07/07/2010 10:05 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: Is Anybody Listening?

In the Summer, 2010 issue of The American Educator the articles by Diane Ravitch and Linda Pearlstein reflect the frustration of progressive educators all over the country at the persistence of the Obama Administration in enforcing the "accountability" system of determining teacher quality and student learning through standardized tests. The many flaws in this method of evaluating processes so complex as teaching and learning seem to be consistently ignored both by the Administration and the press, particularly those columnists such as David Brooks, who are either unaware of the legitimate objections to "high-stakes testing" or deliberately ignore its social and pedagogical implications.

To make an analogy, using standardized tests in this way would seem to educators of science courses the same as if the press would applaud the "success" of teaching "Intelligent Design" as the predominant approach to explaining the origins of life on earth without mentioning the evidence of Evolutionists that there is no validity in such teaching. I will concede that standardized tests can have their value in measuring some elements of student learning. But it is not only a very inexact way of doing so, but the harm that is also being done to young learners as a consequence far outweighs its advantages by stigmatizing and closing schools with low test scores and deluding parents and students, especially in minority communities, that the emphasis on "test prep" is the best way, instead of the worst way, for students to learn. Pearlstein's article clearly illustrates the way the drilling done by teachers for these tests might teach a child how to answer a question "about literature" without ever really thoroughly reading or understanding an actual play or novel or poem. The child learns how to take a test successfully without having more than a superficial understanding of the material on which it's based.

I am seriously wondering if the attitude of the press and those politicians who are most enthusiastic in promoting "accountability" realize the inferior education of students whose education emphasizes "test prep." Do they believe, as I strongly suspect, that most future jobs produced in our economic system will be low-paying, low-skilled jobs and that only those young learners educated in "elite" schools will have the credentials for the high-skill, high paying ones?

The signs are clearly moving in that direction. The recent proposals of politicians that in order to "save" social security the retirement age should be moved up to 70 and the benefits should be cut, rather than looking toward increasing taxes on those who can most afford it, should tell us something about the future agenda of American politics: economic triage. I believe that the "accountability" movement is a way of justifying this cynical approach in a supposedly democratic society by "proving" that only a relatively small proportion of students who go through the public school system are "competent" for the jobs that will be available mostly to those who are "truly educated." Unless there is a serious movement away from "accountability on tests" to "accountability toward students" we may still have the outward trappings of a democratic society, but it will have lost its soul.