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Putting the Oxygen Back into Improving Education

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"I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools." -- Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a blog post.

Oops. Did Secretary of Education Arne Duncan just say the equivalent of "never mind" on high stakes tests? In a blog post last week, reinforced in remarks at a DC school, Secretary Duncan may have come as close as he ever will to admitting that high-stakes testing, once hailed as the key to school reform, is a bad idea for teachers and students alike when he declared on his blog:

No school or teacher should look bad because they took on kids with greater challenges. Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test, or tests alone - always on a mix of measures - which could range from classroom observations to family engagement indicators....testing should never be the main focus of our schools. Educators work all day to inspire, to intrigue, to know their students - not just in a few subjects, and not just in "academic" areas. There's a whole world of skills that tests can never touch that are vital to students' success. No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be. It's simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.

Wow. Who knew? Surely, somebody should have warned the Secretary of the dangers of too much standardized testing long before the tyrannical testing regime ruined the careers of very talented teachers, fomented a rash of cheating scandals and led children to hate the very idea of going to school.

Too bad nobody told the Secretary of Education that giving in to the demands of wealthy philanthropists and corporate titans with high stakes in testing software might actually have a deleterious effect on the learning enterprise rather than encouraging education reform.

Oh, right. Many people -- teachers, principals, parents, local civic leaders, educators, people who actually know something about education in their communities -- tried to tell Secretary Duncan that the relentlessly harsh imposition of standardized tests and their link to teacher evaluations was not a good idea. But in the early years of the current administration, feverish with the idea of the "Race to the Top," the voice of regular educators who knew what they were talking about was repressed in favor of briefs by policy wonks from a few elite universities and corporate "experts" who also brought a lot of money, consultants and software to the table. To disagree with the administration's plans was to invite an accusation of being soft on educational failure, of being "silly" at best, of mollycoddling incompetent teachers and their evil collaborators, the unions.

In his recent remarks, Secretary Duncan took pains to point out that he really has listened to teachers. But earlier in his administration, he listened a lot more to the likes of former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee whose bitter attacks on teachers lacked any nuance or sense of grace. Ironically, even as Secretary Duncan offered a big olive branch to teachers last week, Michelle Rhee announced she would step down as CEO of Students First, the organization she founded to promote her views about school reform. Perhaps school reform really is heading in a positive new direction (notwithstanding journalist-turned-edu-critic Campbell Brown's late entry into the fray.)

In the past, Rhee, Duncan and others were proponents of the "poverty is no excuse" dismissive line of rhetoric whenever someone with experience teaching impoverished students raised the concern that teachers alone cannot solve all social problems. Poverty affects children deeply and pervasively, from the consequences of growing up with parents who cannot read to the constant pain of hunger and threats of violence in homes and communities.

Unfortunately, poverty and its consequences in repressing student learning outcomes and fomenting a broad array of social dysfunctions has not been high on the Obama Administration's agenda. Even as Secretary Duncan spoke about testing and assessment last week, the streets of Ferguson, Missouri were on fire with the consequences of poverty, racial injustice and abuses of police powers. But like his boss whose response to Ferguson seemed so muted, the Secretary of Education was curiously silent on the lessons of Ferguson, missing a great opportunity to frame ideas for lesson plans on justice and peace for the new school year. The idea of education as a moral force for the creation of a good society (and not just the education of workers for corporate needs) seems sadly absent from the educational vision of the Department of Education.

Secretary Duncan needs to do more than offer a modest apologia to the teachers who have suffered so much as a result of the federal government's heavy-handed use of money (Race to the Top) and coercive tactics (the threat of losing money) to force states to impose high stakes testing as a central feature in teacher evaluations. Beyond offering a grace period of a year or two, the Secretary should insist that local school districts and states reclaim their rightful roles as the leaders of curriculum development and educational assessment, with the federal government playing a helpful and supportive role rather than assuming a Leviathan-type posture of trying to control what goes on in tens of thousands of schools and classrooms around the country.

While he's at it, the Secretary also needs to walk back from the Department of Education's misguided attempt to develop regulations to tie accreditation of schools of education to the test scores of the pupils taught by university graduates. Aside from the monstrous complexity of such a tracking system (ensuring full employment for legions of software developers and greater wealth for their companies), the proposed regulatory scheme is yet another example of federal over-reach with the imposition of the wrong kinds of assessment tools (high stakes testing of children) for inappropriate purposes (accreditation of teacher education programs).

Promoting excellence in teaching, working to ensure better student learning outcomes -- these are all goals we educators share across the spectrum of schools, communities and governmental entities. The federal government's arrogant overreach on education pre-dates the Obama administration, with long roots of many of the current problems in the BushaAdministration's "No Child Left Behind" initiative.

In the time remaining for his administration, Secretary Duncan can still make his place in history by rebalancing the educational reform initiatives in favor of providing more constructive supports for teachers and away from the threats and coercive tactics that have only created anger and discouragement. His remarks on testing last week are a first step toward pumping some much-needed oxygen back into the educational reform discussion.