The 62nd anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education just about coincided with the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding affirmative action, and both reveal something startling about the federal approach to educating students in high-poverty schools. It seems there are trends in public education worse than the implied threat of resegregating schools.
In a recent statement to the press, U.S. Education Secretary John King mentioned an uptick in the high-school graduation rates of African American and Latino students but warned that minorities still have “less access to the best teachers and the most challenging courses.” Because of the disparity, King aims to ensure federal education dollars supplement state resources for high-poverty schools. He’s doing this with proposed regulations that would require states to alter their education spending structures, despite loud noises from Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander complaining the new education law replacing No Child Left Behind does not give King authority to do so.
Yet buried in King’s statement is an agenda that’s more about maintaining high-stakes testing than enhancing the education or learning potential of minorities, since what counts as a quality teacher or challenging course must be measured by student test results. Unfortunately, high-stakes testing compromises rather than bolsters education opportunities for children in need. So King’s mandates are actually counterproductive—what he’s doing in the name of helping poor and minority kids will actually hurt them.
Polling on this subject is interesting. According to a 2015 PDK/Gallup Poll, most minority parents think standardized tests are important when comparing the performance of students in other schools. Americans in general support testing, as well. But everyone also agrees there is too much emphasis on testing. In fact, when judging the quality of a public school, most believe that student engagement with classwork, not tests, is the best evidence.
Stop Pretending Tests Are the Solution
Perhaps one reason for this is that testing assaults teacher autonomy. Don’t get me wrong: tests are important. But I object to the practice of using tests to control schools from the outside. Teachers are best situated to meet the needs of their students. Not even the brightest student can be fully evaluated using assessments that are authorized in legislatures instead of schools. When the autonomy teachers require in the classroom gets disrupted by testing, so does the learning process of literally millions of students.
Teachers have long endured the burden of teaching to the test, which is more about managing materials than bringing forth insight and knowledge. Often, teachers find it insulting when bureaucrats micromanage their lessons through testing mandates. This effectively makes teachers beholden to testing. Should teachers just do whatever they want in lieu of testing? Absolutely not. That’s why accountability exists in any decent school between teachers, parents, students, and principals. That’s a much better arrangement than turning trained professionals into paper pushers and time keepers—diverting their attention away from crucial things like student engagement.
Local accountability works when it’s not undermined. But the focus on standardized testing in education debates today does the teaching profession a disservice and shifts our attention away from actual classwork. This should be alarming to African Americans, in particular, who poll the highest in their trust and confidence of teachers.
The danger to students of overemphasizing tests is that with low-wealth minority students, for whom the value of an education can’t be overstated, standardization gets in the way of teaching critical thinking. Assessing critical thinking is more of a qualitative practice, which is why it contrasts with the U.S. Department of Education’s overreliance on quantitative data. Still, for our children’s sake, because critical thinking is foundational to comprehension and problem solving skills, it shouldn’t be neglected.
Despite Data Onrush, Minority Kids Still Behind
We’re awash in data these days. The National Center for Education Statistics routinely looks at issues like persistence and outcomes among minorities. In 2013, the National Assessment of Educational Progress pointed to the enduring black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gap. This is where one important study becomes useful. A U.S. News and World Report article published earlier this year and titled “Achievement Gap Between White and Black Students Still Gaping” described a recent analysis of a historic education report.
The Coleman Report, named for a prominent sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, was commissioned by the Civil Rights Act in 1964. It became highly influential in shaping education policy. When compared to today’s achievement gap statistics, the report makes clear that in 50 years the gap has narrowed only incrementally. Achievement differentials have hardly narrowed because programs like Title I never really focus on students themselves. Education policy often manages to get caught up in abstractions and data points instead of reality. So it’s no surprise that 50-year-old policies, which have done very little for students, are still being championed.
It’s not difficult at all for me to accept that this obstinate gap will likely remain for generations. In fact, I question why federal and state governments think in comparative terms such as “gap” and “disparity” anyway—especially when teachers, including me, are most concerned with maximizing the academic potential of individual students. What is difficult to swallow is the fiction that testing will somehow make education more equitable for students in need, when the facts show otherwise.
Title I Hasn’t Helped Poor Kids
One goal of Title I—the major source of federal funding for low-income students—is to help low-achieving students reach minimum proficiency on state assessments. But efforts toward this goal have been almost juvenile, with oversight of public funds becoming an afterthought. For instance, in his press statement, King described a situation where large sums of grant money have been given to state bureaucrats who, in turn, have not used those dollars to actually help students languishing in impoverished schools. Unfortunately, Title I has succeeded mostly in creating additional layers of bureaucracy in education funding.
Some want to shift the blame to testing companies that design and create the assessments many states use, thanks to federal mandates. An article in The Washington Post last year titled “Big Education Firms Spend Millions Lobbying for Pro-testing Policies” implies that corporations are thirsting after the largesse of programs like Title I.
But this is a distraction. The Pearsons and McGraw-Hills of the world aren’t the problem. The truth is that teachers are trained to wisely purchase testing materials. Politicians are not. And Title I wrongly incentivizes lawmakers to make these kinds of decisions. All the same, scrutinizing transactions with testing companies doesn’t get to the heart of the matter and has little, if anything, to do with access to a good education in America today.
So the real question remains. How does Title I improve education for minorities trapped in high-poverty schools? It doesn’t. In fact, the testing provision of Title I gets in the way of its own main goals.
Testing Degrades the Best Instruction
Regardless of their philosophical leanings, some of the greatest education theorists of the twentieth century (Dewey, Freire, Illich) agree that education should be a liberating experience. But making this a reality begins with teaching, not politics. First and foremost, teachers are charged with shaping the minds of students. They need the freedom to plan lessons and find ways to pique student interest. Classrooms across the nation cannot afford to have teachers wasting time moderating eight or more weeks of annual test prep.
Amid Title I’s numerous lofty goals, what exactly does it mean by a high-quality education? As an educator, when I think about quality, national and state assessments don’t come to mind. I think about in-class accountability and not the zero-sum game of stigmatizing schools that underperform on tests. I think about an uninhibited process where ideas surface and help generate productive discussion, where insight flows from teacher to student and vice versa. Testing is simply a far cry from this kind of meaningful intellectual exchange, which is all too often sidelined in schools.
Education policy analysts like Diane Ravitch have argued that the country has more of a poverty problem than a schools problem. It’s true that poverty influences the way a student pursues education and shapes the support system available to that student. But many assessments of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, including Thomas Sowell’s “Economic Facts and Fallacies,” make the case that government efforts to eradicate poverty have been minimal, at best. And it’s worth noting that Title I of the ESEA was a part of Johnson’s sweeping legislation.
Because massive federal programs often lead to one gap or another, public policy should scale back the middle men and women. The provider industry of test developers and anti-poverty agents should also be trimmed. Those programs could then be supplemented with things like access, school choice, and autonomy for teachers and minority students. This is the truly powerful legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, which gets obscured underneath a slew of hollow programs and promises.