Stump speech challenge: A New Deal on testing

Last week, Mike Petrilli issued a “stump speech challenge” asking his fellow education wonks to come up with talking points that members of Congress might use to bolster the case for annual testing.

Be careful what you wish for, Mike. Challenge accepted. Here’s my bid:

When you and I think back on our school days, we remember football games and school dances, the high school musical, and—if we’re lucky—that unforgettable teacher who put just the right book in our hands at just the right time. One who inspired us or opened our eyes to our own potential—and what was waiting for us in the world right outside the classroom window.

What will our children remember when they think back on their school days? I fear too many will just remember taking tests.  

And that’s not right.

At the same time, I hear an awful lot of cynicism about the efforts we’ve been making in the last few years to make our schools better. Some people say that all this testing is just a big game to label our schools a failure, privatize education, demonize teachers, and line the pockets of testing companies and textbook publishers. 

And that’s not right either.

So it’s time to have an honest, no-nonsense conversation about our schools, teaching, and, yes, testing. But let me warn you in advance: If you’re involved in education—whether you’re a teacher, parent, policymaker, or union leader—you might not like some of what I’m going to say. But it’s time to tell the truth about our testing and schools—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Parents tell me their children take too many tests. Teachers complain that testing has taken the joy out of learning and made their jobs miserable. And I agree. It’s time we started listening to parents and teachers.

At the same time, I don’t know how any of us can look at our education system and think we don’t have a problem. A big problem. We’re seventeenth in the world in reading, twenty-seventh in math. The nation that put men on the moon and an iPhone in our pocket ranks twentieth in science. 

And that’s not just embarrassing, it’s dangerous.

Education made America great. But we’re not going to be a great nation very much longer with a third-rate education system. Why do you think we ended up with all those tests in the first place? We got lazy and complacent. Too many of us thought “Well, America’s schools may be lousy, but MY kid’s school is great and MY kid’s doing fine.” 

Well a lot of schools are not great and a lot of kids are not doing fine. How do we know? 

Testing.

Those tests we all love to hate were aimed at getting schools back on track, safeguarding our prosperity, and making sure our children are prepared to find good-paying jobs in a safe and stable country. 

But we pushed it too far and too hard. There’s an old saying that to a hammer, everything is a nail. And in education reform, everything is a test. That’s taking a terrible toll on our schools, our teachers, and our children. 

Education reform has brought energy and dynamism to education. Today, we have some terrific new charter schools and real choice for millions of parents. Some of our best, brightest, and most idealistic young people are committing years—and often their entire careers—to helping our most disadvantaged children. These are good things. They must continue.

America needs education reform. What we do not need is to turn urgency and energy into recklessness. When good teachers leave the classroom, when children come home in tears and parents get anxious—when testing becomes the reason we send children to school—something has gone very, very, wrong.

Testing gives all of us, and especially parents, important information about how our kids are doing and what’s working in schools. The trouble is that we’re using those tests to make snap judgments about schools and teachers. And that’s not what they’re for. We’re trying to make vast decisions with half-vast data. 

So let’s make a deal.

Let’s keep testing every child every year. But let’s use tests for the purpose they were intended: to tell us how our children—all of our children—are doing. But we’ve got to get out of the business of using tests of children to judge teachers, because it’s starting to damage our schools.

Let’s keep the federal government from acting like the national school board. The best thing testing gives us is information. It should be up to parents and local community members, not Washington, to look at that information and decide what to do with it. If we use tests to decide which teachers to keep and which to fire, is it any surprise that teachers spend all their time teaching to the test? What would YOU do if your mortgage, car payments, and groceries for your family were riding on your students’ test scores?

Let’s end the blame game. Let’s stop using tests as a blunt instrument to punish schools and shame bad teachers. If teachers view tests as information about how students are doing—not how THEY are doing—they can get back to the business of teaching, not teaching to the test.

But in return, we need to ask more—much more—of our schools and teachers.

Teachers, you’re used to asking tough, challenging questions. But I have some tough, challenging questions for you.

If we get Washington to stop using tests to judge your performance, will you not just accept but actually embrace higher standards for yourself, your school, and the students you teach?   

Will you, your leaders, and unions help insure that the best teachers go to the neediest schools and students?

Will you accept that the job is hard, the hours long, and that the answer cannot always be, “Trust the teachers and send more money?”

Will you do what it takes to become a true profession—not merely a labor force—and demand the highest level of performance from yourselves and your peers?

Will you be honest with your brothers and sisters who simply don’t have what it takes to be effective in the classroom?  

Will you accept that charters and school choice are an important part of the education system and—when done right—can be engines of excellence and innovation that make all of us better?

One of the biggest complaints I hear about standards and testing is that one size does not fit all and that children are all different. I agree. But if one size doesn’t fit all, why should one kind of school fit all? Let’s get teachers out from under the burden of testing, but let’s allow every parent everywhere to choose the school that’s best for their children. Let’s let teachers teach and parents choose—public, private, charter, and, yes, even religious schools. If a religious school can prove that it can get kids to meet higher standards in reading and math, why should it concern us that they also instruct kids in their respective faiths? Let parents choose.    

Americans have always trusted teachers. But now we need to trust them to raise their game and be the true professionals we need to build a strong and secure America.

At the same time, education reform needs to be more than just test-and-punish. The energy and dynamism needs to go toward making education a truly research-driven profession. Choice and charters empower parents, but if we’re asking teachers to take the lead in improving their performance and policing themselves, then we also need reformers to hold bad charter schools’ feet to the fire and get rid of those who take the public’s money and do nothing for kids. We also need to make charter schools places of sustained and sustainable excellence, true laboratories of education innovation.

Education reform has turned our schools into battlegrounds. We fight over test scores and standards, what our children learn, and whether we have the right people teaching our children. I don’t know how to fix our schools. But I know this: It’s not going to happen by making teachers the enemy.

I simply do not believe our schools are filled with lazy teachers punching the clock and doing nothing more than what their union contracts demand. Neither do I believe that choice and charters and testing is about the 1 percent trying to privatize education and enrich themselves on the public’s dime.

The story of American education is the story of good people trying and too often failing. It’s the story of people seeing injustice and trying like hell to fix it. These two groups need each other more than they know. And America needs them both. If we want to have the best education system on earth, then we need to accept that education reform is something we must do with teachers, not TO teachers. 

What I am proposing, then, is a New Deal for teachers. Keep the tests, but use them to help children and inform parents—not hurt schools and terrorize teachers. 

If it weren’t for tests, too many of our kids would still be stuck in lousy schools—yes, there are too many lousy schools—and we’d be hearing the same old tired excuses about poverty, about parents, and about how “those kids” are just hard to teach. 

We can’t go back to the bad old days when we thought our schools were great, but the reality was that they were only great for some children. But we must go back to the days when school meant more than testing.

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.