There was a certain internal logic to the summit’s discussions: our schools are failing because we don’t have high standards. Therefore we must set high standards, hold students, teachers, and schools accountable for meeting those standards, and provide consequences and rewards.
By Barbara Miner
But when one looks at what the summit didn’t discuss, it’s seamless logic begins to unravel. (Similarly, a number of the summit’s assumptions don’t hold up; see related article.)
Non-subjects at the conference were legion. To name just a few: multiculturalism, funding equity, equal educational opportunity, special education, the highly segregated nature of U.S. schooling, the need for increased access to both pre-school and higher education for all students, and the devastating consequences of child poverty – which hovers around 20% in the United States. In other industrial countries, especially when equitable tax and income transfer policies are included, the child poverty rate in 1995 ranged from 9.3% in Canada to 2.8% in Germany and 1.6% in Sweden.
Nor did anyone mention the Kansas Board of Education’s decision this August to strike evolution and the Big Bang Theory from the state’s standards, in deference to religious fundamentalists who believe such concepts are at odds with the Bible. The evolution decision undercuts the guiding principal of biology, while the Big Bang Theory decision eliminates the central concept in modern astronomy and cosmology. For all their bluster about “guts” and “political will,” the governors and corporate leaders appear unwilling to take on the religious right’s attempt to gut science standards.
Of the many issues not discussed at the summit, three stand out.
- Equating standards with high-stakes tests. None of the public discussions at the conference addressed this central dilemma: Can a single test ever adequately measure a child’s educational performance? If not, aren’t high-stakes tests inherently flawed? And if they are inherently flawed, why is the summit relying on them to measure accountability and learning?
A look at Wisconsin, where summit co-chair Tommy Thompson is governor, illustrates how conference participants consistently blurred the distinction between standards and high-stakes tests.
One of the summit’s themes was concern over what was called the “pushback” movement – in other words, opposition from parents that is “pushing back” the move toward higher standards. In one of the public sessions, Thompson held his head in his hands, as if in pain, and described how the opposition from parents had been “brutal.”
But nowhere in Wisconsin has there been opposition to higher standards. Instead, the opposition centered on the governor’s attempts to institute a single high-stakes graduation test for all Wisconsin students, prohibit any parent opt-out provision, and grant or deny diplomas based only on that test. Due to the opposition, which was largely based in affluent, Republican suburbs, Thompson was forced to compromise. Under the state budget signed in mid-October, the high school test will be one of several factors in determining diplomas and the parent opt-out remains.
Throughout the summit, leaders viewed the problem with parental opposition as primarily one of public relations. Rather than addressing concerns about the use of high-stakes tests, conference leaders instead called for a campaign to explain the importance of accountability and standards – as if parents themselves don’t share that realization.
- Failure to recognize the increasingly diverse nature of U.S. schoolchildren. Most of the growth in the school-age population in the next 15 years will be among so-called minority students, in particular Latinos and Asians. Yet there was not a single representative of a Latino or Asian-American advocacy organization at the conference.
The white non-Hispanic school-age population is expected to decrease by about 5% from 1990 to 2015. The Hispanic population is expected to double, the Black population to increase by 21%, and the Asian population by 124% (based on sheer numbers, the increase in Hispanic students dwarfs the other two.) None of the summit’s public meetings discussed how this may impact U.S. schools, whether in terms of bilingual or English-as-a-second-language programs, or in terms of the need for culturally sensitive teachers able to teach a diverse student body. At a time of increasing diversity in U.S. schools, the summit’s emphasis was on standardization.
- Failure to ask: what is the purpose of education? There has long been a split on whether the main emphasis in education should be on preparing students for work, which means concentrating on work-related skills, or on preparing the child for “life,” which not only focuses on job skills but also encompasses issues such as developing the entire child and acknowledging the civic purposes of education. While it is not surprising that summit leaders took a narrow “school to work” approach, it is nonetheless a setback that such a powerful group showed such little concern with the broader goals of education.