06/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: Teachers in Florida Stage "Sick Out" From Testing

A brief item in yesterday's CNN telecast reported a "sick out" of public school teachers in Dade County, Florida. The reason for the protest, in a right-to-work State where "strikes" can only refer to bowling scores, was that Governor Crist is about to sign a bill that would eliminate teacher tenure and link pay increases to standardized test scores.

The protest, I would hope, will serve as a wake-up call to the Obama administration to the fact that teachers are sick and tired of being scapegoated for "failing schools." Although only 25% of the Florida teachers actually didn't show up for class, it was a sufficient number to make a definite impact on "business as usual." The apparent deafness of the Obama Administration, almost mirroring eight years of Bush Administration policies, to the abundant evidence that relying on standardized tests to measure student learning is pedagogically wrong, misleading and harmful to young learners, leads me to the conclusion that this is a calculated decision by the President, or certainly his advisors, that has and will continue to have serious negative social and economic consequences.

At a panel discussion several weeks ago at NYU ("What Type of School Reform Do We Really Need?"), Diane Ravitch, once a member of Bush senior's Department of Education, spoke out, as she has been doing quite frequently in recent months, against the uses and misuses of standardized tests and the whole assessment movement. She declared that since 1998, test scores as measured by the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) have "remained essentially flat." If these tests are supposed to improve student learning, ten years of their use has shown them to be ineffective.

On the other hand, students at private schools, which are not required to administer such tests, and specialized public schools, and "special talents" programs, spend barely any time, if at all, 'preppring" for them. Is it because they are being educated by "good teachers" while the students in low-performing schools are being taught by "bad teachers?"

One would hope that common sense would indicate otherwise: that economic status, cultural environment, nurturing, pre-natal care, and adequate, if not abundant facilities, books and other learning materials will have a far more positive impact on student learning than judging school performance in isolation of all these factors. President Obama seems to indicate, from his "Race to the Top" grants, that he is committed to "charter schools" as a key element in solving the problems of public schools when there is evidence that these schools select out students with learning disabilities and language difficulties to improve their test scores.

What I am afraid I must conclude, as Lois Weiner, another participant in the NYU conference suggested, is that President Obama is committed to a neo-liberal agenda. This agenda not only assumes that the global market will produce too few good jobs for too many eligible workers, but that most young learners "don't need a lot of education" for the low-paying, low-skills jobs of the future. If this is really the projected future planned for the overwhelming majority of young learners in this country and elsewhere, it must be openly discussed since its results will lead to the end of a democratic society. In the decades ahead, opportunity will be determined almost exclusively by birth, just as surely as it was when the U.S. was a British colony, only more so.

The teachers who are "sick" of testing express a symptom of a society that is sick, particularly since the remedies are not producing a cure but are furthering the illness. The only way these "sick" teachers can get well again is if the "sick outs" spread to schools throughout the country -- so that the true cures for our educational illness can be found.