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Fair Public Schools?

Educators who oppose standardized testing and vouchers claim to have the best interests of students at heart but it is a claim worth examining.

“The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has promoted high-stakes testing for school accountability,” Monty Neill of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing writes. “Its claim was that without ‘accountability,’ the public will abandon public education, and that the use of standards and tests would lead to educational improvement.”

“This was never a good argument, though it appeared to address the justifiable anger directed by racial minorities and low-income communities against second-class educational opportunities.” Fair Test, which Neill works for, is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Neill penned his thoughts in a letter to the editor of Rethinking Schools magazine.

“The extremist advocacy group, the National Center of Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), delivers monthly vituperatives to its membership attacking the validity and fairness of the SAT,” Richard P. Phelps writes in his book, Kill the Messenger: The War on Standardized Testing. “Indeed, one of its primary sustaining causes is to convince colleges to quit using the SAT in their admissions decisions and to celebrate those that do.”

“If you read only FairTest’s literature, you might believe that its campaign against the SAT has been very successful.” Here’s one way of gauging its success: In a recent survey, the Pew Charitable Trust found that one-fifth of students in 4-year colleges and one-third of students in 2-year colleges “have only basic or below basic quantitative literacy skills,” according to The Education Reporter.

“If high stakes are attached to any simple set of measures, harmful consequences will ensue,” Neill warns. “The less power a person or group has, the more those consequences will affect them.”

“There are people who will distort and misuse even well-intentioned efforts to assess and evaluate—those who oppose public education, think schooling based on rote instruction and standardized testing is good enough for poor kids, or those who think schools alone can solve poverty and teachers should be blamed when that does not happen.”

Should they? Just ask Larry Hoffman of Madison, Wisconsin. “I haven’t taught since 1998, but I hope to return to the classroom,” Hoffman writes in another letter to Rethinking Schools. “When I was teaching 5th grade in the Milwaukee Public Schools, a teacher from another classroom came into mine and proudly announced that everyone in my class would receive a goody bag of grooming and personal hygiene products (from Procter & Gamble, etc.)”

“I interrupted, stating that it was just a trick to get us to buy more of their products, and we wouldn’t take part,” Hoffman recounts. “Well, you can imagine the immediate flak I got from the kids, who all came from low- and lower-middle income homes—and the damage I had done to my anti-commercialism cause for the remainder of the school year.”

“Since then, I’ve often thought about that situation, wondering how I would do things differently from the very beginning of the year.” So what did Larry learn from the experience? As it turns out, not much.

“As I recall, I hid the goods and never did hand them out,” Hoffman remembers. “One positive thing that came of the incident was my increased self-esteem as I cautioned the principal that I would go to the union if he compelled me to distribute the stuff.”

Imagine. And Milwaukee is the birthplace of the voucher movement in which the poor demanded the right to take their children out of failing public schools and put them in more successful private ones that give frequent tests. Could they have been trying to get away from teachers like Larry and their unions?

One of our readers offered expert opinion on the role that teacher unions play in bringing about educational progress. “I am a recently retired public school teacher with over 30 years experience (including 4 as a principal) who formerly was an aggressive member (picket captain during West Virginia’s only teacher strike) of the NEA/AFT for over 20 years and I strongly believe there is no hope for public education as long as teacher unions maintain power,” Karl Priest writes. “I left the union for my last ten, or so, years.”

“I also strongly believe the teacher unions are contributing to the ruination of the United States of America.”

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.