President Obama has finally declared that the educational establishment's obsession with high-stakes testing has gone too far. It reminded me of a disagreement that broke out recently in a teacher professional development planning meeting.
"The problem is," I ventured, "there is very little you can tell from a standardized test of students and then to tie evaluation of that teacher to performance of those students becomes even less valid, and finally trying to compare our professional development graduates to other teachers is just a fool's errand." That was my intervention in the discussion, a big dissension blurted out.
It was a meeting of a collaboration group for an innovative summer professional development teaching project -- I was a visiting professor in a medium-sized California city, Charles was from the professional development nonprofit and Greg was from the school district. We were discussing evaluation data to send to the granting agencies and Charles had suggested that we collect "Smarter Balance" test scores from our graduates and compare to other teachers. I was immediately doubtful -- not only that this measure would distort and narrow the teaching practices of our graduates, but that it would provide support and validation for the advocates of value added evaluation across the state.
Greg, the district guy, showed no interest in my comment. He did not even raise himself to disagree or debate me. He simply declared, "The superintendent wants these numbers (on the test) and we are collecting them so they can be used as data." The look in his eyes, the subtext of his dismissal, was essentially, "What is this pinhead talking about? It's irrelevant."
Charles actually agreed with me. He is a progressive educator who knows the debates and the game. Why, then, had he made this proposal? It was, of course, the pressure of the grant. Both foundation and federal grants for the professional development program required "quantitative" data to determine if our graduates were effective.
The challenge for Charles was that he was ruled by the terms of the grant. And for the grant he had to bring data -- proof of success. Some data could be qualitative (reports from teachers, supervisors, principals, students) but some had to be quantitative. People who live by grants find themselves spending a lot of time worrying about the reporting, the data. And often the terms of grants practically compel the recipients to be fraudulent, to make things up. Because most grants require that you define the problem and then declare that when you get so many thousands of dollars you will provide a solution of the problem. But too often the problems are deep, structural, and difficult to move the needle on. If you manage to get an open-ended grant, this might allow projects that are exploratory or generative for participants. But generally grants in education demand some kind of linear "improvement."
While in education research studies, "value added" teacher evaluation (basically evaluating teacher effectiveness by tracking improvements in the test scores of their students) has been demonstrated to be invalid, Charles felt compelled to put that idea in the assessment package.
How does the world of nonprofits, the social justice enterprise funded by grants, affect our work?
Some years ago, Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy made a scathing critique of the role of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in containing social movements even as they "professionalize" activism. Her point was that many activists who in the past would have gone into radical, non-sanctioned, community-based liberation organizations were now being brought into NGOs -- where they could make a decent salary and where their every move was framed by grant reporting -- long proposals, narrow goals, and constrained possibilities. It was the kind of "repressive tolerance" of sponsored dissent that Marcuse had warned against.
Nonprofit organizations inside the U.S. occupy the same space. People who want to improve conditions for oppressed students, who want to challenge inequities, are not leading demonstrations in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Oakland, California. Instead they are working for improvement within foundation and government-funded nonprofits. The revolution may not be televised but apparently it will be funded.
It makes me think back to the Mississippi Freedom Schools that started as an adjunct to the voter education organizing there in 1964. Charlie Cobb wrote up a proposal for the freedom school project. Where today under a foundation grant it would be a 25-page (or a 200 page!) document with extensive claims about the situation they were facing and the exact outcomes they planned to achieve, Cobb's proposal was two pages long and defined exactly the purpose of the schools. It is a document that launched one of the most dynamic educational initiatives in the U.S. and today is still studied as a classic artifact of movement history.
Funding, then, is a mixed blessing. Initiatives for change should be funded and organizing campaigns need resources. But the question of who is doing the funding and what their underlying goals are -- this is the rub. Too often, the fundamental worldview and values of the funders are written into the kinds of problems they will entertain and kinds of measurements they demand to determine success. The assumption is that things can be reformed with good intentions and right tinkering. In this way, funding takes a social change project off track.
And foundations, private funding, have become such a huge part of the educational landscape that we accept without question that so many projects should be sustained by these kinds of grants. Indeed the federal government, whose responsibility is to raise money through taxes and disperse it to communities for their education projects, now mimics the private sector -- only giving out most funds through competitive grants. Indeed, the largest of the grants we were discussing about the professional development program was a federal competitive grant.
One problem we have is that we tend to get caught up on our present reality, normalize it as if that's the way it has to be. Living in the grant-driven world, channeling our social justice activism through nonprofits, makes us begin to think this is just the way things are. In this way, the hegemonic mindset of neo-liberal market-driven systems colonizes our minds. And how did it come to be this way?
One of the main culprits in this shameful development is the changing tax structure. Starting after World War II but accelerating ridiculously in Reagan era, the taxing of the wealthy has changed enormously. Where excess wealth created by society was once gathered through taxes and then distributed through at least somewhat democratic decision-making processes, now it goes almost exclusively into the pockets of the one percent. How does the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation have all these billions of dollars? It is because they have not been taxed enough. Resources that should be distributed through public projects are now in the pockets of individuals.
It follows then that the structure of grants and their reporting responsibility is a much more authoritarian way to make decisions than the democratic process of a community deciding how to prioritize education projects through a locally elected board. The grant does not ask your opinion. The grant says: do this, do that. It establishes instrumental goals, goals directed towards narrow, concrete outcomes that can be quantified. And we see evidence every day that the federal government is completely bought into the privatization project, restructuring education like top-down corporations.
So the awkward moment when I raised objection to value added measurement truly reflected the different positionality of the three people in the room. When I raised the criticism of testing measures, I seemed like an abstract-thinking egghead, out of touch with reality. But such framing accepts the grant and its demands as reality, something not to be questioned. And it reminded me why universities are important.
Yes, universities that grant tenure, that allow freedom of inquiry, that protect professors to say aloud what they see. Universities now are under attack. According to the critics from the business world, universities have not enough clear outcomes, not enough measures of success. But the very open nature of university-based research and inquiry is what made the U.S. educational system the most powerful engine for knowledge and understanding, the envy of the rest of the world. The narrowing of the university, the constraining of the inquiries of faculty through grant-driven projects, disallows us from pursuing the truth. Someone has to be in the room to declare the emperor's new clothes to be a fraud. I felt fortunate to have the protection of my position in the university. But more and more, that is a voice that is silenced by the power of the foundations and now the federal government, who control the budgets.
Will President Obama's slight opening on testing begin to call into question these larger, structural, questions of how money is spent and how decisions are made? It is doubtful. But that is one of the challenges we must make if we are to have significant policies that benefit kids and communities.