Right on banks, wrong on schools: "No Child Left Behind wasn't designed for the types of realities in my school"

A congressman says even progressive Democrats fall for "accountability," over-testing and phony education "reform"

Published August 24, 2015 10:00AM (EDT)

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/AP/Jonathan Ernst/Susan Walsh/Photo montage by Salon)
Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/AP/Jonathan Ernst/Susan Walsh/Photo montage by Salon)

Progressive Democrats are right to hail the new populism in their party driving the debate about the nation's economic policies and the atrocious inequality those policies have created. Heartened by the bold leadership of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the huge crowds cheering on the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, progressives can truly feel their agenda is driving the national debate and propelling change.

So it's beyond disappointing when progressive leaders in the Democratic Party who can knock an argument for economic populism out of the park continue to whiff on education populism.

Currently, the House and Senate are in the process of rewriting No Child Left Behind — the federal law that started enforced testing and harsh punishments in public schools. Both versions that have passed in their respective chambers allow for states to end current accountability measures enforced by high-stakes testing if they develop their own alternatives. Public education advocates have backed this new direction enthusiastically.

But during the amendment process in the Senate, a curious thing happened. As The Washington Post explains, an amendment proposed by Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, would have kept the federal government in charge of defining what is a "failing school" and prescribing how states should intervene. Thankfully, the amendment was voted down, but most Democratic senators, including Warren and Sanders, voted for it.

Supporters of public schools were outraged. "Democrats pushed to restore a punitive accountability system, much like NCLB," education historian Diane Ravitch wrote on her personal blog, calling the vote, "evidence of how little Congress knows about education."

Classroom teacher and popular edu-blogger Steven Singer wrote on his site, "This provision was an attempt to keep as many test and punish policies as possible … The Democrats seem to be committed to the notion that the only way to tell if a school is doing a good job is by reference to its test scores. High test scores — good school. Bad test scores — bad school. This is baloney!"

Another classroom teacher-blogger, Arthur Goldstein, addressed Sanders specifically. For The Huffington Post, he wrote, "We are disappointed with your recent votes in the senate that contain provisions which perpetuate quantitatively based measures of education … Quantitative measures are invalid. They are masks for social inequalities. They merely highlight and then reflect economic and racial inequalities."

Civil rights leaders such as Rev. William Barber, the voice of the Moral Monday Movement, have called on politicians in Washington, D.C. to "fix public education and end high stakes testing."

Other prominent voices in the civil rights movement, Judith Browne Dianis, John H. Jackson and Pedro Noguera, wrote in Education Week, "Today's status quo in education is annual assessments that provide no true path toward equity or excellence … It is time for a change. Throughout the country, parents, teachers, and students are calling for an alternative to the test-and-punish culture."

Also recently, an alliance of 38 organizations of student and parent groups in black and brown communities joined with 175 national and local grassroots organizations in an effort to end high stakes testing. In a letter to Senate leaders, they declare, "We respectfully disagree that the proliferation of high stakes assessments and top-down interventions are needed in order to improve our schools. We live in the communities where these schools exist. What, from our vantage point, happens because of these tests is not improvement. It’s destruction."

What's going on here? Why are progressive leaders in the Democratic Party out of touch with progressive education? Is education somehow so different from issues like finance and macroeconomics that it doesn't belong in the same populist tent with breaking up Wall Street banks and raising the minimum wage?

To answer those questions, and others, Salon recently spoke with U.S. Rep. Mark Takano from California. Takano is an experienced classroom teacher who substitute taught in Boston metro area public schools while earning his bachelor degree from Harvard and then became a classroom teacher in his hometown of Riverside, California, which he now represents in Congress. As an elected community college trustee, Takano is also well versed in higher education. So he is someone in Congress who "knows about education," to use Ravitch's words.

Also, as the first openly gay person of color in Congress and someone from a family who experienced the ugly face of systemic racism when his grandparents and parents were removed from their respective homes and sent to Japanese American Internment camps during World War II, Takano has a consistently progressive social justice ethic that is evident in his strong voting record in support of immigrants, low-income families, affordable housing, veterans, and workers.

Here is an edited version of our conversation:

How long were you a classroom teacher before you started serving in Congress?

Just a few months short of 24 years. I will definitely claim to be one of the very few people who came into the halls of Congress from a day job of being a classroom teacher.

Coming into Congress with this deep background in education and classroom teaching, what has surprised you most about your colleague's views about education?

I am surprised to the extent to which my own party has members who are true believers in the education reform movement, who take on the mantle of reformer.

So I take you're not a follower of the reform credo?

Take the ranking member of my committee, the House Education and Workforce Committee, Bobby Scott. He is a very good lawyer. He and I agree on a good deal of things — prison reform, criminal justice reform, how we feel about work protection. But we have a different way of looking at federal education policy.

What are some of those differences?

Democrats are pretty united on funding. We're all pretty united that the money the federal government sends to schools should be used for the education of low-income and underserved kids. Where we're not united is this issue of accountability, specifically the kind of accountability that got put into place under No Child Left Behind. That accountability said if your students didn't meet certain targets on standardized tests, you had to to take a number of harsh measures or lose your federal funding. So we had this list of accountabilities that were really punishments. As my friend [former California state superintendent of education] Bill Honig likes to say, you can summarize NCLB as a "test and punish" approach to accountability.

Tell me about your experience as a classroom teacher under a test and punish approach.

I saw education before No Child Left Behind. I also experienced education during No Child Left Behind up until I got elected to Congress. Basically, test and punish did not work. Because of No Child Left Behind, I suddenly had to follow a syllabus and a pacing guide dictated by the district office. There was less trust of the teacher, and that's a mild way of putting it. We began being treated like we were a transmitter of someone else's idea of what is good education. Effective education doesn't work that way. Effective education is building relationships with students. It's about teachers strategizing on how to engage students. You can't do the canned lesson or scripted content.

What do you think of the argument that No Child Left Behind shined a light on underserved students?

I'll concede the testing was useful in that it made us look at how we were doing with student populations that were underserved. I was a ninth grade English teacher with very little seniority in a school where senior teachers who taught eleventh and twelfth grade really didn't understand the extent of the problems some of our students were having because so many of those students would drop out before they made it to higher grade levels. I would say in department meetings, "These kids don't know how to read," and I could point to the testing data that showed ninth graders coming into the school were reading at a fifth grade level.

So you were using the test data in a diagnostic capacity, in order to change teaching practice.

Exactly. I had to use "Great Expectations" in my ninth-grade class with 80 percent Latino students. You can make Dickens compelling to a group of Latino kids with its theme about socio-economic class. But the language in the book, with several different levels of dialect, is challenging to students who are struggling with basic English. Their ability to read texts of that density is not really there yet. So with the testing data, I could make an argument for a change in the curriculum.

That's kind of ironic given the current belief that the purpose of No Child Left is to ensure all students regardless of their backgrounds should achieve at the same level.

So the testing kind of shook things up. But mostly, No Child Left Behind wasn't designed for the types of realities in my school. The test and punish model had us so busy trying to get the kids to pass these tests that we weren't thinking systemically about what kind of literacy program would be best for our students. We would move from one week of test preparation to another week of test preparation, all along knowing what we were doing wasn't the best way of engaging students in instruction.

So the testing started to drive everything — the curriculum, the instruction.

Yes, driving everything. Here's an example I use to explain what No Child Left Behind had us doing. Remember when you were in kindergarten and your teacher gave you a biology lesson on plants by planting carrots to watch them grow? As little kids, we would be anxious to see whether there was any progress in how our plants were growing, so we would make the mistake of pulling the plant out of the soil to see if the roots were growing. That's what test-driven accountability is like, constantly pulling the plant out to see if the roots are growing.

When you tell your colleagues in Congress what the reality of test and punish is in the classroom, what do they say?

First, I don't have a lot of time to talk with my colleagues and have this kind of conversation. Second, the attention span of the average member is so short, and it's hard to have a conversation that goes beyond a superficial level of knowledge.

So when you come to Congress with particular expertise, you tend to stick with your expertise regardless of the topic. Take Elizabeth Warren. I really love the woman. She makes my heart beat when I watch her on banking. When she says we should have broken up the big banks, I say, you go, Elizabeth Warren. But she has been a lawyer all her life. When she takes a position on education, she brings her experience as a lawyer on the issue of accountability. And to her, accountability is some sort of punishment.

So in Congress, it seems what we have is a lot of people with very short attention spans looking at something as complicated as education with a frame of mind that they bring with them from the worlds of finance, law and banking.

Certainly there has to be some level of accountability. But if you liken education to bean counting, that's not going to work. Likewise, if your background is in criminal justice or civil rights, you're likely to want to remedy education problems by putting into place a law with all these hammers to correct the ways in which minorities are systematically excluded. But that same mentality isn't going to work in education.

But wait, haven't we been told education reform is the civil rights issue of our time?

So people who took up education reform as a civil rights issue take me back to the 1980s when I was substitute teaching. I was going to become a lawyer. But when I was a substitute teacher, I would work in Brookline one day and in Boston the next. Brookline had this amazing school with a curriculum created by PhD-credentialed teachers who were contributors to the textbook companies. Then I would take the [subway] into inner city Boston, and I had to walk through a metal detector to get into the school. So I got an up-close view of the differences in the physical conditions of the schools and the level of engagement in the teaching faculty. I felt this was a huge civil rights problem that is at the root of what our country is about. Education is important to us because we want to believe in equality of opportunity, that everybody in this country has a shot at success and the American Dream. So I feel deeply what a lot of the reformers feel, or people who call themselves reformers.

So if we ultimately all want the same things, what should we be doing instead?

Instead of test and punish, we need to move to test and reveal. Use the testing for revealing. You're going to get people gaming the system if you punish them for the data. So take away the punishment. Take away the kinds of things that make districts want to hide problems.

Keeping class size small is also important. There's something that happens when you go over 25 students. It changes the dynamics and becomes way more stressful.

Let's also slow down before we quasi-privatize with charter schools. As far as I can tell, charters actually become more opaque in terms of what they' re doing. They become less accountable. I'd rather keep schools under the model of the local school board with a lot of transparency of how money gets spent. We're going to have better arguments about data if those arguments take place in the public school setting.

I think maybe we need to reexamine what high school is about, especially the premise of the comprehensive high school. Maybe we should have more focus schools with schools that concentrate on the arts or on career and technical. But they all have to be great public schools.

I worry about issues like dyslexia which is currently not served by federal laws on disabilities. These kids fall through the cracks.

Any other thoughts you want to share about teaching?

Teaching is a lot harder than being in Congress. The teachers who I've seen who are really good — and I wouldn't rate myself as an exceptional teacher, I would rate myself as middling — they've answered a calling in some way. They've found their place in the world. So I get really angry when I hear people say we need to cash out the teacher pensions and pay a lot more money up front to lure smarter people into the profession. That's just another scheme.

By Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

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