Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Testing Minorities: Hard Lessons for Public Ed Supporters

How can they do that? Don't they realize they're just hurting themselves? Don't they realize that their actions will make it harder for them to get what they want?

No, I'm not repeating what some folks say about the riots in Baltimore.

I'm talking about what some public education supporters say about the advocates for civil rights and students with disabilities who support the Big Standardized Tests.

The word keeps coming out of DC-- the BS Tests are unlikely to go away, and one reason is that those advocates absolutely support testing and much that goes with it. And many of us who advocate for public education keep scratching our heads and declaring ourselves confused, mystified, even angry.

And yet, as Baltimore becomes one more place in America to erupt in acts of violence and rioting and fighting and ugly anger (all well covered by the news outlets) as well as equally passionate outpourings of love and support and desire to seek justice without destruction (which make much less compelling television, so you have to scan the internets for those)-- as all that happens, we get it. We express our carefully parsed feelings of condemnation for the destruction, but support and understanding for the frustration born of systemic racist abuse and oppression. So we post the MLK quotes and the Langston Hughes and all the ways we know to say that we get it.

And yet we remain mystified about the support for testing.

I have been as guilty as anyone. But today I heard myself talking about Baltimore with my students, saying something I've said a gazillion times-- people want to be heard, and if they don't think they are being heard they will keep raising their voice until they are, until they can't be ignored, even until they are screaming. If you want it to stop, you have to listen. Really listen, without making excuses or defending yourself, until they're done. And the longer you haven't been listening, the longer you have to listen before the conversation can get back to a place of equilibrium.

Even if you are absolutely certain you are right, you still have to listen.

The supporters of testing have told us, repeatedly, why they want the BS Tests-- because they are afraid of their children becoming invisible, forgotten, warehoused, ignored.

Supporters of public education have often failed to listen. Often. Oh, I've explained all the reasons that BS Tests aren't the answer, the ways in which I think they have been misled. This is not in your best interest. We even accuse leaders of their organizations of having taken enough Gates money to cloud their judgment. None of that shows that I have listened.

You know who's done a good job of listening? Reformsters.

Co-opting the language of civil rights is not just about co-opting a movement. It's about using language that shows that they hear the concerns.

Supporters of public education can't just say, "Trust us," because the history of public ed is not one to inspire trust. We have marginalized people. We have ignored people. Stacey Patton's blistering piece in Dame is a reminder that, to some folks, it certainly looks like many white folks didn't get fully exercised about educational injustice until it came to their schools. For some of us, the experience of reform been, "We were doing perfectly okay on our own, and suddenly these guys swooped down and tried to take everything over." For others it has been, "We were struggling with a failing system, and suddenly these guys swooped down and promised to make things better."

In my desire to protect and preserve the promise of public education, I can forget sometimes just how badly US public education has sometimes served poor and minority students and their communities.

It's not enough to say, "Those guys are not looking out for you." We can't just point out what reformsters do wrong. We have to talk about what we'll do right, what we'll do differently from the past.

I don't want to oversimplify this. Lots of public ed supporters get the social justice piece, too, and lots of social justice fighters know full well who and what the reformsters are. And while it's my style to write in a "we" voice, I don't want to presume to speak for people who are not me. But I am remembering that when people are behaving in a way that seems senseless to me, that's on me-- there's always sense to it, and if something seems senseless, that's because I haven't listened or looked well enough to find the sense.

The reformster use of civil rights language gets traction because there are real concerns and issues that need to be addressed, and many of us are not addressing them. In the last several days I heard many public ed advocates reacting to the news the leaders who support testing by saying that we need to get to them, to find out who they are, to get them to understand. I'm thinking we also need to listen to them, hear them, understand them.Yes, I know there are opportunists all around on all sides. But you can't take advantage unless there's a need to take advantage of, and I, for one, am someone who too easily slips into attacking the problem instead of helping to look for the solution.

Reformsters have made promises. They may have been cynical promises, designed for marketing show, but they've made them. While many of us speaking out for public education may not have the kind of power that the reformsters do, that does not mean we cannot fight for promises of our own. And we can certainly listen.

Nothing I've said is meant to suggest that reformster programs are not piles of baloney. But in the rush to point out how baloney-like they are, it's important not to also suggest that the concerns of the poor, minority, and special needs folks are baloney, too.


  1. We cannot ignore the corporate money behind claims of corporate reformers that they are the next civil rights movement. This is particularly true with millions being given by the Gates Foundation to major civil right organizations and the Walton Foundation (Walmart) funding such organizations as the Black Alliance for Education Options. Howard Fuller, the founder of BAEO, said in February his organization would not exist without funding from Walton. I go into this history on my blog at

    1. I wouldn't want to ignore those for a moment. The corporate purchase of civil rights cover for their privatization needs to be exposed, and I've certainly devoted bandwidth in this blog to that purpose. But this time, I wanted to take the space to acknowledge the real needs and problems that are out there. In our hurry to stomp on reformsters, we sometimes push aside the real issues they are pretending to address.

  2. Thanks Peter for explaining it well. As an advocate for students from poverty, students with disabilities and students with backgrounds and languages other than the majority - I have been fighting public schools for over 30 years. We wanted to stop being warehoused in a portable building and told to disappear from the school during test time. I wanted to stop being told that we will not put resources into you students since they cannot be saved. As awful as NCLB was for mandatory testing with the impossible goal of everyone average or above by 2014, there were three parts that I thought would keep us all safe. First of all they would have to include my diverse supposedly at-risk students into the school report card accountability mix, secondly, they could only use methods that worked ( evidenced based) and third- have highly qualified teachers. Originally this lead to finally being allowed into the main school building and getting some materials that were not hand me downs to use with our students. Also there were some wonderful induction programs where teachers went to college but then were nurture in the field for an extra 2 years of induction and mentoring support and additional preparation before anyone expected them to really be highly qualified. Additionally, interventions and methods were reviewed by researchers to see what impact they had on children so administrators would at least put their money into programs that had a successful track record rather than the latest shiny new toy (what works clearinghouse). I did not predict at all that this would spawn the opposite - get rid of college and just give a few weeks of preparation a la TFA or TNTP, Common Core- no evidence basis at all, and tests scores rigged to make sure everyone failed- especially the children I work with. But thanks to Diane I see it was all to let in privateers so they could get the $$. It was never about improving schools. It was to show that public schools were failing and not salvageable. All of us who were original education reformers cringe in horror of what is done in our name.

  3. About the "civil rights" argument for so-called reform: