The warping of public education

By Robert C. Koehler, Chicago Tribune, April 5, 2013

Are the bad ideas dead yet? You know, the ones that have been hollowing out the country’s soul for the last 30 years.

In Atlanta, they just indicted 35 teachers, principals and administrators, including a former superintendent, who are accused of routinely altering their students’ standardized test results — and in all likelihood this massive fraud is an aberration only because the alleged cheaters got caught.

Everything is at stake in these tests, so perhaps it’s dawning on us that fraud — by adults — is inevitable, but there’s a bigger issue here that continues to escape public outrage: The tests are stupid. They measure virtually nothing that matters, but monopolize the classroom politically. Teachers, under enormous pressure, are forced to teach to the tests rather than, you know, teach critical thinking or creative expression; and education is reduced to something rote, linear and boring.

Standardized testing is part of the era of backlash the Reagan presidency ushered in, which has stopped progressive thinking in its political tracks. As our social problems have grown more complex over the last three decades, we’ve met them with increasingly simplistic solutions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of public education, which has become the plaything of political fanatics.

Indeed, high-stakes testing, in tandem with “zero tolerance,” militarized security and sadistic underfunding, has succeeded in warping public education beyond recognition, especially in low-income, zero-political-clout neighborhoods. And the result is kids in prison, kids on the streets, kids with no future.

And the result of that is violent urban neighborhoods. There is an audacious initiative by Logan Square residents to end violence in their community in 10 years. Step one: Begin addressing the glaring social wound of “disconnected youth,” that is, young people — especially young people of color — who are neither in school nor have a job.

“Zero tolerance discipline and high-stakes testing policies have similar philosophical underpinnings and similar destructive results,” according to fairtest.org. “Both stem from a 1980s movement to impose more punitive policies in both criminal justice and public education. Together, they have helped turn schools into hostile environments for many students. The end result is a ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ in which large numbers of students are pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Too many young people end up in prison, at a cost many times greater than that of a good education. It’s a senseless waste of resources and human potential, damaging to both individuals and society.”

And an extraordinary statement from an organization called Youth of Color makes this observation personal, giving resonance to a national week of action to end the school-to-prison pipeline and demilitarize school security:

“Too many of us have been shot and shot at. We have buried our friends and our family members. Nearly all of us have been to more funerals than graduations. No one wants the violence to stop more than we do.”

The statement continues: “We have been handcuffed and humiliated in front of other students and staff for ‘offenses’ as small as being late to school; detained in police interrogation rooms at our school; expelled from school for carrying nail clippers, markers or baseball caps; and arrested — even in elementary schools — for fights that used to be solved in the principal’s office. … These policies haven’t protected us, helped us to graduate or taught us anything about preventing violence. They have taught us to fear a badge, to hate school and to give up on our education.”

The time has come to declare an end to this entire era — of militarized racism, violent solutions to everything, the ever-widening schism between “us” and “them.” Any politician who kowtows to this simplistic agenda, or “bargains” with it, has made himself or herself irrelevant to a sustainable and healthy future, and should be declared thus.

We have to undo the damage that has turned public education into a crisis. That means dumping the pretend science of high-stakes testing and valuing rather than criminalizing students of color; it also means moving from punishment- to healing-based systems of maintaining order, taking police and armed security guards out of the hallways and learning to value and respect young people more than we value metal detectors and surveillance cameras.

Before we can do anything else, we have to get our future out of the pipeline.

Tribune Media Services

Robert C. Koehler is a Chicago-based syndicated columnist. He is the author of “Courage Grows Strong at the Wound.”

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