Educating for Democracy: The Educational Reform Hoax

04/14/2015 04:58 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

The sentencing to stiff prison terms yesterday of ten Atlanta educators for "racketeering" and the standardized testing going on in the schools of the state of New York today provide the perfect examples of what I've decided to call the educational reform hoax. The sentencing of the teachers and supervisors in Atlanta to jail for what was basically an attempt on their part to save their jobs in an impossible situation was a travesty of justice. If the judge wanted to get to the root of the "crime," he should have looked further up the chain of command to those administrators in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., who persist in imposing these "reforms" despite mounting evidence that these tests and their flagrant misuse are eroding the quality of education in this country. The backlash to these programs is an "opt out of testing" movement that is growing throughout the country. Parents, finally aware of the difference between drilling and educating, are letting their children "opt out" of taking these largely valueless tests. It is an encouraging sign of growing public awareness that this emphasis on testing is not in the best interests of their children.

On the other hand, I certainly don't condone the cheating that went on in Atlanta, which is still a serious issue in school districts throughout the country, but putting teachers and administrators in the dilemma of "cheat or be fired" is a method of guaranteeing that fraud would become the only avenue for many otherwise conscientious teachers to save their jobs. Moreover, the flawed premises on which the so-called "educational reforms" are based are patently obvious even from the titles of the programs that are degrading our public schools.

1. No Child Left Behind: The word "No" in the title of this program presumes an impossible expectation that all children can progress toward the relatively same level of educational improvement despite the gross inequity of funding between affluent and impoverished school districts. Given this unrealistic premise, and adding to it the punitive measures being imposed on teachers and schools that do not "improve" their young learners' test scores, guarantees that poor learning will be the result for many of the nation's children, especially those in impoverished districts.

2. Race to the Top: Educational excellence is most often achieved by educators sharing their best ideas with each other. When the first charter school was established by Albert Shanker, the late and very influential leader of the teachers' union, his objective was to encourage innovation in teaching practices and share them with all teachers who wished to improve their methods. The "hoarding" approach that Race to the Top encourages results in the kind of competition that is unhealthy and destructive to the needed collegiality that goes with good teaching. Moreover, offering financial rewards, on the district and individual level, for "improved" test scores turns education into commodification of learning, as if knowledge and intellectual cultivation can be bought and sold.

3. The Common Core: There is no "core" that is "common" nationally in terms of knowledge. Each school district has its own individual needs and techniques for teaching their young learners with their best methods. Given the many problems school districts are having in dealing with the vagaries of the Common Core, its consequences will only contribute to a further lowering of test results, with the ensuing wave of punishing administrators, teachers and young learners in a misguided attempt to "standardize knowledge."

4. Standardized testing: I would argue that testing as the principal method of measuring educational progress is in itself a seriously flawed process. There is research that supports better alternative ways of reliably measuring progress in learning. But these methods are complex and require trial and error. And that is part of what education should be about: learning from mistakes to advance teaching, not penalize it.

There are many more flaws in the educational reform movement, such as the increasing establishment of charter schools, which recruits students through unrealistic promises to concerned parents who are understandably more worried about their children's personal safety than any other factor that persuades them to turn to charter schools as an alternative to district schools. Of course, charter schools as well as district schools can fiddle with the numbers in test scores as if that proved anything more than that young learners are trained on how to take a test. The money being made by such "educational materials" providers as Pearson, well documented by my colleague Alan Singer here on The Huffington Post, calls into question the legitimacy of the '"test prep" industry.

If one seriously looks at the totality of factors that contribute to our education system, one can see the importance of dealing with poverty as the most significant way of improving the intellectual development of young learners. Our schools have become the easy scapegoat for politicians who, knowingly or not, are participating in the establishment of the massive hoax of the "education reform" movement. I am aware that the word "hoax" implies criminal intent, and I would like to give the benefit of the doubt to those who developed these programs with good intentions. But the evidence is so massive that we are seriously going down the wrong road in trying to educate our young learners that to ignore it and insist that these anti-intelligence programs must be used even more extensively in determining educational progress is to knowingly participate in a hoax. It is driving good veteran teachers out of the classroom, discouraging college students from choosing education as a career, and boring the schoolchildren in this country to the point where they find education a burden, not an opportunity. To throw in jail educators for trying to survive in such a corrupted system is not only unjust; it is itself a crime.