Public Education | Participatory Democracy: After Neoliberalism

Unintended Consequences

When a Houston teacher helped her grandson prepare for standardized tests, she stressed to him the importance of identifying the best answer as opposed to a right answer—warning him to proceed slowly. After what must have been to him too many examples of "best" instead of "right" answers, he stated:

This is insulting to third graders. 

Thanks to No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top, this young person is of the generation that has only known high-stakes testing. The college freshman class of 2012 was the first cohort.  These laws focus professional and public attention on measurement and metrics, competition among schools and educators; to such a degree that binging on test preparation is now mistaken for teaching and test scores for learning. These are simulacra, not the things themselves. Simulacra are hyperreal, “models of a real without origin or reality.” Quoting Ecclesiastes Baudrillard states,

The simulacra is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true. 

I value assessment and even rigorous evaluation, as I believe most teachers and parents do. But I find problematic "standardized" tests, which are too often "normed" by legislation and legislators who do not understand that standardized and normed-referenced have specific meanings, processes, and uses. I am disappointed that high-stakes exams have been too useful in ranking schools, withholding grade promotion, denying graduation, determining merit pay, turning around schools, and closing schools. 


In Price, Duffy and Giordani’s Defending Public Education from Corporate Takeover, Smith (2013) describes a Chicago school in the 1990s, 


I witnessed a systematic violence there, an institutional brutality that was hurled upon students, families, teachers and administrators. The violence was perpetuated from beyond the school itself and was going under the guise of urban reform (p. 41). 


Fifteen (15) year later, Smith frames this systematic violence as a “terrorism” that has “become almost normalized” (p. 56). While improving U.S. international standing is the espoused goal of education reform, students feel the brunt of these laws and polities.


New York city parents wanted me to know that teachers and test monitors where issued latex gloves as part of their testing packets. Concerned about their children’s well-being, these parents were angered that their schools and the testing companies anticipated physical manifestations of student anxieties, but were unwilling to reconsider how their actions resulted in students upheaving the contents of their stomachs. 


In cities, such as Chicago where the pressures are high; students went into the tests in 2013 knowing an unprecedented number of their schools would be closed. The anxieties of these students were real, for about 12 thousand students were displaced from their schools and 2 thousand teachers laid off when over 50 Chicago schools shuttered this year. Interestingly, because of concerns for safety in a city where increased violence correlates with increased school closings, 12 hundred unarmed safety workers were hired for postings on city streets. The onslaught continues to this day as does the struggle and organizing of Chicago teachers and communities. 


But this web documentary is not about the practices and policies that are transforming  dreams for public education; hopes focused on developing as fully as possible the capacities and geniuses of children from pre-school into their adulthoods, not in spite of but with thoughtful, caring attention to their differences and needs. No this not a story about morphing a dream into what Bill Pinar called “a nightmare” of the “present historical moment.” Nine (9) years later, it is a nightmare from which we cannot awake.

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