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State Failures, National Models and the Perpetuation of Educational Injustice

(Image: Class room via Shutterstock)

The following excerpts have been slightly revised from the original text, The Mismeasure of Education, published July 2013 by Information Age Publishers.

Passed in 1992, Tennessee’s Education Improvement Act (EIA) represented the culmination of a decade of education reform experimentation in testing, teacher performance pay and teacher evaluation and credentialing. State legislators and policy elites joined the debate leading up to the EIA with the expressed intent of increasing student test performance and decreasing the disparity in funding among state school districts, and they came out of the process with a brand new statewide system for testing, data collection and monitoring: the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System (TVAAS). The TVAAS has significantly reshaped instructional practices and student, school and teacher assessment statewide, and its value-added modeling (VAM) has become a central element in national education policy talk and implementation. Its statistical parameters, codified in Tennessee state law since 1992, make needed adjustments to the assessment system next to impossible, and they have made teaching to standardized tests a classroom reality. More importantly, perhaps, the value-added focus on test score growth has masked a continuing slippage of proficiency rates when measured against students in other states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.

Tennessee’s commitment to the TVAAS has diminished educational diversity in Tennessee, while stunting the educational opportunities of children, particularly in urban areas, in ways that are likely to have lasting negative effects in adulthood. With the continuing need for changing workforce skill sets among ever-changing economic environments at home and abroad, students enmeshed in testing protocols have not been provided with the intellectual and applied skills that they needed most to enable them to survive and thrive, or to prepare them as literate creators and innovators, responsible decision-makers, and collaborative problem-solvers. The capacity to assess high-level cognitive and non-cognitive skills has been severely limited by the use of multiple-choice tests that became increasingly high stakes, for which teachers spent inordinate amounts of time preparing children to take and pass. The focus on the state tests and the results of the value-added manipulations has diminished students’ access to learning environments that allow and encourage the development of high-level thinkers and doers. By every psychometric comparison dear to the hearts of testing reform advocates, whether it is the SAT, ACT or NAEP, Tennessee has not improved the education of its citizens in relation to national testing trends, nor has it successfully addressed the funding equity gaps. And yet, 20years after the passage of EIA, another generation of reformers supports the national application of VAM with tighter testing accountability and even higher stakes for those with the least power to alter the conditions that are responsible for the continued failure on the next generation of tests.

After decades of highly anticipated reform success that remains unrealized, business elites, corporate foundations, philanthro-capitalists and venture philanthropists (Horn & Libby, 2011) soldier on in their crusade to bring business-inspired social efficiencies, privatization and corporate governance to public education. Fortified by tax breaks for funding corporate charter reform schools and school voucher programs, recently re-labeled as “scholarship tax credit programs” (National Conference of State Legislators, 2012), venture philanthropy and corporate advocacy philanthropy were able to grow into multibillion-dollar enterprises operated by Wall Street hedge funds (Gabriel & Medina, 2010) and tax-exempt foundations. Huge financial investments have yielded unprecedented levels of political and education policy influence, as noted by the founder of the Economic Policy Institute, Jeff Faux (2012):

It is well known, although rarely acknowledged in the press, that the reform movement has been financed and led by the corporate class. For over twenty years, large business oriented foundations, such as Gates (Microsoft), Walton (Wal-Mart) and Broad (Sun Life) have poured billions into charter school start-ups, sympathetic academics and pundits, media campaigns (including Hollywood movies) and sophisticated nurturing of the careers of privatization promoters who now dominate the education policy debate from local school boards to the U.S. Department of Education. (para. 4)

As corporate influence has come to dominate the ways that the education policy agenda is implemented, then, more top-down testing mandates, higher stakes and heavier sanctions have displaced most other school priorities, particularly in communities made up of poor, minority and immigrant populations. Following passage of NCLB, schools in disadvantaged communities found themselves struggling even to stay open to educate the children of the poor, whose parents were encouraged to opt for the only alternative to their neglected and failure-designated public school: corporate reform charter schools. Upon the recommendations of corporate foundations and an increasingly influential education reform industry flush with cash from federal discretionary grants, the U.S. Department of Education grew its Charter School Program from $6 million annually in 1995 to $256 million in 2011 (Lazarin, 2011, p. 11). With the passage of NCLB and the subsequent introduction of RTTT grants, the federal government also provided other generous economic incentives to nonprofit and for-profit corporations to help them open the preferred type of “No Excuses” reform charter schools to replace the most vulnerable urban public schools. Allowed to operate without the services and protections (for both teachers and students) required of public schools, the most significant “public” aspect of the corporate reform charter schools remains the public tax dollars that fund them.

Through the spread of charter schools, contracted management, transportation, commercial curriculum, private tutoring and testing services, the well-worn reform strategies based on more high-stakes testing and nationalized curriculum expanded to claim a significant market share of the $600 billion spent each year on P-20 education. In late 2012, Rob Lytle, a partner in a Boston consulting firm, (Simon, 2012) outlined for a group of investors in Manhattan the imminent bonanza taking shape as national standards and national testing were scheduled to replace state and local standards and tests:

Think about the upcoming rollout of new national academic standards for public schools. . . . If they’re as rigorous as advertised, a huge number of schools will suddenly look really bad, their students testing way behind in reading and math. They’ll want help, quick. And private, for-profit vendors selling lesson plans, educational software and student assessments will be right there to provide it. . . . You start to see entire ecosystems of investment opportunity lining up. It could get really, really big. (para. 2–3)

Educators and other concerned citizens of the nation and the world should not wait and wonder if Mr. Lytle or those he advises will notice the social and natural ecologies screaming for attention just behind the investment ecosystem that holds the attention of policy elites. For as surely as the last half of the 20th century directed schools toward competing in a global economy that has further concentrated power in economic institutions without national boundaries, the first half of the 21st century must be devoted to education aimed toward cooperating in global, national and local ecologies to save life on the planet. Otherwise, economies of the future, whether global, national or local, will not matter for much.

We dismiss educational research, to our peril

John Dewey believed that we might proceed toward the future only so far as we are willing to examine our past. For Dewey, experience was made up of a continuum of past, present and future that intersected with our internal and external geographies in an ongoing interactive dance (Dewey, 1938). Experience, thus derived from the components of time (past, present, future) and space (internal and external), became organized by reflective and purposive thought directed toward action. If Dewey was correct, the current steady state of education reform, which is seemingly unable to break out of a fixation on high-stakes testing, makes sense. For in perpetuating a brazen kind of anti-history that discards knowledge that scholars have gleaned from past reform efforts, education reformers have become doomed to repeat the failures that they appear determined to ignore. Take, for example, what was learned about implementation failures following the 1960s “reform initiatives” at the federal level that had to span various levels and layers of government and institutions (McLaughlin, 1987). Writing some 20 years after the initial Title I evaluations, McLaughlin (1987) noted that economists and sociologists, who were the “chief architects” of Great Society programs, were quick to assign blame when their “theories of scientific management” did not produce the results predicted by their “notions of hierarchical authority and bureaucratic control”:

Thus while economists interpreted disappointing program outcomes as market failure and sought solutions in incentives, sociologists and organization theorists saw signs of inadequate organizational control, and counseled new penalties and increased oversight. (p. 171)

Unfortunately, lessons learned by second generation policy analysts were lost on the next generation of reformers, whose laser focus on high-stakes testing from the 1990s forward missed or dismissed much of the scholarly and practical advice emanating from university departments, whose empirically based research studies were quickly being replaced by advocacy research of corporate-sponsored think tanks fronted as research centers and functioned as public relations and marketing annexes for corporate education reform. A deepening tunnel vision resulted among politicians and their corporate patrons who sought to make reputations as education reformers. Independent scholarship, then, from within universities often was ignored or treated as ad hoc support of the “resistance to reforms,” which has been attributed mainly to teachers and their professional organizations since the 1960s. After all, university researchers were teachers, too.

A decade before No Child Left Behind announced the war against the achievement gap, policy analysts who had closely studied and written about earlier reform efforts warned of negative outcomes from the push following the Charlottesville Conference in 1989 for more test-based accountability and harsher sanctions to quell “continued resistance” to Reagan-Bush market-based education initiatives. In a special section in The Phi Delta Kappan, Milbrey McLaughlin (1991) wrote the introduction to five articles by education scholars with extensive knowledge of policy reforms, and under her summary point number four, “Test-based accountability plans often misplace trust and protection,” McLaughlin offered these potential negative outcomes for “high-stakes testing schemes” (p. 250):

• Perverting incentives for teachers – encouraging them to avoid difficult students and difficult schools.

• Discouraging classroom innovation, risk-taking and invention.

• Allocating “failure” disproportionately to nontraditional or at-risk students.

• Forcing out of the curriculum the very kinds of learning – higher-order thinking and problem solving – that learning theorists and others say are most important to “increased national competitiveness” and success in the world marketplace (p. 250).

Just as reformers ignored warnings during the 1960s, we know now that these prescient warnings were ignored as well, even though they were offered ten years before NCLB became law in 2001and almost 20 years before Race to the Top, which has served to buy alliances at the statehouse policy level for the continuing war that would accept “no excuses” for any outcome that did not result in corporatization of all educational territories.

As long as American education policy continues to rank schools using scores, whether scores are from current state tests or the tougher tests being designed to align with a national curriculum adopted by 47 states in 2012, there will always be a bottom 5% of low-performing schools, which offers plenty of room for the growth of corporate charter schools that will carry the torch for corporate education reform initiatives. The growth of charter schools encourages the further elimination of “resistance” to the intensification of social separation through segregated schools, which are staffed largely by young, minimally prepared recruits who impose total-compliance test-based curriculums that, if deemed successful, indoctrinate children (Horn, 2011) to behave in ways that defy the effects of socioeconomic inequality. Unfortunately, inequality cannot be cornered into the schools, treated with harsh instructional solvents designed to scrub away the effects of poverty, and then tested to make sure the residue has been alleviated. Nor can we pretend that the creation and nurturing of unequal schools will solve inequality, whether made unequal by minimally prepared teachers, the absence of basic services like school libraries, the preponderance of atrophied curriculums or the physical and psychic separation of the poor and disenfranchised. That such outcomes may be offered as a viable resolution to inequality in education, which is parroted as the “civil rights issue of our generation,” (,2008) represents a minstrel version of social justice, paraded on the public stage for the benefits that may be derived from delusion or deception – or both. Although forgotten in rhetoric and in deed, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in a unanimous decision almost 60 years ago that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954). We must stop pretending they are not – or else risk a further erosion of the moral courage required to complete the forgotten goal and neglected task of building a quality system of public schools that serves the needs of all children.

References (2008). President-Elect Obama nominates Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. Retrieved from

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Touchstone.

Faux, J. (2012). Education profiteering: Wall Street’s next big thing? Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Gabriel, T., & Medina, J. (2010, May 10). Charter schools’ new cheerleaders: Financiers. New York Times. Retrieved from

Horn, J. (2011). Corporatism, KIPP, and cultural eugenics. In P. Kovacs, (Ed.), The Gates Foundation and the future of U. S. ‘public schools’ (pp. 80-103). New York: Routledge.

Horn, J., & Libby, K. (2011). The giving business: The New Schools Venture Fund. In P. Kovacs, (Ed.), The Gates Foundation and the future of U. S. ‘public schools’ (pp. 168-185). New York: Routledge.

Lazarin, M. (2011). Federal investment in charter schools: A proposal for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. Retrieved from

McLaughlin, M. (1987). Learning from experience: Lessons from policy implementation. Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 9(2), 171-178.

McLaughlin, M. (1991). Test-based accountability as a reform strategy. The Phi Delta Kappan, 73(3), 248-251.

National Conference of State Legislators. (2012). Tuition tax credits. Washington, DC: NCSL. Retrieved from

Simon, S. (2012, August 2). Private firms eyeing profits from U. S. public schools. New York: Thompson Reuters. Retrieved from

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