Cathie Black and the end of school `reform'

In New York, the resignation of magazine executive Cathie Black after serving 95 days as city schools chancellor is being viewed as further evidence that Mayor Bloomberg's administration has lost its way in the mayor's third term. That may be, but I think we may be seeing evidence of a larger story, too: the gradual discrediting of a supposed school reform movement that applies business management technique, with its focus on the bottom line, to education.This is the approach, endorsed by major foundations, much of the news media and politicians from both major parties, that made annual scores on a single standardized reading test the only standard that mattered. The results have been too mixed to believe that corporate managers necessarily know more about educating children than professional educators do. Despite the public-relations apparatus behind the corporate approach to schooling - not to mention Mayor Bloomberg's own personal advertising campaign for his school policies - the public is on to its downside. Cathie Black's appointment was a disappointment because it promised more of the same, and the public never bought it.Many parents are rebelling against the excessive emphasis schools have been forced to put on standardized test scores for English language arts and math. One of them is President Obama, who sends his daughters to a private school. According to the Times:

Mr. Obama agreed that we have piled on a lot of standardized tests under federal education law, meaning the annual proficiency tests in reading and math given to Grades 3 through 8 as well as once in high school.

Now, theres nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a base line of where kids are at, he continued. "Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasnt a high-stakes test. It wasnt a test where they had to panic.

Mr. Obama went on to denounce how standardized tests had narrowed the curriculum and led to teaching to the test.

Too often, he said, what weve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools.

The Education Department has denied that Obama is distancing himself from the policies of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as some bloggers have argued. I would say the president is distancing himself from his own policy. His 2009 federal stimulus bill included $350 million for the "Race to the Top Assessment Program," which challenged states to compete for federal money to develop the next generation of annual high-stakes standardized reading and math tests. The bidding document gives the true story. It calls for the contestants to design tests, given at least once a year, in reading and math to guide "determinations of school effectiveness for purposes of accountability" under the standards set by federal education law and "determinations of individual principal and teacher effectiveness for purposes of evaluation." It also calls for the contestants to show how they would go about "building support for the system from the public" and stakeholders - public relations being one of the themes of the so-called school reform.Race to the Top is looking for a lot more than a test "just to give a base line of where kids are at." It's all about high-stakes testing. It looks as if the president's views on the subject are evolving, and he's not the only one.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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