The beginning of a new school year offers an opportunity to evaluate the state of American education—where we are now, how we got here and where we need to go. As last month’s release of New York City’s abysmal test scores showed, something is seriously wrong, here and in most of the country.
The bankruptcy of the corporate-style “reform” agenda—which emphasizes high-stakes testing, vilification of teachers and the further stratification of American society under the banner of “choice”—has been obvious for years to those who have cared and dared to look. For the past two decades, contributors to The Nation have consistently challenged these trends and exposed their hidden assumptions, consequences and costs.
In September 1997, the writer Phyllis Vine explored the early stirrings of the for-profit education movement and catalogued the many ways in which it was a bad development for kids, parents and teachers. The only people it would benefit, she argued, were those like the Lehman Brothers director she quotes calling education “a local industry that over time will become a global business.” That’s no way to run schools, Vine concluded:
Creaming students most likely to succeed, poor management, unionbusting, conflicts of interest and discrimination against kids who need special education (and sometimes discrimination against kids of color)—all are on display in the for-profit school system. And so is the effort to eviscerate a core American institution that has been a laboratory for citizenship. While right-wing education guru Chester Finn insists that ‘the market…can rise to the challenge of educating America’s young,’ the record suggests otherwise. ‘The schools belong to us as communities,’ says Barbara Miner, editor of Selling Out Our Schools. So why should we allow some private company to come in and make money off of our kids?
Nation contributors have not only pointed out the shortfalls of the corporate approach; they have also offered a robust counter-vision, laying out specific proposals to fix the American educational system while situating the present problems in a broader socioeconomic and cultural analysis. In “Testing, Testing: The High-Stakes Testing Mania Hurts Poor and Minority Students the Most” (June 5, 2000), Gary Orfield, then a Harvard professor of education (now at UCLA), and Johanna Wald, a researcher, cited study after study showing that high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum, increases drop-out rates, and may actually hurt, not improve, economic productivity.
If, as all these studies suggest, high-stakes tests both discriminate against poor and minority students and are educationally unsound, we are still left with the dilemma of how to achieve the dual goals of equity and excellence. Dozens of studies offer convincing evidence that children in poor schools make academic gains when they have access to quality early-childhood education programs, when they are taught in small classes by skilled and committed teachers, and when they are given assessments linked to appropriate and immediate responses.