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 make business-accountability reform the priority of leaders of both major political parties? And how has it happened that the real impact of so much of our federal education policy is felt locally?  It is no accident that school decisions in NYC and Chicago and Philadelphia and Tampa and Los Angeles and Denver and Washington, D.C. and New Orleans and Detroit look alike—the school closures—students' test scores being used to evaluate teachers—and the charters springing up from place to place.

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.

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