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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Report Card on Education

ALEC is the American Learning Exchange Council, an organization of thousands of state legislators around the country who are dedicated to “free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty.” ALEC creates model legislation for members, which in turn is introduced in legislatures across the country. Among its major funders are tobacco, insurance, pharmaceutical and private prison companies, whose representatives vote alongside legislators at closed ALEC conferences and vote on the wording of legislation. Both legislators and corporations have veto power over suggested bills.

The Wisconsin “Voter ID” bill, which requires all voters to present picture identification at the polling place, was an ALEC bill. More than a dozen state houses have passed identical resolutions asking the EPA to stop regulating carbon emissions, another of ALEC’s hundreds of projects.

Each year, ALEC releases a Report Card on American Education. The main point of the large report, always, is that spending money on public schools and teachers doesn’t raise standardized test scores, but allowing parents freedom of choice does. ALEC model bills would create new vouchers and credits to enroll children in private schools, significantly expand charter school and homeschooling programs, reduce or end teacher tenure and end public employee pensions. ALEC’s entire legislative agenda is a members-only secret, but has been leaked out in bits and pieces.

On the last Report Card, the 5o states and District of Columbia were graded and ranked on both their adoption of ALEC reforms and on standardized reading and mathematics test performance and improvements. Vermont has the strongest teacher tenure and collective bargaining laws in America, and was graded 51st on ALEC-backed reforms. South Carolina does not allow teachers to organize in any way, ranked high in ALEC reforms and was graded 51st on student test performance and improvement.

The top five states in student performance and improvement were: Vermont, Massachusetts, Florida, New Hampshire and New York.

But you didn’t read this in your daily newspaper. Do you think we’re having the open, honest discussion about public education that we deserve?

This summer, the federal Department of Education announced it is developing high-stakes standardized tests for 4-year-old children. We’re going further and further down a road that’s being rejected by other countries that are making their schools work very well.

Finland, which has two national languages (Finnish and a significant minority that speaks Swedish) dumped all domestic standardized testing, and has the strongest and most admired schools in Europe. For three decades, Finland has promoted teaching and learning as important national values.

South Korea is another country that used to be mocked for its high-stakes testing of little kids. The tests are gone now, and South Korea is seen as Asia’s learning engine.

This spring, a blue-ribbon commission of the National Academy of Sciences published a report on “Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education.” The commission studied nearly a decade of results from standardized tests and found “little to no positive effect overall on learning” and a lot of gaming of the system.

When New York started requiring high school seniors to pass Regents exams to graduate, scores went up. But the lower-stakes National Assessment of Educational Progress tests the same subjects and scores didn’t move at all. Teachers in tough situations are often encouraged to teach test-taking strategies or concentrate on students who are closest to meeting the minimum proficiency scores. The validity of all the test scores gets thrown off.

But someone wants these tests very badly. Why are our federal and state legislators and policy makers pushing, pushing, pushing for more and more standardized tests? Follow the money.

Companies that sell testing, technology and charter school operations fund media campaigns in favor of politicians who wage war on public education and teachers. The politicians demand “accountability” and “reform.” Someone gets the state contract to implement all of it.

The State of Texas alone gave Pearson, the British conglomerate, a five-year $500 million contract to create and administer exams. Pearson owns some of the world’s largest textbook publishing companies, and even sells GED courses for students who drop out.         

Education is now big business, which is why the entire public education system is in play.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net