Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Creating New Inequalities: Contradictions of Reform

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Creating New Inequalities: Contradictions of Reform

Article excerpt

High-stakes state-mandated standardization is rapidly spreading throughout the U.S. Ms. McNeil examines the widely emulated accountability system in Texas and concludes that it has adverse effects on teaching and learning, stifles democratic discourse, and perpetuates inequities for minority students.

THE ENDURING legacy of Ross Perot's school reforms in Texas is not merely the strengthening of bureaucratic controls at the expense of teaching and learning. It is also the legitimating of a language of accountability as the governing principle in public schools. Incipient in the Perot reforms was the shifting of control over public schooling away from 'the public' and away from the profession - and toward business-controlled management accountability systems. These systems use children's scores on standardized tests to measure the quality of the performance of teachers and principals, and they even use a school's aggregate student scores as data for the comparative "ratings" of schools.

There have been several iterations of state testing and test-driven curricula implemented since the reforms first begun under the Perot legislation in Texas in the mid-1980s. The current Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) is rarely referred to by its full name. It is known by its advocates in the state government and among the state's business leaders as 'the Texas Accountability System,' the reform that has 'shaped up' schools. It is touted as the system that holds 'teachers and principals accountable.' In many schools, tenure for principals has been replaced by "performance contracts," with "performance" measured by a single indicator - the aggregation of student TAAS scores in the school. Publicity about the 'texas Accountability System,' centered on rising test scores, has generated copycat legislation in a number of states, where standardized testing of students is increasingly being used as the central mechanism for decisions about student learning, teacher and administrator practice, and even whole-school quality.1

Teachers know well that most reforms have a short life and that 'this too shall pass.' The specific rules and prescriptions enacted under the Perot reforms did, indeed, pass. But the institutionalizing of a shift in the locus of control over curriculum, teaching, and assessment, which began with the legislated reforms of the 1980s, has more than persisted.

As a result, a very narrow set of numerical indicators (student scores on statewide tests) has become the only language of currency in education policy in the state. Principals report that there can be little discussion of children's development, of cultural relevance, of children's contributions to classroom knowledge and interactions, or of those engaging sidebar experiences at the margins of the official curriculum where children often do their best learning. According to urban principals, many have supervisors who tell them quite pointedly, "Don't talk to me about anything else until the TAAS scores start to go up."

Teachers also report that the margins - those spaces where even in highly prescriptive school settings they have always been able to "really teach" - are shrinking as the accountability system becomes increasingly stringent, with teacher and principal pay tied to student scores. Under the Perot reforms, teachers were still sometimes able to juggle the official, prescribed, and tested curriculum with what they wanted their students to learn.2 Even if they had to teach two contradictory lessons in order to ensure that students encountered the "real" information (as well as the test-based facts), many teachers managed to do so in order that their students did not lose out on a chance for a real education. Under TAAS, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for authentic teaching.

A continued legacy, then, of the Perot reforms is that the testing of students increasingly drives curriculum and compromises both teaching and the role of students in learning. …

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