Anti-Capitalist Meetup: Brave New World – High Stakes Testing or When a Test is Not Just a Test
(This article was co-authored by Diana Zavala, a parent with a 9 year old child in New York City Public Schools who works with Change the Stakes and Geminijen, a member of the Anti-Capitalist Meet-up Collective who also taught in the New York City Public Schools).
In Aldous Huxley’s sci-fi classic, Brave New World, Huxley explores a dystopian world where the government, for the good of the society, programs citizens to conform to its norms through “repetitive learning” techniques and ‘soma’, a mind-altering drug, that makes humans compliant with its highly stratified, unquestioning consumer society run by a few elites or “alphas.” If a person either cannot or is unwilling to be programmed, they are cast out of the rational “civilized” society into an area saved for “savages” where the messy human emotional traits of people’s suffering and desiring and dissenting are relegated.
This conforms to Marx’s concept that a society’s educational system is designed to reinforce the dominant economic culture, which in the current capitalist mode of production views people as inanimate commodities whose only usefulness is to promote increased profit for the corporate elite.
Obama’s “Race to the Top” model of educational reform (RTT) is an eerily good fit with both Huxley’s and Marx’s concepts. In response to globalization, Obama’s RTT, in line with the 1999 World Bank education reform model, is replacing public schools with privately run but publicly funded schools where a few students are being educated to become the corporate elites leaving the rest to be minimally educated as the blind consumers and maintainers of the system.
Obama’s approach recommends the development of a limited number of charter schools run by private corporations and institutions where the subject content of the schools is nationally standardized and teachers are taught to teach to the tests to indoctrinate the new, more limited number of white collar workers still needed in a global economy into the corporate “new speak.” That this is already happening is evidenced by the fact that under the new business model promoted in the charter schools, students are no longer referred to as citizens, but customers and clients. This corporate model is enforced through a system of standardized testing and “accountability”.
Just as Huxley’s Brave New World used ‘soma’ and repetitive ‘sleep learning’ to program and indoctrinate the populous, our new educational regimen of mandatory testing uses the element of repetition and standardized testing from early learning through high school to the same end. However, it is not the “success” of the individual student these tests are intended to measure. The tests are used to determine and label how well a student conforms to the dominant culture.
As in Brave New World, the Race to the Top educational model uses these techniques to repress any democratic dissent or critical thinking. If students, teachers, parents or school districts question these norms, or refuse to get with the program, schools will lose funding, a teacher may be laid-off or fired for being ‘unsatisfactory’, and a child may be denied promotion or access to a “good” school (i.e., end up among the “savages”). Thus the stratification of society is reinforced by the use of testing.
If punitive standardized testing is the stick that is used to enforce the corporate model, the possibility of upward mobility for the individual child regardless of race, gender or economic background is the “soma” used to sell this model to the public. As in Brave New World, people are told that the programming is for their own good, so that they can compete in the global economy of the 21st century.
Steeped in language of upward mobility and empowerment, rich liberals such as Bill Gates put billions into reassuring people that minority and poor children will receive the same consideration as the children of the rich. All children will begin equal in the race for the brass ring, ignoring the fact that, under this model there will always be only a few winners and that the Bill Gates’s of the world will not be sending their children to these the schools and – oh yes — the necessary funds are only available to those who go along with the program.
Instead of working for the collective good of all children, parents and teachers end up fighting each other for the limited number of slots available and available only to those who accept the corporate kool-aid.
An Educational Model for the “Savages.”
Instead of letting the multinational corporations define and use education to control the rest of us, what should education mean to those of us in the system? What is our view of the value of literacy and education? While education alone cannot create a more egalitarian and humane society, what kind of education can give us the tools to fight the domination of a corporate model that does not have our interests at heart? How can we develop the active critical thinking to question why some people have money and power and others don’t, why individualism and competition is better than cooperation and a collective approach, why teachers shouldn’t only teach to the test but include art, music, sports and literature? Finally, why our work is not valued on its usefulness to society as a whole but what will sell products? Radical education is not isolated from the real world, but is specifically designed to break the mold of top down education to empower students, parents and the community to act in our own self interest.
Challenging the “High Stakes” Testing Model (A Case Study)
Developing an understanding of how we “fight the power,” requires an understanding that for the power to be effective, it must be enforced. In this case, the corporate norms of capitalism are enforced through continual testing with punitive consequences should “the people” refuse to comply with this indoctrination. This continual testing is not only devastating to the mental health and learning process of young children, but as a method by which the state imposes its will on the people.
The following is what we hope will be the first in a series of diaries with a parent with a nine year old son in the New York City public education system. Diane Zavala’s son was subjected to the current version of “high stakes” testing personally. She is actively involved in educating the community about the consequences of high stakes testing and what can be done about it.
I see the role of parents in the current education reform as a critical one. For decades the policies of No Child Left Behind and now Obama’s Race to the Top, have obliterated the presence of parents from the equation. The tests have taken on their own omnipresence in the lives of teachers and students and are a core factor in schools.
“Changing” the system is still something many parents don’t grasp. Parents still see testing as a natural and appropriate part of education. Buzz words such as “accountability” “choice” and “achievement gap”are being used by the RTT advocates in a distorted way by plotting “Accountability” = bad teachers + “let’s get rid of them”. “Choice” = parents want to choose the best school for their children (i.e. charter schools that come in with disparate funding), This often or probably always pits one child against the other, one parent in a lottery against her neighbor. Children within the same school buildings don’t talk to each other because traditional public schools and the new privately sponsored Charter schools are co-located and the charters have the funds to have labs, music programs, libraries, and fancy technology while the zoned school is getting cuts to their budget. “Achievement gap” has come to mean that somehow the Black kids are behind and that what they should aspire is to be like the “white kids” who are the success, in and of itself a racist ideology. These are the core beliefs that we as parents and community members have to fight in order to shift the current direction of ed reform.
Another barrier for parents is the social and emotional concerns parents have over the consequences of resistance. If their child is to opt-out of the testing: will their child be teased by peers for not being part of the group? Will their teachers and principal single the child out and not support a parent’s decision by providing an alternative option during testing time?
For parents to question the value of testing is something that will require a major change of hearts and minds to accomplish. However, the momentum is growing as more parents experience different aspects of the Race to the Top agenda in their own families. Whether it be because:
– they see their child get left-back because s/he didn’t pass the ELA and or Math NYS exam,
– or because they notice that their child is anxious and stressed out about the tests,
– or because they see their favorite teacher replaced by a young, white-childless teacher product of Teach for America,[a conservative program, known for training teachers to educate to the new norms]
– or because they see their child’s school pushed into fewer, less desirable classrooms with larger numbers of students when it is co-located with another school, often a charter school that promoting the new test driven agenda,
– or because their child is “counseled out” of a school because s/he is not meeting the testing standards [and might make the school less competitive],
– or because they see special programs in their child’s school replaced with homework/test prep,
– or because the school they send their children to suddenly received an “F” and can potentially be closed before their second/third child ever attends.
For all these reasons and more, parents are noticing that there is something happening in education that does not fit the schema they have of what education “should” be. This becomes the catalyst for parents who see the need for a change in the system.
The Power of the Test
Parents are kept separate and in the dark about the tests, they are not given information and or asked for consent. Parents are told that the tests exist to prepare the children for college, but they are not told that the excessive emphasis on getting the grade on the test means there is a narrowing of curriculum to focus only on subjects that are tested and excluding subjects like social studies, art, music, technology, second language drama, etc. — all the subjects which make up a liberal arts education.
One role of the parent is to demand that parents be informed and consent be required for their children to participate in the testing, especially when consent is required for everything else from teaching health-education, to a student being photographed, school trips, and peanut allergies. In no other area does a school hold the ultimate decision, maybe in medical requirement of vaccines, but even here there is a way for parents to opt-out by claiming religious or medical exemptions. But even here, when parents comply with the vaccine requirement it is not like their child is taken into a doctor’s office and the parent is not allowed to know the vaccine their child is administered. If the tests are mandatory, then parents have a right to review the tests after the fact, but even this is denied by the current standard of practice for administering the tests. Currently there is a process whereby a parent can request access to see parts, but not all, of a child’s State exams; however, a Freedom of Information Law [FOIL]process is required in order to gain access and access is limited to the principal’s office, no photographs, or photocopying allowed, never mind it being a lengthy process.
This leads to the fact that students are being used as for-profit subjects for for-profit organizations who sample their testing material on the students without responding to an independent ethics committee to assess the impact of the testing on the students. Even when a parent decides to enroll their child in a study for scientific or educational purposes, the parent is given the right to opt-out at any point in the process without consequences. There is nothing that involves a minor in which the parent information and consent are denied, except in standardized, high-stakes testing used for purposes of “accountability” on the shoulders of an 8-year old on whose success lies the whole “national security” as it has been articulated by the likes of Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice.
Parents are not only being kept in the dark about testing in the schools, but they are also held at the mercy of the privatization agenda by putting the fate of their child’s academic future on the test. Parents are in fear and feel disempowered by the current centralized educational system. There are many considerations parents need to make when confronted with the recognition that there is something not right happening and deciding that change is necessary and that they can be a part of the alternative.
As privatization of the whole educational system is slowly becoming a reality, the role of parents first and foremost in the current educational climate is for parents to unite and demand that their children not be used in this demented system of testing claiming to provide “accountability” and “choice”, which are “good” things, but that in essence are being used to destroy the teacher’s union as the last standing obstacle on the path of privatization. So parents should bear in mind that their civil rights are being violated in this current climate of education reform, and that they are being used to shift public education to the private sphere that has nothing to do with the well-being of children.
The current climate of testing creates a separation between all interested parties in education. When tests are administered, teachers are not allowed to assist a student, usually because the teacher did not design the test, so s/he doesn’t have knowledge of the test question, but it goes as extreme as not allowing a student a bag in the event of vomiting, which is known to have happened in extreme cases of testing anxiety and the teacher is not permitted to provide the student with a bag or a glass of water to assist the student. The administration guidelines prohibit the teacher from engaging with the student other than to proctor the exam by keeping time and by allowing the student required breaks if these are dictated by an Individualized Educational Plan. The alienation from the testing experience runs deep in severing the trust and established rapport a teacher has with his/her students and goes further into separating her from the parents and from the school community as a whole.
If parents can come together and refuse the testing, which is at the core of the privatization agenda, then the whole system of evaluating the teachers, producing the school report cards that leads schools to closure, implementation of charters, and the test-prep industry profiting off of the students will be disrupted. Parents need to see these connections and understand that their voice is critical in destabilizing this machine that will dismantle public education in our country.
Parents are not alone in their isolation from their children’s education and condition of fear of consequences for non-compliance, teachers are also alienated from each other, their union, their administrators, parents, and even from their students. Parents and teachers are often not allowed to share their personal opinions, but required to include the principal/supervisor when communicating with parents. Teachers are afraid for their own jobs, Even tenured teachers are harassed and given unfair evaluations and excessed from their buildings, which gives them a stigma for any future employment and professional growth.
Teachers are divided in two camps, those who were teaching before the days of “accountability” and those who were trained and hired to accept the notion that part of a teacher’s job is to closely analyze data to use to tailor instruction and to fear that if the student is not making quantifiable progress that the quality of her instruction is questionable.
The teachers teaching before the current emphasis on standardized testing are more likely to know that a student comes in many different forms and from many different backgrounds and circumstances that often are not reflected in the grades a student receives. There are those students who are natural test-takers and do well no matter what, and there are also those students who are intelligent, hard-working, creative, good writers, artists but who will not perform the part on a test, no matter the type. These teachers know that engaging instruction and monitoring growth at different points during a unit of study to tailor the instruction to the needs of the students means good teaching. However, with the emergence of NYC ’s Teaching Fellows and national programs like Teach for America, teachers are quickly being trained to administer tests, to follow standards, to analyze data, to keep pace with a dictated [top down] curriculum. They view their job as facilitators not instructors. The scripted curriculum, the national standards, and the standardized tests are the “real” education and they (the teachers)are mere facilitators or human factoids that implement the essential elements of education in the student.
What Is To Be Done?
In the current state of education, parents have been vanished from participation and their voices are ignored in favor of “professional” elected individuals. Often parents protest the closing of a school but will be ignored and the school gets closed. Parents need to be considered in the decision-making process at all levels starting from the classroom, the school, the community, and at the citywide level in order to have a push-back against this powerful train going determined to devastate education.
In the current climate, parents need solidarity with each other to share information and education and to make collective decisions. Parents cannot be pitted against one another because all parents want the best for their children and their schools. Parents need to have a presence in their children’s school be it through established forums or alternatives.
But even if parents participate in Student Leadership Teams [decision making bodies in a school that include parents, the parent organization, and school events], there is also a need to engage parents in an understanding of the structure and function of the citywide and regional administration that include the role of the Chancellor, the regional and district superintendent, learning support, the community school district superintendent, and district offices.
They need to know who makes decisions on charters, school closings, budgets, busing, special education, enrichment, after-school programs, school infrastructure, and resolutions passed by the district decision-making body that collects the concerns at the district level of schools to bring to the higher body for decisions.
The corporate powers that are implementing this system are afraid of the parents and have clearly used their power to encourage the development of school districts in which democratic input is limited; i.e., Bloomberg has usurped the public education system in New York City and is, in essence, the sole decider now in educational reform.
Reestablishing the role of parents and community control as a necessary component in education decisions at the district and regional level is critical. Parents have to get creative as to how this information can be transmitted to other parents [i.e., at a Saturday meeting which helps parents with their English and childcare is provided] There is also a need for grassroots educational organizations outside those within the system. And we don’t have to start from scratch. There is a long history of teaching black history in grassroots Freedom Schools established by SNCC activists in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. This concept continues today in occasional day long boycotts of inner city schools to provide grassroots black history workshops to protest the lack or distortion of black history in the official school curricula. La Raza, a Chicano organization instrumental in the 1960s, is once again organizing the community in the Southwest in the fight to keep bilingual education.
The strategy of focusing on the testing industry as the nexus where students, parent and teacher interests meet could also be the focus of a campaign of escalating protests and civil disobedience. Change the Stakes is a grassroots organization with a membership of about 20 core members who are parents, teachers, former parents or teachers, and professors who share an understanding that high-stakes testing is deforming the quality of education and are dedicated to resisting the use of standardized tests to evaluate students, teachers, and schools.
Change the Stakes (CTS) has organized successful actions (including civil disobedience)against stand-alone field tests administered to the elementary school students for the purpose of sampling questions by the for-profit organization Pearson Inc. to use in future exams.
Parents in CTS also opted their children out of the Spring exams this year. Their act of civil disobedience has gained strength and support with over 2,000 signatures of parents and teachers who support opting-out of testing. The Opt-Out petition has also spawned other testing resolutions including a Principal petition to not administer the tests and a Professor petition to not use the new “accountability” language in their teacher-training curriculum. CTS is leading the way in advocacy against high-stakes testing and the misuse of tests for other purposes not intended such as value-added performance equivalents to measure teacher quality and to create school progress reports.
CTS is pushing for a non-punitive alternative for parents to opt-out of high-stakes testing as these are developmentally inappropriate for children. CTS is an outgrowth of the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM) which created a committee to examine the role of testing in education and has grown to become its own entity but continues to work closely with teachers and teacher issues.
It is CTS’s view that the teacher’s working conditions are the student’s learning conditions and these cannot be separate. What is good for the students is good for the teachers: class size, standardize testing, co-locations, school closures are not good for teachers and these are issues of concern to CTS.
from Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Chapt 2:
“At the end of the room a loud speaker projected from the wall. The Director walked up to it and pressed a switch.
“… all wear green,” said a soft but very distinct voice “and Delta Children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.”
There was a pause; then the voice began again.
“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able …”
The Director pushed back the switch. “They’ll have that repeated forty or fifty times more before they wake; then again on Thursday, and again on Saturday. A hundred and twenty times three times a week for thirty months. After which they go on to a more advanced lesson.”
Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too—all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides—made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions! ”