The Atlanta public school cheating scandal is but “the tip of the iceberg,” reports Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. A new FairTest survey reports confirmed cheating incidents in 37 states and the District of Columbia in just that last four years. It also lists 50 ways adults in public schools artificially boost test scores.
When everyone cheats, you know something is wrong with the test. In fact, high-stakes testing — in which jobs and even the existence of schools depend on the results of a standardized test — is a perverse way to evaluate teachers and schools.
As Isabel Nunez, associate professor at the Center for Policy Studies and Social Justice at Concordia University Chicago, writes, “Standardized testing has become monstrous” and is unsupported by the best research in the field. It’s the spearhead of an assault that is undermining public education, turning teaching from a life mission to a badly paid, insecure job, and putting children at risk. We better step back and take another look to build, not destroy our public schools.
First, we have to get real about what schools can do. A school cannot thrive as an oasis in a social desert. Even the best teacher cannot reach a student who is plagued by an untreated toothache. Schools cannot bear the blame for all the maladies of poverty, unemployment, danger and pain. Parents with jobs matter. Adequate housing with a computer in the house matters. Transportation to schools matters. Nutrition and health care matters. School distance matters. Dangerous streets matter.
There is no shortcut to equal opportunity. School funding remains separate and unequal. We know how to create great public schools. We see them in the affluent suburbs across the country. But in impoverished urban and rural areas, children go without text books, without computers, without adequate facilities to exercise. Don’t blame the teachers. Often the teachers reach into their own pockets to get needed supplies for their students.
There is no shortcut to high-quality teachers. The countries that are succeeding respect teachers and pay them accordingly. The current policy — using high-stakes testing to substitute for high pay, clear mentoring, peer review, social respect — virtually guarantees that the best teachers will not risk going to the schools that need them the most.
Closing neighborhood schools has high costs. Parents must find ways to transport their children longer distances. Children must cross what often are contested gang boundaries. Rousing parental involvement becomes even more difficult if the school is across town.
At this point, testing and shutting down schools have become a way to avoid investing in the basics. Let’s start there. Make certain every child has adequate nutrition and health care. Provide every child with preschool, smaller classes in the early grades, after-school programs, and affordable training or college after high school. Engage parents in supporting their schools before the threat comes to shut them down. Afford teachers high pay and high respect to attract the best students. Save the big money wasted on high stakes tests and invest the time and the resources in children.
And then focus attention on the areas most in need. Create jobs programs to put people to work doing work that needs to be done. Raise the minimum wage, make health care not just mandatory but affordable. Build affordable housing.
The schools will rise as the neighborhood rises. And inevitably, they will flail as the neighborhood fails.
Let’s provide every child with a fair start. There is no better return on the dollar.