06/28/2007 03:52 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Testing and Competition

You see it everywhere. The hand-wringing has become cliché: the American Competitiveness Initiative declares that we must do better in math and reading in order for us to compete in the global economy. And we must turn our schools into centers of test prep, drilling, and narrow fact-gathering on order to become competitive.

But I have to start with the question: Do I as an educator want to enlist in this war? Who recruited me to do battle with the workers of India, or China, or Brazil? Somehow, all the administrators and teachers in America are supposed to sign up for this economic war. We want to beat the foreigners down. We want to keep our position as less than five percent of the world's population consuming 60 percent of the world's resources.

But a teacher may reply, "No, thank you." I don't really have anything against the Indian, the Chinese, the Mexican, or other workers. Of course, if I knew the bloke personally, or his or her family, I'd want them to do very well. If I were asked to look that person in the eye over a large table of food, and to clear away most of the food for my family, leaving him or her with just a pittance, would I jump at the chance? No. But we are asked to gamely sign up for this competition -- in order to keep our position way, way out ahead of others in terms of consumption. I respectfully decline. And ultimately the only road to peace in this world is for that gap, that income differential, that inequitable distribution of resources, dignity, power, freedom to narrow over the next hundred years.

Then there is the problem of the tests -- the standardized drill and kill curriculum that is supposed to make us so much more "competitive" (whatever that means). The truth is, of course, that the tests make the curriculum narrower and make students stupider. The government wants data, even if those data are inaccurate, unhelpful, and destructive of the educational project. And the whole accountability movement has a dirty little secret: who is at the top? To whom are we being accountable? Some big smart man on the top of a mountain? Some teachers? Families and communities? No, teaching is now held accountable to private education corporations, who make up questions and problems designed to create a gap and a crisis. In fact, if too many students get a particular question right during the trial phase of a test, (and therefore not creating a satisfying range of success and failure), the question is rejected. If a test question is answered incorrectly by a pre-chosen group of smart (read: upper class) children, it is rejected -- creating a tautological self-fulfilling prophecy. You don't even need to scheme to make the test culturally biased. You don't have to know the mechanism of why one question excludes black and Latino students. The use of test questions, and the sorting of appropriate ones for the final test, guarantees it.

The best teaching, the best educational experiences, can only be captured with holistic snapshots; they can only be described through qualitative methods. Administrators like to say they make "data based decisions," but the important moments that happen in schools can only be described through anecdotes. Anecdotal evidence is scoffed at by policy-makers. But, as my brother points out, we certainly use anecdotal evidence in families. Major decisions about what steps to take with this or that child are made entirely on anecdotal evidence, and parents who are insightful, compassionate, and thoughtful will make good decisions. They certainly don't insist on quantifiable data.

Note also that there are major corporations creating these standards, tests, and packaged curricula. Just as war profiteers are reaping huge profits from the debacle in Iraq, the education profiteers are pulling in literally billions of dollars stirring around tales of fear and redemption. One such profiteer is George Bush's brother Neil Bush, whose Ignite product line includes a program with the snappy title of Curriculum on Wheels.

The stifling curriculum of repression and test-prep which is forced on kids today is, of course, meant for the poor and working class communities. The hidden curriculum, the key lesson, is passivity and submission. Don't believe for a second that the children of the CEOs, or of the lawmakers who pass No Child Left Behind, are forced to sit through these deadening drills. They are at private or suburban schools which still practice inquiry, project-based learning, and higher order thinking. As one anonymous letter-writer (anonymous for fear of losing her job at Reading First) wrote to The Nation (July 9): "There are two choices for educators like myself: Teach public school and teach the poor how to follow orders or teach private school and teach the rich how to think for themselves."

And, in the end, we have to choose: do we want to make kids smarter or help reproduce inequity while crushing the joy and inquisitiveness of young people?