An old theme of education debates has grown increasingly incessant in recent months, most recently in a resolution at the annual AFT convention: Rather than a “test-and-punish” approach to education reform, we need “support and improve” approach that shifts focus from testing, labeling, and punishing schools and educators to providing them with support to improve.
This argument seems designed to infuriate supporters of standards-based reform. The primary cause of this fury is inaccuracy: As the New America Foundation’s Anne Hyslop eloquently noted in a recent column,
“the “punish” part of “test-and-punish” doesn’t exist. At least not right now. Thanks to the Obama administration’s No Child Left Behind waivers, there don’t have to be stakes, for anyone, on upcoming state tests. None.”
Yet for all of the explanations that NCLB hasn’t resulted in large scale “punishment” of educators and schools; that NCLB includes no financial penalties for low-performing schools but in fact gives them additional money; that the number of teachers who’ve lost their jobs as a result of NCLB ranges from precious few to nil—I can’t help but thinking of this paragraph from Nixonland:
“Nixon himself had voted exactly as [liberal Congressman] Marcantonio had in the triple digits himself. Douglas tried to point this out. It didn’t matter. The explanations were complicated. The smear was simple.….This was not the time for nuance.” (emphasis and link added)
Supporters of standards-based reform can argue until they’re blue in the face that the “punish” aspect of “test-and-punish” is largely a myth. But they can’t win the argument when a significant subject of the audience believes that “testing” inherently means “punishment.” In the screwed up dynamics of our current education reform debate, the very act of trying to objectively measure student learning is seen as penalizing students and teachers.
This has created a major liability for proponents of standards-based reform. Yet it also demonstrates the bankruptcy of arguments for “support and improve” as an alternative to “test and punish.”
Proponents of “support and improve” may claim that they are simply calling for fairer ways of measuring school performance, for increased support for educators, and for more comprehensive responses to the range of challenges that face children living in poverty. Yet the subtext of their rhetoric, and the underlying sentiment within their base of support, is that objectively measuring school performance constitutes punishing educators.
And this is dangerous.
The belief that it is possible to objectively measure the results of actions, to make judgments, and to adjust future behavior based on that measurement, is the foundation of modern scientific progress. To be sure, education is far more complex than many areas of human endeavor and inquiry. Yet when we mistake this complexity for immeasurability, we are in trouble.
Whatever the faults—and they are real—of current systems of standards and assessment, they provide a common frame of reference for understanding what it happening in education, and useful tools for improvement. Commonly understood, objective measures allow us to identify gaps and areas in need of improvement, to make informed decisions about where and how to focus our efforts, to gauge progress over time, and to identify successful models from which to learn.
Without some objective measures to frame our understanding, and provide a common ground for discussion and action, we are left with the subjective forces of emotion, sentiment, and affinity to guide our judgments and decisions. This why the narrative of “test and punish” has gained the force of fact despite the objective reality that few educators or schools have actually been “punished” under current accountability regimes. When subjective perception and experience become the sole arbiter of truth, the objective reality of punishment (or lack thereof) matters less than individuals’ subjective perceptions that they are being persecuted. Until supporters of standards-based accountability fully confront this narrative—not just by noting the lack of punishment, but by engaging the emotional realities at play and offering viable counter-narratives—they will be on the losing end of this debate.