Punitive Federal Policy
History... How Did Test-and-Punish Come to Dominate U.S. Public Education?
How has our nation's federal policy in public education evolved to create today's reality that political leaders in both major parties relentlessly pursue school reform dominated by a business-accountability strategy?
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush launched a movement based on standards, assessments, and accountability by convening an education summit of the nation’s governors, chaired by then Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, to agree on national education goals. President Clinton continued these policies through the 1990s.
Then in 2001, President George Bush brought the test-based "Texas Miracle" to Washington, and Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), with a new name, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). With the passage of NCLB the federal government replaced the civil rights focus of the 1965 ESEA with business-accountability language and a philosophy of pressuring schools with an official set of academic standards to define what all children should know at every grade, classroom materials coordinated with the standards, standardized tests to measure whether children have learned what the standards prescribe, and punishments to pressure educators to bring every child to standard.
After President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. Department of Education pursued the very same philosophy by making a portion of the huge federal stimulus, intended to shore up the economy after the 2008 economic crisis, available to states for school reform. These programs required states to compete for billions of dollars through Race to the Top, Innovation Grants, and School Improvement Grants, but strings were attached. To qualify, states had to agree to adopt additional standards-based reforms prescribed by the U.S. Department of Education. States earned points:
- if their legislatures changed laws to tie teacher evaluation and pay to students’ test scores;
- if their legislatures rewrote laws to permit rapid growth in the number of charter schools; and
- if they promised to implement specified models for school “turnaround”—plans that included firing the principal and half the staff in so-called “failing” schools without hearings or individual evaluations, closing low scoring schools and moving the students elsewhere, and turning over low-scoring schools to charter management organizations or education management companies.
The No Child Left Behind waivers that the U.S. Department of Education has more recently begun offering require the same punitive reforms. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan’s policies continue to epitomize test-and-punish.
The standards movement has become the education policy of both political parties and all the recent Administrations—Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama.
Will Congress End Reign of NCLB by Reauthorizing Elementary and Secondary Education Act?
NEW March, 2013: Here are the UCC's 2013 succinct, updated talking points to help faithful advocates reflect on and speak to what needs to happen today in public school reform.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose most recent 2002 reauthorization is called the No Child Left Behind Act, was due for reauthorization in 2007. An overhaul of this law is needed when Congress reauthorizes ESEA, but Prospects Fade for Reauthorization of Federal Education Law.
School Closures Disproportionately Affect African American Students
May 23, 2013: The Rev. John Thomas, the UCC’s former General Minister and President and now a professor and administrator at the Chicago Theological Seminary, posts a moving commentary on the closure yesterday of fifty public schools in Chicago: No Act of God Caused Chicago Schools to Close.
May 22, 2013: Chicago closes 49 public schools, largest one-time closing in any school district.
April 2013: Check out this infographic and report from the Opportunity to Learn Campaign that display The Color of School Closures.
December 2012: Major report from Chicago: The Black and White of Education in Chicago's Public Schools: Class, Charters & Chaos.
April 3, 2013: In an in-depth report, Losing Track, Chicago-Catalyst reports, "After last year’s shut-down of four small elementary schools, most children didn’t land in better schools and the fate of 51 children is still unclear. With the district ready to close dozens more schools, anxiety is high that more children will fall through the cracks."
March 12, 2013: AFT's Randi Weingarten explains why she got arrested protesting school closures in Philadelphia.
March 9, 2013: March 9, 2013: NY Times explores school closure pain and controversy.
February 28, 2013: Closing so-called failing schools is one of the hallmarks of school reform as prescribed by programs like Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants. School closure has been a hallmark of reform in Chicago and New York City, where the New York Times describes the pending closure of a rather new, experimental school in Born as a Tribute but Faltering, a Bronx School Nears Its End.
October 16, 2012: Education Week reports on school closings—a key strategy promoted for states and school districts to qualify for federal School Improvement Grants, and NCLB waivers. School Shutdowns Trigger Growing Backlash. Community organizations in NYC, Washington, DC, Chicago, Newark, and Philadelphia have filed separate civil rights complaints to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights to protest closing public schools that are central community institutions.
Competitive Programs Replace Civil Rights Focus in Federal Policy
Programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants and the waivers from the most onerous consequences of No Child Left Behind are now the policy of the U.S. Department of Education. To qualify for these competitive funding programs, states have to agree to adopt additional standards-based reforms prescribed by the U.S. Department of Education.
By definition, competitions create winners and losers. Why does this matter? Consider the impact on the largest federal funding stream for public education, Title I. Title I was created in 1965 in the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act to provide federal aid for schools serving children in poverty. Although the Title I formula program is small relative to state and local funding, it is the federal government’s primary tool for equalizing educational opportunity as a civil right for every child. No Child Left Behind has never fully funded the Title I formula, but today the federal government has frozen funding for the Title I formula and makes Title I funds competitively available for states and school districts that win Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants. The trend toward competitive grants has increased the role of grant writers and consultants, but in many places children who qualify for federally funded services because they are poor have lost their services when their state did not win a Race to the Top or other federal competitive grant.
Read about the transformation of Title I into a competition in a January 7, 2013, Witness for Justice column: A System Where Every Poor Child Is a Winner.
News About Federal Competitive Programs
- UCC web page: Charter Schools and Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) Are a Form of Privatization.
- May 6, 2013: New York City school reform under Mayor Bloomberg has defined corporatized, test-and-punish school policy. Diane Ravitch and Leonie Haimson pubished a scathing critique in The Nation, The Education of Michael Bloomberg.
- April 28, 2013: Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, Obama's Big Second-Term Education Problem.
- February 19, 2013: A Congressionally appointed Equity and Excellence Commission that has been meeting for two years released its report, For Each and Every Child. Acknowledging that test-based accountability has not sufficiently improved public schools in America’s poorest communities, members of the Commission declare that our society must address what is a deplorable 22 percent child poverty rate, highest in the industrialized world. The report emphasizes the responsibility of governments at all levels—federal, state, and local—to ensure that children in America’s poorest communities are well served by quality, well-funded, well-staffed public schools. The UCC Justice & Witness Ministries presented testimony to the Commission because unequal access to education is among our nation’s deepest injustices.
- February 15, 2013: Here is a ground breaking expose from Reuters on use of selection screens in a number of charter schools in locations across the United States. While charter schools must hold lotteries if there are more applicants than spaces, many of these schools are actually adding entry requirements to determine which children can enter the lottery. A must read for those concerned that public school reform today fails to serve the most vulnerable children.
- February 2013: Diane Ravitch writes for the NY Review of Books on the problems with Race to the Top and other federal education policies that demand teachers be judged by students' standardized test scores---Holding Education Hostage.
- Check out this report from New York's Alliance for Quality Education, New York State Competitive Grants: Creating a System of Education Winners and Losers.
Grassroots Reject Standardized Testing
May 15, 2013: Victory in Seattle as Teachers Win Battle in Standardized Test Boycott
April 23, 2013: Anthony Cody posts teacher's insider view on How Testing Impacts a School for the Deaf.
April 11, 2013: Los Angeles Times editorial page warns Gates Foundation funds have supported too much reliance on testing before reliance on testing itself was well-tested.
Here is the latest news about cheating allegations and scandals: Standardized Testing Pressure Has Led to Cheating Scandals.
Sign on to a statement calling on federal and state policymakers to reduce standardized testing in public schools. The United Church of Christ Justice & Witness Ministries is one of this effort’s sponsors, that also include Advancement Project, Asian American Legal Defense and Education fund; FairTest; Forum for Education and Democracy; NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; National Education Association, and Parents Across America, along with a number of statewide organizations and educators Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier. Add your name as an individual signer. Your organization may also sign on.
Here is our related Witness for Justice column, Too Much Test-and-Punish.
Key Resources from Our Partners
The National Council of Churches has released a series of short video pieces, An Alternative Vision for Public Education , created with leadership by UCC Justice & Witness Ministries, as discussion starters in congregations. Each six-seven minute film features a short introduction by Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, the Council's General Secretaryr, followed by a focused conversation by education historian, Diane Ravitch—education historian, and Dr. John Jackson—civil rights attorney and equal opportunity advocate. The films are: Educational Opportunity for All, Public Schools and the Common Good , Public Schools, Part of the Community or Marketplace?, and Supporting Our Teachers. Here they are posted together along with a study guide produced by the Council's Committee on Public Education and Literacy.
The Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA), a 154 member alliance of which the UCC's Justice & Witness Ministries is a member, released a statement, All Children Deserve the Opportunity to Learn, which calls on Congress to work with states to remedy pervasive disparities in school conditions and resources instead of merely focusing the policy conversation about test score outcomes. FEA calls on Congress to recognize that closing opportunity gaps is key to closing achievement gaps.
The Governing Board of the National Council of Churches says federal public education policy has gone astray. The 69 member Governing Board of the National Council of Churches on May 18, 2010, unanimously adopted a pastoral letter, "An Alternative Vision for Public Education," that speaks to today’s conversation about public schools, a conversation which has lately veered into attacking public education and scapegoating public school educators. The statement prayerfully asks Congress to address the substantive matters that need to be overhauled when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is reauthorized. It explores serious issues in the Race to the Top competition including incentives to charterize and privatize public schools, incentives to tie teacher evaluations to students' test scores, and radical and untested turnaround plans like firing the principal and at least half of the staff or closing the school and moving children elsewhere.
Important Justice & Witness Ministries Resources Address the ESEA Reauthorization
- 2013 Message on Public Education, "The Public Purpose of Public Education," examines examines how federal policy in public education emphasizes privatization instead of improving public schools.
- 2012 Message on Public Education, "Why the Conventional Wisdom on School Reform is Wrong and Why the Church Should Care," is intended to help members of our congregations explore pressing concerns for public education in the United States in the coming year.
- 2011 Message on Public Education: If you are wondering how public schools are being affected by programs like Race to the Top and the other huge competitive federal stimulus programs, or if you are wondering about what we still need to do to protest the test and punish impact of the lingering No Child Left Behind Act, the reflection, "New Federal Public Education Policies Undermine Justice, Eliminate Democracy, and Shatter Community," is written to address your questions and connect the dots.
- The 2010 Message on Public Education explores the politically charged issue of immigration as it affects public schools and children who are new to our country, their communities, and their schools. NCLB contains major problems for English Language learners.
- The 2009 Message on Public Education, lifts up the importance of schools to form each whole child, created in the image of God, in contrast to the test-and-punish philosophy of the federal education law, No Child Left Behind, that has dangerously narrowed the curriculum in schools serving America's poorest children.
- The 2008 Message on Public Education examines public education as a matter of faith and the common good.
- The 2006 Message on Public Education reflects on NCLB as an attack on public school teachers. The 2005 Message on Public Education examines how the NCLB Act works and how those mechanisms are unjust. These are tabloid-sized documents.
- If you would like additional printed copies for discussion in your congregation, please contact Jan Resseger (216-736-3711) or firstname.lastname@example.org.