By Robert Green
An abbreviated version of this op-ed appeared in the Montreal Gazette September 14, 2011 under the title “A reform that will miss its target – No child left behind was a disaster for the U.S. education system. Why should Quebec go down a similar road?”
In the spring of 2008 Jean Charest’s Liberals passed a reform of Quebec’s Education Act entitled Bill 88. Though the bill had far reaching implications for Quebec’s public schools there was relatively little public debate and discussion about its content.
This past spring one of the major implications of this bill became clear as the governing boards of each of Quebec’s public schools were required by the MELS (Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport) to sign what is being called a “Management and Educational Success Agreement”. These agreements identify numerous objectives for the school with specific measurable targets such as “to increase graduation rates from 83% to 86%” or “the success rate for mathematics 404 will increase from 42% to 45%”. Some of these performance indicators are determined by the school board while others are determined by the schools.
So what could possibly be wrong with asking schools to set such measurable targets? The answer to this question lies south of the border where the use of such performance indicators has been at the heart of a revolution in public education that began with George Bush’s 2001 “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation and has been accelerated by Barack Obama. The appeal of this revolution is in the simplicity of its message: use high-stakes standardized testing to hold teachers and schools accountable for the success or failure of their students. Reward success; punish failure. This means offering both the carrot of additional funding or ‘merit-pay’ (often in exchange for union-protected job security) and the stick of threatened school closure or loss of employment.
Despite their simplistic appeal, such policies have had devastating results as they have effectively reduced the role of public education in the United States to preparation for high-stakes standardized tests. In many schools throughout the US, music, art, and even recess have been dropped in order to focus exclusively on the core subjects on which schools and teachers are being evaluated. Developing creativity, empathy, and citizenship skills all take a backseat to test-prep. Notions of educating the whole child disappear as the focus of educators is narrowed and redirected to the only thing that matters: test scores.
Teachers have also reported a declining sense of collegiality in the schools as they are put in direct competition with their colleagues for merit-pay.
Such undesirable consequences might be acceptable if in fact these policies were resulting in increased student success rates. However, after 10 years of NCLB, there is growing evidence that it has not improved success rates of America’s public schools. The US Department of Education recently projected that an astonishing 82% of public schools could fail to meet proficiency targets for the coming year. Similarly, a recent report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that the rate of improvement in basic math and literacy skills has actually slowed since the NCLB came into effect.
More disturbing is the widespread fraud these policies have produced as schools struggle to avoid closure and teachers compete for merit-pay. Perhaps the most high profile example of this involves the former Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools in Washington DC, Michelle Rhee. Rhee was touted as one of the great NCLB reformers due to her alleged success in raising the test scores of several struggling schools. She made the cover of Time magazine and was presented as one of the heroes of the pro-NCLB documentary “Waiting for Superman”. However, as USA Today and others have reported, that success is being called into question by revelations that responses on tests had been systematically and fraudulently altered in order improve success rates. Similar incidences have been happening all over the US, most recently in Atlanta where it is estimated that over 200 teachers and administrators were involved in fraudulently raising test scores.
Although the lack of results and the widespread fraud are reason enough for serious concern, there is an even more fundamental reason to oppose the exclusive use of high-stakes testing to judge both students and teachers: such tests are fundamentally unjust. Giving such value to standardized test scores presumes that they are valid and reliable measures of student learning. A growing body of research is showing this not to be the case. For example, according to a study by Thomas Kane of Harvard University and Douglas Staiger of Dartmouth College, 50 to 80 percent of any improvement or decline in a student’s standardized test scores can be attributed to one-time, randomly occurring factors, such as whether the student ate breakfast that morning or got in an argument with their friend on the way to school. Researchers even found that the sound of a dog barking outside of an open window can affect the test scores of an entire class. To hold either students or teachers ‘accountable’ for such factors is clearly unjust.
To understand both the origins and persistence of such policies in the US, it is necessary to ‘follow the money’. Like much in US politics, these policies are the product of the mix of corporate interests and right-wing anti-union ideology. These policies have been a boon to the billion dollar industry that surrounds standardized testing in the US. As public schools are shut down, these policies have also facilitated an unprecedented expansion in the private charter school system, leading to a corresponding decline in membership in teachers’ unions. This declining membership threatens to significantly weaken one of the only remaining labour unions that still hold significant influence in Washington. Behind these policies is a well-funded campaign by billionaires such as the Koch Brothers and hedge-fund manager Whitney Tilson, as well as a number of private foundations including those funded by Bill Gates, the Walton family (of Walmart fame), and insurance magnate Eli Broad. It is for this reason that many American commentators have begun to label such policies “corporate education reforms”.
So is Quebec destined to experience these same problems due to the emphasis on performance indicators in Bill 88? The first answer to that question lies with the Minister of Education. Thus far schools have been told to set performance targets. This, in and of itself, could be a positive exercise as all schools should be setting goals for improvement. The problems will arise when consequences and incentives are tied to these targets. Though Bill 88 contains provisions for MELS to take “corrective measures”, the government has not yet indicated what form such measures would take. Should the Minister choose to follow the American model of tying consequences and financial incentives to standardized test scores, we can certainly expect some of the same disastrous results.
The second answer lies with voters. Mr. Legault has openly advocated for a set of education policies for Quebec which are eerily similar to those of NCLB. Should he build a new political party that receives the support of Quebec voters, we can certainly expect to see the acceleration of these policies in Quebec.
Rather than following the Americans down this disastrous path, Quebecers should be demanding that their politicians look at what is known to actually work. Making the necessary reinvestments to lower class size, repairing crumbling infrastructure, and improving technology would be a start. Providing teachers with the pay and working conditions of real professionals would represent another major step in the right direction. It is society itself that pays for failing to attract and retain the best and the brightest to the teaching profession. It is not by punishing teachers that a country’s education system improves the performance of its students. This is illustrated by both the failure of the US model and the fact that the countries with the best results in international comparisons are consistently those such as Finland whose teachers are unionized, well-paid, and enjoy an enormous degree of professional autonomy.
As a recently published book called The Spirit Level points out, perhaps the most important thing citizens can demand of their politicians, in order to improve not only educational outcomes but also a whole variety of other outcomes related to health and general quality of life is to reduce the overall amount of economic inequality in society. In the US, teachers in impoverished neighbourhoods have been berated by politicians with the mantra “no excuses”. It is time citizens throughout North America turn this mantra back on the politicians with respect to the task of revitalizing public services and reducing inequality.