Monday, February 06, 2006

"I didn't go to school to become a robot"

Leaving Children Behind
Exam privatization threatens public schools
by Ben Clarke

"They make kids in my class feel dumb," says Vanessa Verdín about the corporate- designed standardized tests that millions of U.S. schoolchildren are required to take under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Vanessa, an energetic eleven year old whose hobbies include soccer, knitting and research, feels that the tests "ask the wrong questions" and "waste time when we could be learning."A 5th grader at Rosa Parks Elementary school in Berkeley, California last year, Vanessa is part of a grand experiment pushed by the federal Department of Education to re-make government-funded public schools. Educational corporations, from European-based multinationals, to start-ups such as Ignite, founded by Neil Bush, the president's brother, are swarming into the schools, offering prepackaged curriculum, tests and educational materials to meet the legislative mandate to "teach to the test'" in a narrow range of subjects. Sales of printed materials related to standardized tests nearly tripled from 1992 to last year, jumping from $211 million to $592 million, according to the American Association of Publishers. Three corporate giants dominate both testing and textbooks: CTB-McGraw Hill, Harcourt (owned by London-based Reed Elsevier), and Houghton Mifflin, which together control about 80% of the market. The total market in textbooks and related educational materials is over $7 billion. According to the Washington-based Center on Educational Policy, the NCLB Act has convinced many states to reduce the scope of their tests to multiple choice math and reading because only scores in those areas will determine funding levels. Oregon plans to save money by eliminating many writing tests, science assessments and the complex parts of its math exams. Massachusetts will eliminate history and social studies tests this year.

Under NCLB, if a school fails to improve math and reading test scores within three years, a portion of its federal funding will be diverted to "parental choice" tutoring programs further weakening the schools ability to improve. These outsourced programs are run by private companies such as Educate Inc. owner of Sylvan Learning Centers whose revenues have grown from $180 to $250 million in the past three years and whose profits shot up 250% last year. Ironically, while school districts will be required to certify that the percentage of their teaching staff who have teaching credentials is increasing, private tutoring companies, the replacement recipients of tutoring funds, will be under no such requirement to prove that their staff even have such credentials. The big impact of NCLB still lies in the future. Like the so-called welfare reform act, it will be some years down the road that the real price will be paid. After five years, the act requires that low-performing schools be converted to charter schools, turned over to a private management company or be taken over by the state.

In the short term, it is cheaper for the [federal] government to demand testing than it would be to demand holistic evaluations of a child and follow up providing services to meet those needs. Instead of tackling what our education system should really be doing, we have a quick-fix fast food solution—we're reduced down to a test score.

Nearly three years into the implementation of the federal program, anxiety among school children has reached a new peak, as mandated sanctions including reconstitution, closure and privatization hang over the heads of students, teachers, and local districts that fail to make the grade on nationally mandated "high stakes" tests. Mollie Crittenden, a former bilingual teacher in San Francisco who recently lost her job in reorganization cut-backs, says test anxiety can engulf an entire school, resulting in "negative and aggressive behavior increasing on the playground and in the classroom." And despite the fact that "testing can take up to two weeks out of regular instructional time, the standardized tests yield an inaccurate assessment of students knowledge." The Federal department of Education claims that the testing regime is helping English language learners. They say that state results show that 43 percent of the students who took the California English Language Development Test scored at the early advanced or advanced levels in 2003. That is up from 34 percent in 2002 and 25 percent in 2001.But research shows that teaching students to succeed on standardized multiple choice tests doesn't correlate with improved performance on real-world tasks. Students in Japan, Germany and other industrialized countries, while tested heavily, are taught specific subjects intensively and not the broad superficial knowledge required for multiple choice. Leon Lynn, book editor of the progressive Minnesota-based educational journal Rethinking Schools, says, "Much of educational work in schools is being curtailed to fit what's on the test. High quality of education for all students is being compromised. If it's not on the test, schools don't have time for it."

The Bush administration-backed NCLB requires school districts across the country receiving federal funds to teach using "scientifically tested" curriculum. Because of an artificially narrow definition, the materials that fit the bill are standardized educational materials sold mainly by the multinational textbook and educational companies. But even within that narrow standard, advertising, lobbying and public relations are key to winning contracts. For example CTB McGraw Hill's most widely used tests are the TerraNova, CTBS and the California Achievement tests; Harcourt's top seller is the Stanford achievement test, known as the SAT-9, and Houghton Mifflin's bestseller is the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Textbook sales form the bulk of McGraw Hill's $1.4 billion in education-related income and testing has played a key role in expanding their textbook business. CaliforniaTeachers are required to teach three hours a day from the McGraw Hill Open Court materials in Oakland, California. According to Ben Visnick, president of the local teachers union, "School district employees and instructional facilitators—we call them Open Court police—inspect the classrooms to verify that the right posters are on the walls and they want everyone in the district on the same page every day." Visnick says that teachers complain that there is no flexibility saying "I didn't go to school six years to become a robot." Mario Zalaya, a 17 year veteran in the public schools including Hawthorn elementary school in Oakland says he's seen first hand the way standardized materials are pushing teaching toward something closer to test preparation than real education. A former statewide leader in developing hands on teaching tools for math and science, he says, "I hardly had time to teach the kids using my own materials."

Worse yet, it mainly penalizes the poor. Affluent suburban school districts which don't receive federal funds have far less to lose. At the Hawthorn elementary school in Oakland the after-school math program is run by the Edison Schools-owned Newton Learning Corporation. Fifth grade teacher Zalaya says that the program undermines traditional after-school programs by "offering bribes like Walkman stereos and GameBoy toys for attending a certain number of sessions." He says the Edison program "fails to teach the students because the well-paid Edison teachers are incompetent, have no classroom management skills and discipline is completely missing." Macus Silvi from the Office of Student Achievement that coordinates the after-school programs says that in accordance with NCLB the school district must provide state certified vendors like Edison with access to provide after-school programs. "We don't have a choice," he says. "If we don't do this the federal government will yank the entire federal funding allocation, and that's $27 million."

In a recent scandal, the statewide improvement in Texas schools testing scores was found to be a result of low-scoring students being omitted from the count or else being forced to drop out of the system. According to studies by Walt Haney of Boston College, the Texas high school exit exam and harsh rules against promoting students to the next grade level have disproportionately increased drop-out rates for African American and Latino students. Other studies by Linda McNeil, a professor at Rice University and co-director of the Rice Center for Education, show that Houston area schools have focused on test scores to such an extent that fundamentals are left uncovered. She describes a primarily Mexican-American school that had no library, almost no lab equipment and a shortage of textbooks. Instead of addressing these basic educational needs, the administration spent $20,000 for commercial test-preparation books. Scores at the school failed to improve. McGraw Hill appears to have also played a pivotal role in the state. As described by John Metcalfe, in an article published in the Nation magazine, McGraw Hill experts—not actual educators—were called to testify on the nature of "scientifically valid" reading curriculum for Texas school children under George W. Bush in his previous job as governor of the state. The Texas Education Agency then formulated the requirements for statewide reading curriculum based on the testimony of the testing experts. Not surprisingly, McGraw Hill products matched the specifications and gained a dominant share in the Texas textbook market. McGraw Hill Vice President for Communications April Hattori tells CorpWatch that the company's textbook and testing units are separate. She says the content of the tests is not driven by the content of McGraw Hill textbooks but by the state standards. Hattori did acknowledge that a "McGraw Hill team" drawn from across their education division does work together to present proposals to, for example, a state board of education but that she couldn't comment on how the lobbying efforts of McGraw Hill act as part of the team. Coincidentally one of the smaller beneficiaries of the outsourcing craze is President Bush's brother Neil. Earlier this year, he was charged by some school board members of using his political influence to sell his company's educational materials to the Houston school district. Wells Fargo and other Bush family friends donated $115,000 to the Houston school district's charitable foundation contingent on the purchase of Ignite materials. Ignite officials claim that the donations were not self-dealing or influence peddling but an example of corporations fulfilling their civic responsibility to improve education in Houston.

Recently, and other activist groups have tried to turn the public discourse back to education and have used their powerful email alert system to call for nationwide house meetings to support funding for public education. In California, Californians for Justice (CFJ) and other California education activists have succeeded in getting legislation passed that would measure school's quality through something called the "opportunity to learn index." The index would measure the level of overcrowding in schools, class size, teacher credentials, and quality educational materials. Lead organizer for CFJ in San Diego Emmanuelle Regis says that with such an indicator "parents could truly hold school districts and the state accountable for the educational resources and conditions that actually constitute the basis for education."She says that high school students have been organizing postcards mailings, petitions, and rallies; travelling to Sacramento to visit lobby legislators; and have sent delegations to meet with members of the state board of education to protest the high school exit exam and to demand more resources for education. Unfortunately, both Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the last two governors of the state have vetoed the "opportunity to learn index" legislation so far—saying that testing the students is enough accountability. Joanne Heald, a teacher with over eight years experience in California public schools who is calling it quits, says of the politicians, "They would rather point the finger at something that's not the problem. Programs that help—like smaller class size and instructional aides—would cost a lot of money and mean higher taxes so they are cut. Instead they spend money on folly and foolishness like these tests."

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