We Set Our Course On The Wrong Destination

The Declaration of Independence is seen as our nation’s promise. It contains guiding principles upon which our nation was built. Its words invoked a vision, a place to be created, a destination. Because of it, America became the “separate and equal” sovereign nation it set out to be.

By 1954, it was decided that when it came to public schools “separate but unequal” was our reality. A socioeconomic and racial inequality in America was acknowledged. That fact alone was justification for the writing of federal education law in 1965. And we set our course of action on offering equal access. However, desegregation —a forced attempt to offer that access—overshadowed full implementation of the law.

But equal access alone was never enough; the American standard is one of quality.

So as 1983 rolled around, the National Commission on Excellence in Education openly questioned the quality of our public secondary schools and made the call that we were A Nation at Risk based on eleven “indicators.” The majority of those measures were standardized test scores. The course was set. The destination was higher scores.

At that time, the commission’s analysis of statistics painted a bleak picture. And even though some of us still believe their recommendations were generally in the best interest of improving education, it is the commission’s “final” diagnosis of the quality of education in America that has been a topic of dispute in education circles for 35 years — with good reason.

A decade after the release of A Nation at Risk, researchers at the Sandia National Laboratories conducted their own study of elementary and secondary education. The only article about this investigation that the public has some access to is a summary titled “Perspectives on Education in America” (The Journal of Educational Research, Volume 86, Number 5, May/June 1993).

Sandia researchers did their own analysis of U.S. student’s performance on international and national test scores in addition to looking at “the education goals proposed by President [H.W.] Bush and the nation’s Governors.” They wrote that their analysis “focused on popular measures used to discuss the status of education in America.”

They found that in “nearly every” popular measure there was a “steady or slightly improving trend.” These researchers did not interpret this to mean that we don’t need to improve; they questioned the appropriateness of the popular measures, the difficulty of predicting the future educational needs of the country, and they found us “clearly deficient” on some measures they felt were appropriate.

So if left to their own devises, would the Sandia analysts choose different indicators of educational quality and achievement? The country did not ask.

Have our policymakers taken their findings into consideration? The country cannot possibly know.

This group of engineers — admittedly looking at education from an apolitical, outsiders’ view — summarized for us; the challenges we must face, the barriers that can impede educational improvement, and the conflicts they anticipated with the “reforms” being proposed.

Their findings should have been taken as cautionary. But the country did not hear them.The report was suppressed. The report, and the perplexing act of its contents being censored, failed to draw the attention of the media.

This lack of pertinent information has left us drifting along using “questionable measures.” And we lurched forward with full sails into the gusty winds of conflicting reform theories while anchoring them firmly in law — without good reason.

Any comparisons of U.S. scores on international tests should be seen as irrelevant in discussions of reform until the faults in those comparisons are clearly explained to the public.

What there should be no doubt about is that Gerald Bracey was correct in his observation that 20 years after A Nation at Risk, “The various special interest groups in education need[ed] another treatise to rally round. And now they have one. It’s called No Child Left Behind. It’s a weapon of mass destruction, and the target is the public school system. Today, our public schools are truly at risk.”

Now we know the destination set for the nation is privatization of our public schools.

Today, to effectively use history as a guide, we need the unfiltered insight of some of our best and brightest minds. We need the truth.

As the Sandia report quoted Clark Kerr, then President Emeritus of the University of California:

“Seldom in the course of policymaking in the U.S. have so many firm convictions held by so many been based on so little convincing proof.”

And that is now sadly true of the nation as a whole. We set course towards an illusion that raising test scores would produce “excellence.”

Good decisions are based on observation and evidence.

When information is withheld, we are more inclined to choose a course of action that takes us in the wrong direction. And the destination set for us appears to not be the one the American people desire.

Once upon a time, we were on course “To strengthen and improve educational quality and educational opportunities in the Nation’s elementary and secondary schools.” We are now running full speed ahead towards the alluring but deceptive goal of better test scores.

It is time to write a better passage in this reform saga by starting with the long ago expired and fault-ridden federal education law inappropriately named “No Child Left Behind” and now called the “Every Student Succeeds Act.” To do so responsibly requires we have a true assessment of our education system.

If this country’s leaders sincerely believe in excellent education for all, they will bring the missing Sandia Report up from the depths and welcome re-analysis of both it and A Nation at Risk. Our course in education reform, and our monitoring of it, depends on wise and informed decision-making. Our republic requires it.

(P.S. A version of this blog was originally posted on TruthOut in 2014.)

A Nation Misled

How can we reach the goal is we continue to be misled as a nation?

How can we reach the goal if we continue to be misled as a nation?

Do you know the history behind our nation being misled? Many have asked WHAT brought us to this point in education reform where we blame teachers rather that support improvement in their profession, where we close schools and move students around rather than improving all schools, and where education policy is controlled by lobbyists for foreign corporations rather than the crucial voice of the local people.

We were misled.

In 1991, then vice president of Sandia National Laboratories, Lee Bray, was asked to be in charge of overseeing an analysis that

“sought to provide an objective, outsider’s’ look at the status of education in the U.S.”

The Sandia researchers did what they do best — they thought things through and questioned their findings. They did an honest analysis that was never used to guide national education policy from that moment going forward. It —the Sandia report brief titled Perspectives on Education in America — still has not served to lead us in the right direction because

“…it was definitely suppressed” according to Lee Bray.

We need to right that wrong.

So, WHAT information did the Sandia Report provide?

On International Standardized Test Comparisons:

“The utility of these assessments to educational improvement in the United States is negligible.”

Some of the reasons presented included;

  • “Student tracking is common in many countries,”
  • Since these tests are single-point comparisons, “curriculum timing and content are essential issues,”
  • Cultural differences in that “some cultures place great emphasis on exams,”
  • “The educational needs of immigrants cannot be ignored.”

On Future Workforce Needs:

“If business needs workers with higher skills by the year 2000, it is the adult population that must be trained.

“Forecasting workforce skills beyond one or two years into the future is highly speculative.”

In other words, justifying a massive transformation in K-12 education by saying it is to meet the needs of the workforce is a ploy.

On What Were Then Only Proposed Changes (Education Reforms):

“Some proposed changes appear to be in conflict.”

"There is little agreement on what changes must occur." Sandia Report missing from the nation's view.

“There is little agreement on what changes must occur.” The Sandia Report was missing from the nation’s view and allowed us to be misled on the state of our education system and reforms.

The Sandia report went on to summarize the primary challenges facing education and the barriers that can impede educational improvement.

One of the barriers to improvement is inadequate information. That is where we stand today — an uninformed thus misled nation.

Rebutting Rhee

About the Rhee Opinion of the Opt-Out Movement: [NOTE: if you are not familiar with the Rhee agenda, 2012 critique from Idaho view provided here]CEMeQqMVIAEDorC

First, let’s clarify “standardized tests.” A standardized test is any form of test that (1) requires all test takers to answer the same questions, or a selection of questions from common bank of questions, in the same way, and that (2) is scored in a “standard” or consistent manner, which makes it possible to compare the relative performance of individual students or groups of students. (From the Glossary of Education Reform – who knew?)

O.K., so then, I’m going to make an assumption that confusion has occurred.

I see standardized tests in two different lights. In many of my large classes in college, college professors wrote up multiple-choice tests (fill in the bubbles), which covered the material they taught or that they expected students to learn, and ran them through machines to score. Those are “standardized tests” by definition but I’d call them “internally developed.”

It is not really “standardized tests” that parents are objecting to; it is externally developed standardized tests that are being misused and their worth is being misrepresented to the public with scores being used for propaganda purposes.

Ms. Rhee is wrong in thinking that externally developed standardized test scores are “critical to improving public schools.” The only period of time during which this country was actually narrowing the achievement gap (judged by standardized tests pre yearly mandated) was the period when the original “Effective Schools Research” was done. External tests were not correlates of those schools. External tests did not improve those schools.

Ms. Rhee is wrong in thinking that “better” design of external tests will “measure how well our schools are teaching our children.” These tests cannot distinguish between a test prep curriculum and the one that is best for the individual student. They cannot accurately judge the quality of a whole school. Study James S. Coleman’s work more closely, Ms. Rhee.

Ms. Rhee is wrong to judge our nation’s education system based on international standardized tests scores. Should we monitor trends? Absolutely, but international standardized tests don’t tell the whole story of the American education system.

The Sandia National Laboratories exploration of education that provided “Perspectives on Education in America” (Journal of Educational Research May/June 1993) explained our seemingly poor international performance based on several “issues.” To really judge our U.S. students based on these tests, we would need to take into account many more factors than the average Jane or Joe “education think tanker” is going to do… So we shouldn’t be basing our decisions on these tests unless we are going to delve into differences in student tracking, curriculum timing, cultural differences, etc. The Sandia brain trust concluded, “…the utility of these assessments to educational improvement in the United States is negligible.” Ms. Rhee, read their work – these were some damned smart people!

So, in general, to continue on the path of test-based reform is barking up the wrong tree. Standardized tests are a monitoring device that we should use sparingly and with cautious interpretation; they should not be the foundation for education reform that they have become.

If the argument I present here gets a hearing, it is only because of the Opt-Out Movement ——- Move on! Let’s hear more!

 Slaves to the test?

Slaves to the test?

And halt the confusion. Ask for clarification from the bully pulpit. Sign the Ohanian White House petition.

(Update 10/8/14 —- The petition failed to get enough signatures. So, sadly, the need to end the federal role in yearly mandated high-stakes testing lives on through No Child Left Behind.)

(UPDATE AGAIN – As of 12/4/15, the yearly mandated high-stakes testing lives on through the Every Student Succeeds Act – NCLB 2.0)