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Test-Driven Education Reform Could Set Up Kids To Fail

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ARNE DUNCAN
AP

Educators from across the country will be meeting this week with Education Secretary Arne Duncan in Denver to discuss Advancing Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration at a conference cosponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and the mounting nation's top education unions.

Ironically, our meeting to discuss paths to renewed cooperation will be taking place at a time when governors and municipal leaders throughout the nation are rolling back the rights and benefits of public employees. These politically charged campaigns have a lot in common with the assault on educators already underway by so-called business-model school reformers who impede the much-needed improvements in public service -- in our case, public schools.

In both the assault on public employee pensions and the blame-the-educators movement, the failures of elected officials and their corporate benefactors are projected onto the victims of these failures -- and public schools have certainly been among those victimized.

When federal experiments with school curricula fall short, the thrust of the attack on educators and students is to label them "failures" when the experiments themselves have failed largely as a result of excluding front-line educators from the design of reforms.

And when poorly designed data-driven tests are adopted by Democrats as well as Republicans as a panacea, it's difficult not to conclude that the same corporate interests that now dominate both parties are dominating the debate about the best way to educate our children.

Any question about how the corporate sector is dominating Washington policymakers was laid to rest recently when it was revealed the administration is enlisting the help of 30 major corporations in pushing the Education Department's reforms on Congress.

The data-driven business model "reformers" champion vouchers and charter schools, with the professed goal of restoring world-class performance among U.S. school children. In fact, there is growing evidence that their motivation is to ensure that 10 percent of school children perform to globally competitive standards, while the rest are dismissed as "failures" without much, if any, regard for the social consequences.

America is scouring the urban centers for what W.E.B. DuBois would refer to as its "yeast." In his essay, The Talented Tenth, he writes, "All men cannot go to college but some men must; every isolated group or nation must have its yeast, must have for the talented few centers of training where men are not mystified and befuddled by the hard and necessary toll of earning a living, as to have no aims higher than their bellies."

The corporate reformers' singular focus on college readiness and obsession with STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), often to the exclusion of arts and humanities, raises serious questions about whose needs they seek to serve since these preoccupations are at odds with the jobs the federal government projects will grow most in the coming years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the greatest number of new jobs in the U.S. labor market between now and 2018 will be food preparers and servicers (3.1 million), customer service representatives (2.7 million), long haul truck drivers (1.8 million), nursing aides and orderlies (1.7 million), receptionists (1.3 million), security guards (1.2 million), construction workers (1.18 million), landscapers and groundskeepers (1.12 million), and home health aides (1.05 million).

"Few of these jobs," writes political scientist Jacob Hacker, "will call for college credits, and their pay is unlikely to vary much from current medians." Political leaders and their corporate backers who insist on making STEM courses the centerpiece for curriculum appear to be advocating an untenable system of "natural selection" in which the survival of the academically fittest is advanced, while the rest of students are labeled "failures."

The last thing we want to do is to set up children for failure. We need to guide students in the disciplines of discovery and creativity that are the pathways to independent thinking, seldom an attitude cherished by corporate views of education. For children's sake -- and the nation's -- we can't afford to demand teaching to tests as if something has actually been "learned." And in the words of DuBois, "We cannot mistake the means of living for the object of life."

To be successful in reforming public education, we must teach with an expectation of learning, not with the presumption of achievement by some and remediation among the rest.

We need to be guided by the examples of our own experience as children and students. I don't know what my test scores were when I was in school or what my IQ was, but I know that my parents told me I could achieve whatever I wanted if I worked at it. Now you're told, "If you don't get these test scores, you're not going to be anything." You're labeled a failure. So, students accept what their leaders tell them. They sit back and say, "I guess we have failed."

For schools whose performance falls short, we must turn them around. And we need curricula that challenge students -- all students -- with rigor. But we need to do so by creating an expectation of achievement that addresses the disparate skills of students and the differing paces at which they learn

Only when programs are designed to equip all children with the skills to exercise sound, independent judgment as workers and citizens will they be successfully educated, whether they're prepared to drive a long haul truck across country or drive a smart bargain with an investor halfway across the globe.

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