Today, seeing Facebook posts of Christa McAuliffe's quote "I touch the future; I teach" and President Ronald Reagan's speech in response to the tragedy, I have some very complicated thoughts. Most of these thoughts are about unintended consequences.
I don't believe that Reagan decided that a teacher should be the first American civilian sent into space specifically because he knew that the Challenger would blow up after lift-off. He wasn't sending a message to unionized teachers across the nation, warning them, "You'd better shape up & get with the program, or this is what will happen to you and your precious free public schools." But given Reagan's antipathy toward unions, he may as well have.
Christa McAuliffe's death, along with the other six, was an unintended consequence of America's Cold-War space hubris. It is also deeply symbolic of what policy-makers of both major parties, at both state and federal levels, have done to public education.
While I have little to no love for Poppy or Dubya, perhaps their motivation in trying to fix education was not so venal. Perhaps they saw public schools in the US as a morass of underachievement and wanted to make education better. Perhaps they thought that school choice of whatever variety, and holding teachers accountable for students' progress or lack thereof, would benefit everybody.
Dubya followed the advice of Secretary of Education Rod Paige, whom he had recruited from Texas Southern University, and in his first year in the White House he pushed the No Child Left Behind Act through Congress. Sure, the act had noble goals. Did any Congressmember who voted for it foresee the clusterfuck that it would create? Did they lick their lips and rub their hands together, knowing that thousands of teachers would see their already meager pay decreased, their jobs threatened or eliminated, their professional prestige thrown in the dumpster, their creative methods crushed under the tank treads of standardization?
Recently at my job, I have fielded several calls from instructors and students in a course entitled Educational Research and Scholarly Writing, a masters-level course taught in UST's School of Education and Human Services. This semester, more than 300 teachers will be taking the course in about 30 sections of up to 12 students each.
SEHS is a major revenue generator at this university, teaching hundreds of graduate students each year. Most of these graduate students are full-time teachers or other educational professionals. Most of them, I'd venture to say, are in the program to get out of classroom teaching entirely and into counseling, administration, diagnostic work, or other professional pursuits. They value education, but not enough to keep putting up with what teachers endure on the job.
The course starts off with a bang, assigning an essay in response to an article (caution: possible paywall) that Diane Ravitch published in The Nation in 2010. Ravitch, who worked in Dubya's Education Department, was originally a proponent of NCLB and similar reforms, but no longer. Having seen its effects from the inside and out, she campaigns against it at every opportunity.
It didn't get a huge amount of press, but in December 2015, the NCLB era effectively ended with the passage and signing of the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) in reauthorizing the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). On its website, the nation's largest teachers' union, which Secretary Paige once called a "terrorist organization," celebrated this new law with ding-dong-the-nclb-is-dead glee.
But will ESSA be enough to undo the damage? What unintended consequences, positive or negative, will it have? Ravitch has some serious doubts, mostly because it retains the idolatry of standardized tests. Her main doubt has to do with the recent trend of students and their families opting out of standardized testing: It punishes states and districts that allow opt-outs.
From my reading, Ravitch is no radical. She advocates reforms implemented with buy-in from actual classroom teachers, even though it may be difficult for classroom teachers to achieve consensus on what works. She prefers that we take inspiration from what does work well, rather than throwing out the whole system and rebuilding it (which is unfeasible). But she is urging families to opt out of these tests that generally produce the opposite of their intended result:
No other nation in the world–at least no high-performing nation–tests every child every year. Annual testing was imposed on the nation by Congress in 2001 and signed into law as NCLB in 2002. We were told that annual testing meant that “no child would be left behind.” That didn’t happen. What we got instead was narrowing the curriculum, billions for the testing industry, cheating, and teaching to bad standardized tests.
The people who love high-stakes testing make sure that their own children attend schools like the University of Chicago Lab School (Arne Duncan, Rahm Emanuel) or Sidwell Friends (Barack Obama), where there is no high-stakes testing. The onerous testing of NCLB and the Race to the Top is not for their children, just yours.
Despite the failure of annual testing to fulfill the promise, Congress imposed it again. The more parents opt out, the sooner Congress will get the message that this policy is wrong.
Protect your children. Protect education. Cut off the money flow to Pearson and friends.
Opt out in 2016.