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Democrats Should Listen To What Senator Whitehouse Said About Education Policy

A curious thing happened this week on Capitol Hill: A politician said something about education that made sense.

The “something” didn’t come from President Obama.

In the president’s annual State of the Union address, “K-12 policy largely took a back seat”, Education Week’s Alyson Klein observed. Indeed, the issue was barely in the car. Although the president took credit for “the highest math and reading scores on record” and a high school graduation rate at “an all-time high,” there were no strong claims about the success of his programs, no bold, new initiatives, and no combative stances against the oppositional positions on K-12 policy.

As Klein noted, he ignored “the hottest K-12 policy debate” about the role of federally mandated standardized testing in No Child Left Behind. And his speech neglected to mention his administration’s recent budget request to Congress for an additional $2.7 billion in new education spending, including an extra $1 billion in Title I money, to increase resources for disadvantaged students.

The president’s address prompted Andy Smarick, a former official in the George W. Bush administration who now works at education policy consulting group Bellwether, to post “My Reactions to K-12 Issues in SOTU” on his blog and leave it totally blank.

The sensible message came out in a senate committee hearing the next day.

Testing Is ‘Chief Booogeyman’

The hearing was conducted by the Committee on Health, Labor, Education and Pensions, and the subject at hand was “Fixing No Child Left Behind: Testing and Accountability.” Chief among the topics to be addressed was the federal government’s demands for a battery of standardized tests to ensure public schools provide data that are demanded by the Department of Education. Again, Education Week’s Alyson Klein was on the scene to explain that “testing has turned out to be the chief boogeyman” as Congress determines how to rewrite NCLB.

The backstory: “The law mandates 17 annual tests: One reading and one math test each year in grades 3 through 8, and once for each subject in high school. Also, science is assessed once in elementary, middle, and high school.” The hearing’s testimony revealed that the testing burden is even heavier than what the federal government demands, as states and school districts have added many more assessments throughout the year to prepare for the federal tests because of their high-stakes nature.

What the committee was to discuss, specifically, was a draft bill that Tennessee U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander penned which offered two options for revising NCLB’s assessment demands, according to Klein: “One that would keep in place the current annual system, and another that would let states use any type of testing schedule they please, including annual tests, portfolio exams, grade-span tests, and more.”

As Klein described, senators on “both sides of the aisle” were “coming down on all sides of the discussion.” Principally, the senators went back and forth over the needs to ensure “accountability” for how federal tax dollars are spent – not a trivial topic, by any means.

The original intent of NCLB, as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act created in the Lyndon Johnson presidential administration, was to ensure states provided resources to schools serving disadvantaged students. NCLB’s testing regime was supposed to incentivize states to be more responsible for complying with that original intent.

The Things Senators Say

Witnesses assured the senators that the current assessment policy indeed has helped fulfill some of that original intent, but too many states still shirk their duties to high needs students. How or whether the two options in Alexander’s draft bill would improve on that situation was not the topic most senators wanted to talk about.

Instead, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, spoke of the need to “make sure federal dollars aren’t being wasted.” (Federal dollars are being wasted in the current approach, two witnesses made clear.) Minnesota Senator Al Franken wondered if the whole darn mess could be cleared up by using “computer adaptive assessments.” (Maybe, if you want to spend a whole lot of time and money, a witness replied.)

A theme throughout the hearing was the need for the tests to “ensure students are learning,” a causal relationship that seems difficult to prove. Students, after all, learned before the advent of NCLB, and since the tests do not affect students’ grades, it’s hard to see how they are making students learn “more,” whatever that means.

Michael Bennett of Colorado made the absurd claim that annual high-stakes testing needs to continue to ensure first graders know how to read. “That is the most important thing we can do,” he said. (Seriously, how many first graders know how to read?)

What Whitehouse Said

Finally, at the hearing’s very end, Rhode Island’s Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said something that made educators everywhere smile: (watch here at the 2:24:30 mark)

“My experience in the education world is that there are really two worlds in it. One is the world of contract and consultants and academics and experts and plenty of officials at the federal state and local level. And the other is a world of principals and classroom teachers who are actually providing education to students. What I’m hearing from my principals’ and teachers’ world is that the footprint of that first world has become way too big in their lives to the point where it’s inhibiting their ability to do the jobs they’re entrusted to do.”

Indeed, the footprint made by education policy leaders in classrooms has left behind a form of mandated testing that is “designed to test the school and not the student,” Whitehouse stated, and he described a dysfunctional system in which teachers don’t get test results in a timely fashion that makes it possible for them to use the results to change instruction. Instead, educators spend more time preparing for the tests and encouraging students to be motivated to take them, even though the tests have no bearing on the students’ grades, just how the school and the individual teachers themselves are evaluated.

Whitehouse compared the federal funding that has poured into policies mandating testing, such as Race to the Top, to “rain falling over the desert. The rain comes pouring out of the clouds. But by the time you’re actually at the desert floor, not a raindrop falls. It’s all been absorbed in between. I’ve never had a teacher who said to me, ‘Boy, Race to the Top gave me just what I need in terms of books or a whiteboard, or something I can use to teach the kids.'”

Whitehouse urged his colleagues to consider more closely the purpose of testing – not just how many tests and how often but how assessments are used. He concluded, “We have to be very careful about distinguishing the importance of the purpose of this oversight and not allow the purpose of the oversight to be conducted in such an inefficient, wasteful, clumsy way that the people who we really trust to know to do this education – the people who are in the classroom – are not looking back at us and saying, ‘Stop. Help. I can’t deal with this. You are inhibiting my ability to teach.'”

‘Stop. Help. I Can’t Deal With This.’

In support of Whitehouse, two hearing witnesses said what amounted to, “Stop. Help. I can’t deal with this.”

First. Jia Lee, a fourth and fifth grade special education teacher from New York City, explained, “Multiple choice, high-stakes tests have reliably padded the profits of education corporations, draining public tax dollars but have been unreliable in measuring the diversity of students’ capabilities and learning. The use of those same tests in evaluating teachers is, simply put, statistically invalid.”

Lee spoke of a “great crime” in schools where “the focus on testing has taken valuable resources and time away from programming,” such as a well-rounded curriculum, arts and music education, and library services.

She described schools that have become “data driven rather than student driven,” causing many parents to “opt out” their students from standardized tests in protest.

Next, eleventh grade U.S. history and English teacher Stephen Lazar, also from New York City, explained, “When the stakes of the testing are high, students do not get what they need … it does the most harm to those with the lowest skills.”

He described how his teaching has eliminated research, discussion, “dealing with complexity,” and other features of a robust education in order to teach how to write “stock, formulaic essays and practice mindless repetition of facts,” so his student could perform better on tests. And they did – “10 to 20 percent above city averages” – at the expense of sacrificing “a month of my students’ learning.”

He criticized “the demands of testing every student every year, and the psychometric demands of high-stakes assessments,” saying that most federally mandated tests are “a one-time assessment that privileges multiple-choice questions over authentic demonstrations of students’ knowledge and skills.”

“Teachers learn little from these exams that can lead to better instruction and increased learning, especially when they come at the end of the year.”

Not Either-Or, Both-But

Rather than choosing either-or from Alexander’s draft options, what these classroom teachers are calling for seems to be more “both-but,” saying that annual testing is needed, but for diagnostic purposes rather than high-stakes decisions, and states and school districts need resources and support in developing more flexible assessments at the classroom level to provide feedback on how individual learners are doing.

Lee demanded policy leaders “abandon stack ranking of our children and schools” that has been the result of federally mandated tests. She called instead for education policies that encourage schools to teach a program focused on “problems that have far more complex solutions than a multiple choice test.”

Yet, “We do need standardized information on how schools and districts are doing,” Lazar stated. He called for annual tests that include a representational sampling method, similar to the National Assessment of Education Progress, to “get key information about districts and schools.”

He concluded, “To test every student, every year, simply for the sake of school accountability is the very definition of government waste.” That money would be better spent, he explained, on helping provide educators at the school and classroom level with “improved tools” for assessing individual students on more robust education outcomes that standardized tests can’t measure adequately, timely, or efficiently.

Why Should Democrats Care?

President Obama’s State of the Union speech was evidence “populism has gone mainstream,” as an analysis at Bloomberg put it.

The president’s “direct appeal to taxing the rich and giving to the poor,” Jonathan Allen wrote, “is a sign of just how mainstream populism has become.”

In his appeal to affordable child care, college, and health care, and his promise to lower taxes for working families, Obama “defended activist government on the side of working people,” my colleague Robert Borosage wrote at Campaign for America’s Future. “Progressives should applaud the president’s combative populist message,” Borosage concluded.

Editors at The New York Times agreed, and one-upped the president’s combative stance by urging he, “Resist his instinct to follow the false promise of compromise. Give-and-take is part of the legislative process, but trade-offs amounting to Republican legislative triumphs are unacceptable.”

So the populist agenda framed by the president includes raising wages, more access to affordable higher education and reducing college debt levels, relieving the burden of child care on poor working families, and investing in the nation’s much-deteriorated infrastructure, including roads and bridges, research and development, and new energy sources. Why not K-12 education?

The absence of a populist agenda for education in the Democratic Party is acute and chronic. As I observed in 2012, when K-12 education is the issue, Democrats mute their populist voices in deference to a bland stew of policy points with very little resonance among working people Democrats fight for in other arenas.

Witness for instance, when the Republican Congress recently submitted a budget that completely left Race to the Top out of the mix, hardly anyone cared.

Indeed, a populist message for public education needs input from the populace, not just from Beltway wonks that have fed the policy mill at the Department of Education for years.

Republicans for sure, have ginned up populist rhetoric for all kinds of education issues, including opposition to top-down imposed Common Core Standards and concern with the overuse of standardized tests.

If Democrats want to have any clout in the education arena, they must find their populist voice just as they are doing for other issues. If President Obama isn’t going to provide that, maybe Senator Whitehouse just did.

  • FLERP! says:

    Very nice piece.

    January 23, 2015 at 12:52 am
  • Kent Minor says:

    I hope this is another voice in the effort to restore sanity to education assessment and instruction. Our goal in education should be to prepare students with the knowledge and skills needed in the 21st century. This involves learning and assessment that goes far beyond the limited capacity of standardized tests.

    January 23, 2015 at 2:57 pm
  • Ed Benson says:

    I too am thrilled with Whitehouse’s comments. Arne Duncan has claimed that class size does not really matter ( This from an educator in chief with no classroom experience. Whitehouse has always been a leader on climate turmoil; it is wonderful to see him take up this subject.

    January 23, 2015 at 3:46 pm
  • Doug Giebel says:

    While applauding Senator Whitehouse for common sense insight, one should point out what he, too, left out of his comments: the students, peers, parents and the communities in which “education” occurs. Prinicpals and (especially) teachers should be primary “consultants” and “advisors,” but the others on my list are important (at times the most important) factors — as are the actual school facilities in which learning is supposed to happen. Sometimes I wonder if my mother, who began her teaching career in a one-room country schoolhouse, didn’t have a more ideal situation regarding control of the educational process. Yes, she only had a few students (of various ages), which meant “individualized” instruction and older students aiding younger students both direclly and by example. More may graduate today, more may attend college today just because there are many more students than in the past. What hasn’t changed for years is a dedicated interest in “spending any amount, paying any price” where American public education is concerned.
    Doug Giebel
    Big Sandy, Montana

    January 24, 2015 at 5:58 pm
  • Suzanne Parker says:

    Hmmmm. Testing students for diagnostic and evaluative purposes. What a novel idea – ya think?? Very good piece. Many of the solutions Whitehead mentions is what occurs in Finnish schools. Testing so teachers can know how to teach better.

    January 25, 2015 at 1:14 pm

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