The Snakes of May

May is here, with all the banquets, end-of-year concerts and graduation plans thereunto appurtenant. For parents, May is a nutty, frenzied, loaded-calendar month rivaled only by December. This year in Florida — thanks to the new end-of-course exams, or EOCs — it just got nuttier.

Parents with students in the Duval County school system have seen the “end-of-course” exam scores in a column on their children’s report cards. Most of us have asked ourselves, “Why does that score seem so uncorrelated with my child’s classroom performance?” Until now, we could let that question go. We could presume that the score discrepancy meant that the tests were still in development, or that they were simply bizarre aberrations.

Now, though, some of those tests are going to count as disproportionately high percentages of our children’s grades, and they’ll determine passage or failure for algebra I, geometry and biology students. Cut-off scores on a single test could doom 14- and 15-year-olds to repeat the course for credit — even if the student has otherwise shown mastery of the curriculum in the form of terrific grades. The Florida Department of Education tells us it’s implementing the new test because it wants our children — yours and mine — to be “competitive in the global economy.” Forgive me if I don’t send my thank you note just yet.

I’m all for raising the mean in student performance. Pulling everyone up, wherever they are in relation to the original mean, and pushing them forward is an honorable goal. But are end-of-course exams reasonably related to that honorable goal? Or has Florida simply created more needless stress, anxiety and heartache for the sake of an education reform movement that’s run off its rails? What is the real point of all this additional testing? Why is Florida imbuing the new tests with so much weight? And for what purpose do the Florida Legislature and the DOE continually shift the goalposts on an increasingly uneven playing field?

Over the past 14 years, Florida has experimented with numerous education reform strategies — with varying results. Standards-based education, coupled with standards-based accountability (read: tests), have yielded some measurable gains, albeit using those same tests as yardsticks. Privatization policies, though, which have grown a voucher school system with no apples-to-apples accountability and a charter school system that’s only about 60 percent accountable, have yielded distinctly mixed results. One objective academic researcher reports that when the socioeconomic status of students is taken into consideration, the numbers show that poor students — the very targets of propaganda tools like “Waiting for Superman” and “Won’t Back Down” — do significantly worse in charter school settings than in traditional school settings. So why are so many lawmakers still ga-ga over so-called market-based reforms?

The answer starts when we begin to understand their shtick. The first thing out of any education reformer’s mouth has to do with preparing students to be “competitive in the global economy,” followed by statistics about our nation’s international education rankings. It all sounds very dire, these rankings that emanate from the PISA test, until one takes the time to look at another number, i.e., the poverty rates of nations. While academics await access to the 2012 PISA database, a look at the 2009 numbers clues us in to what happens when researchers control for poverty: The United States not only starts looking better in the rankings, it actually leads the world.

Bring up poverty to a reformer, though, and the retort will be swift. You might even get accused of practicing the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” “Don’t you think we should have high expectations for every child, regardless of the family’s income?” the reformer will undoubtedly ask. And this is where the counter argument risks falling apart; it’s where advocates and educators say, “Well, of course,” thereby allowing the reformers to drone on about “bad teachers” and the “evil” unions that delight in ruining the profession. Then, they’ll drone some more about “competition and choice,” sans objective research, while ignoring our shameful poverty statistics and the stubborn barriers that must be overcome to bring impoverished children up to par with their more affluent peers.

Let’s assume that most educators and advocates do want poor children to have the same shot at success as affluent children. (Shocking!) Engage your education reformer for a moment longer, and he’ll describe a study completely comprising poor children, a study in which “good teachers” were found to make the difference in a child’s academic achievement, as measured by standardized tests. We’ll let it pass that he uses the words “good teacher” instead of “good teaching,” as if professional skills are something one is born with, and not acquired. We’ll even let it pass that the definition of “good teaching” is a tautological concept defined by the correlation between some teachers and “higher test scores.” What we cannot let pass, however, is that test scores alone are not a reliable predictor of whether those same teachers will continue to be “good.” None less than an in-movement leader, Bill Gates, acknowledges this reliability problem, and cautions about the over-reliance on test scores.

So why are politicians choosing an unreliable marker of good teaching (test scores) as the largest component of teacher evaluations? They do it because it’s easier for them to listen to lobbyists who can help them get re-elected than it is to read research. The distasteful question of poverty gets sugarcoated and camouflaged in a delectable education-reform concoction that feeds several goals.

First, the prevailing reform movement creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure among a growing number of public schools via a high-stakes testing game, the goalposts of which are always shifting. This year, the shift emerges in the form of high-stakes end-of-course exams which, the Florida Department of Education readily admits, will absolutely yield more “failing” schools. This increased “failure,” in turn, comes in handy for selling privatization to families, who may or may not have gotten the research memo. Fortunately, more than a million Florida advocates stopped the charter school “trigger” legislation this year, which no doubt had its barrel aimed squarely at the soon-to-be-christened “failing schools.” Thank God someone is reading the research.

Second, the policy package enables politicians to wrap their anti-union agenda in sheep’s clothing, i.e., for the alleged benefit of students. Third, it creates, sustains and grows lucrative industries in the fields of testing, remediation, edu-tech and school privatization. Making money’s no sin, mind you, so long as it serves the children. So far, it doesn’t.

Set aside all the industry lobbying dollars that, in election years, become campaign dollars. The privatization-testing-edutech industrial complex is the love child conceived between national ambition and the man who was once governor. She’s the daughter that John Ellis Bush parades around, not only in the halls of the Florida Legislature, but also on his well-established national speaking circuit/national campaign infrastructure. Court the policy passionately, lawmakers believe, and by the virtue vested in the GOP-ordained default governor, he’ll pronounce you a “political ally.” For a man who might end up in the White House, it’s no small pronouncement.

Meanwhile, 2.7 million children in Florida are subjected to high-stakes tests of questionable validity; capital dollars that should go to our public schools go instead to the charter industry; the most vulnerable children in the state aren’t being helped by privatization; and the reformers still pretend that poverty simply doesn’t matter. Poverty should not matter, we all agree. But believing it does not make it so, not without a whole lot of work. Study after study has proved that the work of bringing poor children up to par has nothing to do with the public-private school distinction, and it has nothing to do with whether a teacher belongs to a union. Where challenged schools have been successful, they’ve had great leadership and they’ve mastered the art of high expectations, along with the science of detecting academic “potholes” and filling them.

We have words for a market-based product that’s peddled to true believers but, in the end, doesn’t deliver research-proven results: snake oil. And if we continue to ingest snake oil, while devaluing and defunding science-based teaching methods in the public schools, what will we be left with in the end? 

Delegal, a Jacksonville mother, advocate and writer, is pleased to contribute to Folio Weekly.