For decades, the United States and “Red China” had minimal contact. Communist China was the third rail of politics and no politician could afford to appear to be ‘soft on Communism.’ After all, in the 1950’s the careers and lives of hundreds of people were destroyed because they were accused of having ‘lost China.’
Then, in February 1972, a politician with impeccable anti-Communist credentials did the unthinkable. President Richard Nixon went to China 44 years ago and ‘normalized’ diplomatic relations with that country. Only an avowed foe of Communism could have accomplished that feat.
Public education needs its own Richard Nixon if it is ever going to escape the ‘test and punish’ death spiral that is distorting schooling almost beyond recognition. Education’s Richard Nixon will have to be a strong advocate of testing who has seen the light, someone who has undergone conversion, the educational equivalent of Saul on the road to Damascus.
No testing critic from the left, no matter how eloquent, sensible, or correct, will be able to sway public opinion and move bureaucracies. When Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten, Deborah Meier, or Peggy Robertson of United Opt Out speak out about the corrosive effects of excessive testing, their supporters say ‘Amen,’ but others shrug it off: “What else is new?” or “That’s what I’d expect them to say.”
Until a few months ago, I had a pretty good idea who could become education’s Richard Nixon. This educator worships at the altar of testing, and her schools live and die by test scores, but–of critical importance–her schools also focus on science, the arts and physical education. Whenever I’d visited her schools, they seemed to be places of joyful learning.
At one point I even went so far as to imagine her “conversion” announcement:
My friends, you know me as an advocate of standardized testing. I believe in test results and what they tell us about our students. But what you might not know about me is that I subscribe to much of what John Dewey taught us about education. Learning by doing is important. The arts, science and physical fitness are essential parts of quality education. These are vital elements in my schools, although they have not gotten much publicity in the past.
For years I have focused on test results, and I’ve boasted about my students’ success, but now I realize that schools are vehicles that must take on passengers–the students–wherever they are and take them as far as possible.
I say ‘vehicle‘ advisedly. A unicycle, with the one wheel being test scores, can’t be relied upon to carry students long distances. The proper vehicle is a sturdy, reliable, 4-wheeler. The ‘wheels’ of my effective schools are academic excellence in English and math; hands-on science; the arts; and physical education. And all 4 wheels pull with equal power.
From here on out, my schools will be evaluated and rated on a 4-point scale: 1) How do students perform in math and English on standardized tests? 2) How many hours of hands-on science for students per week? 3) How many hours of the arts per week? and 4) How many hours of physical activity, including active recess, per week?
Henceforth, all four categories count equally, which means that doing well in one category will not offset doing poorly in another. In other words, having high tests scores but minimal recess, for example, will not give a school a passing grade.
Some of my colleagues in the pro-testing camp will complain that three of the ‘wheels’ are input measures, which they are contemptuous of. I would remind them that they consistently support a different input measure, ‘time on task.’ From my new perspective, I now realize that valuing ‘time on task’ above all else has contributed greatly to the de-emphasis and disappearance of recess, science, and the arts from many schools.
Anyway, friends, this will be the new 4-part report card for Success Academies going forward, and it’s my strong hope that other schools, whether chartered or traditional, will consider following our example. Thank you.
In this fantasy, Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of Success Academies, would be education’s Richard Nixon. By insisting on using those four criteria to measure school effectiveness, she would begin the hard work of saving public education from its current disastrous policies and practices. By insisting that schools ‘measure what matters,’ she would do for education what Richard Nixon did for US-China relations, usher in a new era.
The next pinnacle for her personally, in this fantasy? She might become United States Secretary of Education!
However, that was before I began a serious investigation of Success Academies and its practices. Yes, the curriculum includes hands-on science and lots of art, music and physical education, but Success Academies have a draconian behavior code and follow a number of questionable practices that eliminate certain students, some of which are certainly unethical and perhaps illegal.
Juan Gonzales of the New York Daily News has been doggedly following this story for years, but Ms. Moskowitz has managed to defuse or deflect most of his criticism. Our report for the PBS NewsHour last October documented how Success Academies use multiple out-of-school suspensions of 5-, 6- and 7- year-old to ‘persuade’ parents to withdraw their children set off the current firestorm. Two subsequent (here and here) blockbuster reports by Kate Taylor of The New York Times, the second one accompanied by a dramatic video, may have turned the tide of public opinion against Ms. Moskowitz.
If the authorizing body that has consistently approved her petitions, the Charter School Institute at SUNY, follows through on its proposed investigation, or if she loses the support of powerful and wealthy hedge fund billionaires like Dan Loeb, her goal of creating hundreds of Success Academies will be out of reach, and her control over her current schools could be in jeopardy, along with her sizable annual salary of roughly $500,000.
So Eva Moskowitz will not be education’s Richard Nixon. Are there any other candidates? Is it possible that John King, another test score worshipper, will see matters differently when and if he is confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education?
Toward the end of his tenure, his predecessor warned that too much testing was taking “the joy out of the classroom,” but Arne Duncan failed to take the next step, pondering what brings joy to classrooms. I fear that Secretary King will try to appear reasonable and, like Arne Duncan, talk about ‘limiting’ testing, while failing to question the premise that now rules public education in America: test scores are the most reliable means of evaluating teachers and sorting students.
The premise is wrong.
Who will be education’s Richard Nixon?