Is there a dark conspiracy behind many of the state and national level trends we see regarding educational legislation? A guest speaker at our College of Education in April 2004 thinks so.
In late April 2004 (more specifically last Friday,) I had the privilege to hear Dr. Angela Valenzuela of UT Austin address faculty, students, and staff of our TTU College of Education. The two presentations I heard her share were titled, “Social Promotion, Retention, and High-Stakes Testing of Young Children,” and ” High-Stakes Testing and the Myth of the Texas Miracle in Education.” The previous links are to my notes, taken during the presentations.

Dr. Valenzuela is an active advocate on behalf of the children in our state and across our nation impacted by legislative accountability reforms. One of the main goals of her own agenda, as well as the organizations she represents, is to encourage education agencies and legislatures to stop using single test measures to gauge the value of educational experiences as well as student capabilities. Instead, she advocates a more diverse set of assessment measures. Other states (cited in my notes above) are leading the way in this regard. Texas, unfortunately, is not.

Perhaps most troubling in the picture she painted of educational change and struggle concerns the alleged agenda of U.S. conservatives. She and others view the move to further expand educational voucher programs, implement “take the test” teacher certification programs, and continued support of high-stakes testing for public schools as nothing less than a brazen attempt to destroy both public education as we know it, as well as colleges of education who seek to prepare future and in-service teachers for the field of education.

Dr Valenzuela attempted to “connect the dots” for her audience concerning these and other educational reforms. Paraphrased, this is what I understood her to say: Conservatives and wealthy US elites see in the US public education system a vast trove of potential dollars that could be turned into commercial profit. Advocates and investors of private K-12 educational companies and curricula (including The Edison Project and Dr Bill Bennett’s K12 curriculum) are pushing for broader acceptance of educational vouchers across the United States to open these public coffers for their own selfish, financial interests. Public educators are broadly portrayed in the media as incompetent and not able to provide students with the sort of education they need to succeed in the 21st Century. “Alternatives” and “reforms,” and “choices” are needed, according to these voucher advocates, because public education simply cannot deliver on the promise of a quality education in the United States any longer.

In this conspiratorial interpretation, colleges of education are also targets of the right wing. Teaching is redefined by this group not as an art requiring an educational preparation outside of a content area, but rather a precise science (in a 18th century Newtonian flavor, I might add) which can be accomplished by basically anyone with a college degree– lacking a criminal background, of course. This devaluing and deprofessionalization of the education field serves the purpose of furthering calls for vouchers, home schooling, and any other public school alternative.

An additional aspect of this view is the idea that a “generational compact” between the young and old of today has been rejected: as a people we are no longer committed to taking care of the next generation educationally. We have moved from a more communitarian, socialistic view when it comes to education, welfare, health care, etc, to a “get what you can for yourself” mentality. Part of this is due to demographic trends and racism: in Texas by 2035, over 70% of the population is projected to be of hispanic origin. Baldly stated, the conservative agenda appears to be (in this view) to stop supporting education for the masses, which will (in some states including ours) become “majority minority” by today’s estimations. The long term view is grim: class warfare along socio-economic and ethnic lines, fueled primarily by the refusal/reluctance of the (now) ruling white elite to share economic resources with a growing poor population: when it comes to many things, including educational support.

As I write this in early May 2004, our Texas legislature is considering school finance reform in a special session of the legislature convened by our governor. His primary objective is apparently to pass additional property tax reductions, but the problem is the state must come up with the money somewhere to make up the difference in taxes. Some have proposed using sin taxes on alcohol, tobacco, and pornography to do this. Wouldn’t that make a popular campaign for educational advocates: smoke it up, drink it up, and visit your local strip joint at least once per week: let’s all do what we can to help the cause of public education……

I am not certain how much of this conspiratorial vision I agree with– but it doubtless provides much food for thought, discussion, and further research. I think a great deal of this DOES have to do with just economics…. but don’t accuse me of being a Marxist here on that basis alone….. Of course I think paying less taxes would be great personally. Who doesn’t? The problem is, I don’t think our governor and those advocating for these school finance reforms really have the best interests of children or our education system in mind at all. That is probably not a great stretch and would not, but itself, define me as a Democrat any more than I could be called a Marxist because I point to economic rationales as primary motivators.

One of the biggest problems I see with educational voucher proposals (and this is not my idea: one of my professors, Dr Morgan-Fleming, has pointed this out repeatedly) is that low-performing or hard-to-teach children are left out of the calculation. If your school’s pot of money is based on the number of students you have passing “the test,” then what school is going to want to take on those kids who are a real challenge? No one will, at least no one motivated primarily by the mandated assessment system.

I personally feel a tremendous commitment to public education in the United States. As much as Bill Bennett and others may want us to privatize education and turn our backs on public education, we simply cannot do that in the United States of America. Public education is the cornerstone of our democratic system and way of life. All our citizens need literacy, not just a few. Our current national campaign to “leave no child behind” is clearly leaving many behind: and one of the primary ways it does this is by going against the advice of every psychometrician who develops an assessment test like the TAKS test for Texas K-12 students, or the GRE for graduate students like myself. As Dr Valenzuela pointed out during her presentations, no self-respecting statistician would (or does) recommend that a single test or battery of tests (almost all multiple-choice) be used for high-stakes decisions: like whether a child can advance to a certain grade, or whether a school should receive more or less state funding next year.

One of the biggest problems with our educational accountability system in Texas is that, in the words of Dr Valenzuela, it has led to a dramatic narrowing of the curriculum. Now that the TAKS tests are over for Texas students, is school basically over? For many students and teachers, they might say “yes.” What a shame. There are so many skills that students need to learn, which can never be adequately assessed or measured on a multiple-choice exam. We have GOT to prepare children for their future, not our past. (We never were really adequately prepared for “our past” with multiple choice exams, but we kid ourselves and often think we were.) As I have written elsewhere, our children need digital literacy now, not just traditional literacy!

Perhaps educational advocates like Dr Valenzuela are leading a backlash movement which will eventually change these troubling trends in education. Most public schools today are a far cry from “The School I Love,” I fear. Home schooling has a growing allure for more and more families. Why? Educational institutions and paradigms are darned hard to change. And public schools MUST address the needs of individual children: both high achieving and low achieving.

Last thought here: To what extent are US citizens incorrectly assuming (and at our own peril) that economic principles can be (and should be) efficiently applied to arenas outside economics? In health care, has less government regulation and involvement led us to a system that patients as well as doctors are happy with? Certainly not. The only ones that appear happy with our health care situation in the early 21st century are lawyers and insurance companies, who seem to have no trouble making money hand over fist in the current climate. In education, has the application of an economic marketplace model led to better outcomes for students in all socio-economic and ethnic groups? I do not think so.

Dr Valenzuela lamented that conservatives in America would like to make all of us view ourselves, in the final analysis, as “consumers.” We are consumers of goods and services, and education will be put in the same stack of offerings as our groceries and restaurant choices. Is this utopia? Hardly. It sounds like a pretty distasteful vision.

Capitalistic markets have certainly proven to be good wealth generators across the globe, but one could argue quite convincingly that wealth generation has not been equitable. Of course it never has in history I suppose. But just because “free markets” seem to be the rule of the day (and the best option) for the world economy (although I know this is not the case– we are so far from having free markets in many, many areas) should we adopt a similar marketplace ethic when it comes to other issues: like our health care and educational systems?

Where do you stand on the push for more educational voucher programs in the US? It might be about time to make up your mind. And then do something about it.

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