rank schools and children, is powered by a cynical distrust of public education. We don’t trust schools so we bureaucratize, standardize, regulate and test them without end, so that we may trust them. All folly and self-defeating, Meier suggests, because all those dehumanizing tools of the modern accountability movement inevitably lead only to more distrust and more public cynicism.