“We are trying to lift children; we are trying to open up their minds, and we are trying to engage them,” Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, recently told me. “That takes a lot of creativity. And yet the way in which we’re getting measured is by an old-fashioned, factory-mode measurement … When you think about it, it’s insulting and ridiculous to think that ‘test-and-sanction’ is going to work.”
Even the Gates Foundation, which bankrolled the development of the Common Core standards, in June backtracked on its support of the initiative, calling for a moratorium on the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, students, and schools.
The resentment clearly isn’t limited to teachers. And it essentially boils down to this premise: Education is suffering because schools are becoming homogenized at the hands of policymakers who don’t have a real clue about or genuine interest in the realities of classrooms, an epidemic exacerbated by over-testing. Hence, the increased movement among parents for greater choice when it comes to their kids’ schooling and this year’s across-the-board backlash against one-size-fits-all education.
True to form, the backlash against one-size-fits-all schooling got creative. In July, Illinois high school teacher David Perrin, for example, wrote a piece asking what Mark Twain would’ve thought about Common Core testing: “The Common Core standards and their assessment tools would have given Twain plenty of fodder for his sardonic wit … As Twain found out at great personal expense, the mere promise of progress is insufficient when the stakes are high. In the case of the Common Core standards, what's at stake is the future of America's students, teachers, and entire public education system.”
Others, meanwhile, focused on the specific types of children they believed are being marginalized because of these new standards. Pat Wingert wrote in January that the standards are “tough” on kids who are still learning English, and Katharine Beals wrote in February that they’re “tough” on kids with special needs.
Standardized testing was often targeted for similar reasons. Meredith Broussard’s July feature titled “Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing” argued that this system of universal assessments puts impoverished communities at a disadvantage because it relies on textbooks that underfunded districts can’t afford.
Unfortunately, introducing children to classic works of literature won’t raise their abysmal test scores. This is because standardized tests are not based on general knowledge. As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge contained in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers.
Brossard’s case study? Philadelphia, whose public schools were allotted $0 per student last year for textbooks.
It may be many years until Philadelphia’s education budget matches its curriculum requirements. In the meantime, there are a few things the district—and other flailing school districts in America—can do. Stop giving standardized tests that are inextricably tied to specific sets of books. At the very least, stop using test scores to evaluate teacher performance without providing the items each teacher needs to do his or her job. Most of all, avoid basing an entire education system on materials so costly that big, urban districts can’t afford to buy them. Until these things change, it will be impossible to raise standardized test scores—despite the best efforts of the teachers and students who will return to school this fall and find no new books waiting for them.
The retaliation against one-size-fits-all education has extended beyond the realm of exams and learning benchmarks. Perennial criticisms of regimented schooling made a big comeback this past year—calling into question everything from letter grades to the absence of the arts from the hype surrounding science, technology, engineering, and math education (STEM), a favorite catchword among politicians (and The Altantic, too).