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John Thompson: Time for a Truce in the Battle Over Education?

Guest post by John Thompson.

In my gut, I believe that school improvement is a process of two steps forward and one step back. My brain keeps reminding me that the contemporary school reform movement has made it one step forward, two steps back.

Last week, the Gates Foundation took a half step forward. It reversed course and endorsed a two-year moratorium on stakes attached to tests during the transition to Common Core. This modestly good news was overshadowed by the latest assault on teachers, the Vergara ruling which struck down many of our basic rights.

At a time when corporate reformers have ratcheted up their blood-in-the-eye assault on the teaching profession and unions, many educators will dismiss the Gates concession.  Some will argue Common Core is so intertwined with the corporate reform assault on public schooling that we cannot ease up in our counter-attack.

I believe we must fight competition-driven, test-driven reform with all our power, but we must also be willing to offer and/or accept an olive branch. So, we educators must discuss among ourselves whether to respond differently to Common Core standards, as opposed to Common Core and "Common Core-type tests." While I'm open to a moratorium, we must not lessen our longterm opposition to stakes being attached to Common Core, college readiness tests, or whatever bubble-in accountability scheme that catches the reformers' fancy. (I will address national standards at the end of this post.)

If, in the next two years, we can explain to Bill Gates, as well as parents and other stakeholders, why we despise high stakes testing, we could take a few steps forward.  I'm not optimistic that he will listen to our evidence.

But, as testing fiascoes unfold and more families turn against testing, political reality will change. That may get the edu-philanthropists' attention,

Regardless of what someone thinks about national standards, we must explain why it should have always been obvious, No Moratorium, No Common Core. It should be equally clear, No Testing Moratorium, No Transition to College-Readiness Instruction.

I agree with the NEA's Lily Eskelsen that "anyone with eyes could see" that "if you believe in high standards (Common Core or otherwise) for all students; for critical thinking skills and creative problem solving and collaborative project organizing, then high-stakes test obsessions will work against you." 

I also agree with her statement, "I would hit the delete button on any high-stakes decisions based on mass-produced, commercial one-size-fits-all, standardized tests.  But still.  Policy makers should listen to the evidence that convinced Bill and Melinda that test abuse is getting in the way of true high standards for all our students."

I would not go so far as Eskelsen and say that the foundation "had the integrity to look at solid evidence and sound the alarm." While I applaud their policy change, I'm assuming they had a full range of reasons for shifting gears. The facts about schools, I assume, are only one part of the foundation's equation. Neither would I agree that the Gates Foundation has no ideology. While I propose an evidence-driven discussion with the foundation, I suspect they will continue to filter evidence through their technocratic worldview.

I would also add that Eskelsen inadvertently reveals the danger of my willingness to collaborate with corporate reformers, even in establishing a moratorium. My nightmare is that we help save the reformers' bacon and in doing so we save the market for mass-produced, commercial one-size-fits-all, standardized tests. Regardless of the Gates Foundation's motives, their allies have a full range of objectives, ranging from profits from primitive online pedagogies and assessments to the privatization of public schools.

The Gates Foundation has long published research explaining why test prep and remediation won't work, and we can use those findings to convince those in the middle. The keys to college readiness are trusting relationships, building on students' strengths, and engaging instruction for mastery.

But, the Foundation's overall credibility is undercut by claims that high-stakes testing doesn't need to produce the bubble-in educational malpractice that now dominates urban education. Gates blames others for not getting test-based accountability right. Presumably, a two-year moratorium would give top-down reformers the opportunity to hold management accountable for improperly holding students and teachers accountable. Apparently, the Foundation would use the moratorium to tinker with precisely the amount of coercion - not too harsh but not too easy - that should be imposed on the systems that make teachers and principals toe the line.  

Gates also funds organizations that spread their gospel of supposedly kinder, gentler testing, and we can expect more of that spin. For instance, the Fordham Foundation proclaimed "the accountability moratorium is here." The latest of that genre, this one by the New America Foundation, is the claim that the misuse of tests is a "state of mind," not reality. The NAF's policy wonk says that it is schools and districts, not reformers, that are using tests to impose rote drill and kill, disgusting test prep, and punish students and teachers.

I guess that could be a problem or a virtue with the moratorium. During the two-year pause, Gates might perfect its micromanagement systems ...

Whether testing pressure is real or just in the minds of administrators, many or most districts will not dare use a moratorium to return to holistic instruction. Real world, many systems will continue to respond to data-driven accountability by circling the wagons, using boring basic skills worksheets, and statistical gamesmanship. But, a moratorium would result in fewer students in some states being unfairly denied a high school diploma or being retained in the 3rd grade by Common Core and "Common Core-type" tests.

And, if we cooperate with a moratorium, while being open about our overall opposition to high-stakes testing, that could help us build productive relationships with the non-education media and government leaders who don't live, eat, and breathe school policy the way that we do.

I would hope that teachers and the Gates Foundation could work together to persuade lawmakers to support a moratorium. I would also hope that we could work together to promote college-readiness and teaching for mastery. Although I once supported Common Core, I don't see how I could now support national standards in an age of accountability-driven reform. The fouled-up mandates of the last decade are a reminder of the benefits of local governance. So, while I would work with the Foundation to help rectify a huge mistake born of their overreach, I would not trust that the next era of top-down reform would be more balanced or wise.    

I believe that test-driven reformers have now put themselves in a trap of one step forward, two steps back. Next year, as the mutually incompatible policies of Common Core testing and value-added evaluations are implemented, the inevitable trainwreck will occur in many or most urban districts. The press will be full of heart-rending stories of tearful students and frazzled teachers. Some states, like those led by Chiefs for Change, will stay the course, as they accuse their more practical allies of "dithering." Their priority will thus be even clearer. Nothing can slow their commitment to test and punish. 

A moratorium would be little more than a truce of sorts. We educators would continue to openly oppose high-stakes testing. And, we will continue to oppose the next generation of bubble-in accountability that captures the fancy of the Billionaires Boys Club. But, the Gates Foundation and the participating states would have their hands full patching up their systems of incentives and punishment.

After all sides make their case for another two years, more voters will want to determine the future path for their children's schools. If edu-philanthropists and the federal government continue to act as if school improvement is above the voters' pay grade, that technocratic hubris will backfire.

If we go two years without high-stakes testing and the Earth doesn't spin off its axis, more voters will be open to school improvement policies that respect students and teachers.

Reformers won't give up either - unless their world spins off its axis.

What do you think? At a time when reformers are vulnerable, do we counter-attack even more forcefully on all fronts or support a moratorium as a part of a larger, and transparent, strategy? As we fight Vergara, would our participation in a moratorium process be good or bad politics?

 John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom. 

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