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What Bernie Sanders Doesn't Get About School Reform

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently disparaged two decades of public school reform, in particular the role of standardized testing, in a USA Today op-ed. FutureEd Director Thomas Toch analyzes Sanders’ commentary. 

 By Bernie Sanders

Across the country, teachers, parents and students are pushing back against an ineffective and punitive standardized tests regime. I stand with them.

Wednesday marks 18 years since the signing into law of No Child Left Behind, one of the worst pieces of legislation in our nation’s history.

Toch: The law was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in response to the failure of many states and school districts to respond to national demands for higher educational standards and stronger results, especially among students of color, English language learners, and other traditionally underserved student populations.

In December 2001, I voted against NCLB because it was as clear to me then, as it is now, that so-called school choice and high-stakes standardized testing would not improve our schools or enhance our children’s ability to learn.

NCLB permitted students in low-performing schools to transfer to higher achieving public schools. In reality, studies found, such students had few options, since there weren’t many stronger school district options within a reasonable commuting distance—a reality that helped give rise to publicly funded but independently operated charter schools.

By demanding that every student be taught to the same high standards and requiring that states measure schools’ performance against that expectation—including reporting results in a way that provided a window into how schools were doing with African American, Latinx, English learners, low-income students and other discrete groups of students—the law improved disadvantaged students’ prospects because educators would be accountable for educating them effectively. Though Sanders doesn’t mention it, the law also created an infrastructure for improving failing schools.

NCLB had a fundamental flaw. The law required states to sanction low-performing schools. But it allowed state policymakers to mandate watered-down tests and to lower passing grades as a way of reducing the number of low-rated schools and the political backlash high failure rates would produce, undermining the law’s efforts to elevate standards.

But the law introduced expectations of transparency and accountability into public education that hadn't existed previously and that are fundamental to improving the performance of a government bureaucracy that had traditionally failed to meaningfully educate large swaths of the nation’s students. It is transparency and accountability, rather than tests per se, that Senator Sanders’ allies in the nation’s teacher unions dislike—and that’s the real reason why Sanders attacks standardized testing, to gain union support in the democratic primaries.

We do not need an education system in which kids are simply taught to take tests.

This, of course, is a Trumpian misrepresentation of reality. Studies have found that students spend only about 2 percent of instructional time on mandated testing. And teaching to tests can be beneficial if tests require students to exhibit valuable knowledge and skills. The Advanced Placement tests and the United Kingdom’s A-Level exams are examples of tests that are designed to measure students’ grasp of a set curriculum. Teachers teach to the tests intentionally. Ironically, surveys of students find that they’re much less concerned about tests than Senator Sanders. They see them as a legitimate part of the educational system.

We need a system in which kids learn and grow in a holistic manner.

Yes, we want to teach students a rich curriculum. We want to them to engage with a range of ideas and develop a variety of academic skills. Knowing how well schools are delivering on those goals is important to achieving them. That's the role of effective assessments. Yes, we want tests that measure deeper learning rather than superficial skills. And we want tests that inform instruction more effectively than many have. But building better tests is very different than doing away with testing.

Under NCLB, standardized tests were utilized to hold public schools and teachers “accountable” for student outcomes. As a result, some schools that underperformed were closed and their teachers and unions blamed.

It’s not clear why closing failing schools is problematic, if what's best for students is the priority. While Sanders is playing to teacher unions here, it’s worth noting that the nation’s teacher unions have for the most part battled school reform since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983. Albert Shanker, the founder of the modern teacher union movement and long the president of the American Federation of Teachers, recognized early in the reform era the nation’s frustration with its public schools and sought to lead his members to higher ground. He told a union convention in 1985 that, “We don’t have the right to be called professionals—and we will never convince the public that we are—unless we are prepared honestly to decide what constitutes competence in our profession and what constitutes incompetence and apply those definitions to ourselves and our colleagues.” As Sanders’ union-inspired opposition to standards and accountability makes clear, Shanker wasn’t successful.

The long-term effects of this approach have been disastrous. NCLB perpetuated the myth of public schools and teachers as failing, which opened the door for the spread of school voucher programs and charter schools that we have today.

The Senator’s suggestion that NCLB led to the expansion of vouchers and charter schools is ridiculous. The federally funded Nation at Risk report and other early 1980s assessments of the public education system made clear that the nation’s schools were failing many students, especially low-income students and black and brown students. A 1989 education summit between then-President George H.W. Bush and the nation’s governors in Charlottesville, Va., produced an unprecedented endorsement of voluntary national education standards—based on a bipartisan consensus that public schools hadn’t responded to the nation’s demands to improve their performance. The nation’s first charter school law was approved in Minnesota two years later, the first of many expressions of the nation’s frustration with traditional school districts. NCLB, signed into law in 2002, a decade after the opening of the nation's first charter school, was also a result of policymakers’ frustration with public education’s performance. 

Some of these charter schools are operated by for-profits; many of them are nonunion and are not publicly accountable.

Charters schools are publicly funded and operate under contract with state-approved authorizing agencies, so they are publicly accountable. Charter schools have improved the educational trajectories of tens of thousands of students. Still, too many charters educate students badly and some authorizers take their work far more seriously than others, while some charter school operators, particularly for-profit operators of on-line charter schools, have worked hard to free themselves from public oversight. They are bad actors and they need to be regulated more rigorously or closed, steps that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is strongly opposed to taking, thereby playing into the hands of charter school critics like Senator Sanders. About 12 percent of the nation’s roughly 7,000 charter schools are unionized. Charters were conceived to operate beyond the reach of school district regulations and union contracts to give them greater freedom over staffing, curriculum, and instruction. The goal should be to close low-performing charters (and low-performing traditional public schools) and expand those that are educating students effectively.

NCLB also undermined the profession of teaching and hurt our students.
It’s not clear how NCLB’s requirement that states set standards, measure schools’ performance against them, and improve schools that founder would hurt students, especially the millions of low-income students and students of color whom educators have long neglected. The law may not have produced dramatic upturns in achievement nationally. But to suggest that it hurt students is far-fetched.

Now, educators are routinely forced to teach to the test rather than encouraged to draw on their expertise.

Policymakers have moved over the years to centralize standards (culminating in four dozen states initially endorsing the Common Core State Standards) because local educators for years failed to deliver the results that students deserve. The notion that students would thrive if only we tapped into every teacher’s latent expertise, freeing them to do whatever they want in the classroom, is a fantastically naïve notion of the conditions in the nation’s public schools today, and it ignores teachers' desire, expressed repeatedly in surveys, for support with curriculum and instruction.  Students spend hours each year taking tests, and that doesn't include the hours it takes to prepare for them. This burden of testing has contributed to teacher burnout and caused levels of stress and anxiety among students to apparently surge.

Again, surveys of students suggest otherwise. In fact, educators and researchers alike suggest that many students don’t take standardized testing seriously enough, at times reducing the reliability of the results.

Joys of teaching and joys of learning

Recently, I met a special education teacher in South Carolina who left the profession after having to administer a standardized test to one of her students with significant disabilities. The teacher described the experience as torture, and she told me that with the abysmal pay and lack of professional respect, it was the last straw.

Sadly, tens of thousands of highly qualified teachers across the country are similarly fed up and have no other option but to leave for other jobs.

High-stakes testing has also robbed many students of a holistic educational experience and the joys of learning. Subjects not included in federal and state testing mandates, such as art and music, have been cut despite the wealth of evidence that they increase academic performance and social-emotional well-being.

This happened in some places. But it’s not as widespread as Sanders and others suggest. And it’s not the fault of the tests themselves that educators sacrifice art and music in the face of reading and math tests. As Sanders says, art and music both broaden students’ learning and can support reading and math, if taught effectively. At the same time, it’s not necessarily bad to focus students on the core subjects of math and reading when they’re struggling with foundational skills, especially in elementary grades.

These cuts have not been distributed equally; students of color have seen the sharpest drops in arts education.

The most serious flaw of high-stakes testing, however, is that it ignores the real problems facing our teachers and students: social inequality and underinvestment in our schools.

There are serious funding inequities from state to state, school district to school district, school to school, and even classroom to classroom that we need to address. But to suggest as Sanders does that resources are the singular source of low performance in public education today is wishful thinking. 

A path to a better education system

My Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education addresses these fundamental problems by increasing teacher pay to start at $60,000 a year, empowering teachers to craft thoughtful assessments that consider all aspects of a student’s academic progress,

If Sanders wants to fully address the teacher compensation challenge, he should call for teacher pension reform because 70 cents of every taxpayer dollar spent on teachers goes to state pension systems that eventually support only half the nation’s teachers. And he should press states and school districts to end the wasteful practice of tying teacher pay raises to taking graduate courses in education, coursework that rarely improves teaching, that teachers mostly don’t like, and that costs taxpayers billions of dollars a year that could otherwise go directly into teachers pockets or be used to build school-based professional development systems that teachers do value.

and putting a moratorium on charter schools and the federal charter school program until they can be made publicly accountable.

Again, charters are publicly accountable. But, yes, oversight needs to be more rigorous in some states. We should look to the nation’s best charter authorizers for ways to strengthen charter accountability (while not stepping over the fine line between accountability and autonomy). But Sander’s call for greater charter accountability is ironic, given that he wants to effectively end the standardized testing that policymakers use to gauge the performance of both charters and traditional public schools.

My plan triples Title I funding, which provides assistance for schools with high percentages of children from low-income families, and will have the federal government fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at 50%.

Increasing federal funding without targeting the money more effectively wouldn’t be a great investment. 

My plan also provides year-round, free universal school meals. One of the gross injustices of high-stakes standardized testing is that it does not account for the impact of poverty and wrongly treats all children as if they enter the education system on equal footing. We know that is not the case. In a wealthy nation such as ours, no child should ever go hungry, and we should have the best public schools and teachers in the world.

Fortunately, educators, parents and students across the country agree. From West Virginia to California, teachers have been striking to demand real investment in their schools, instead of tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. In some cities, teachers have refused to administer tests that do not improve learning, and increasing numbers of parents and students are opting out of standardized tests and demanding more effective ways of assessing student performance.

While politicians like Sanders continue to stoke anti-testing sentiment for political gain, the opt-out movement has subsided, contrary to Sanders' claim. The irony of that movement, which in some instances was funded by teacher unions, is that it was largely a white, suburban phenomenon, led by affluent parents who didn’t sense value in testing their students. Far fewer low-income students and students of color were opting out of testing because the value of shining light on school performance was a lot greater to them. It’s ironic that Sanders says on the one hand he’s a progressive fighting for the disadvantaged, but then attacks testing, a means of ensuring that disadvantaged students are getting a high-quality education.

We must build on this grassroots movement. If our children are to succeed in the 21st century economy, we need to recognize that there are no shortcuts around real investment in public education. Even the best educational assessments are of limited use if schools are underfunded, our teachers are disrespected, and millions of students and their families are living paycheck to paycheck.

The best way to respect teachers is to transform public school teaching into a performance-based profession, as Al Shanker argued, a profession with meaningful standards that rewards excellence rather than treats every teacher, regardless of their performance, the same.

As president, I will address these challenges by making transformative investments that eliminate one-size-fits-all solutions and put our students, our teachers and our public schools first.

Bernie Sanders is an independent senator from Vermont and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. Sanders’ piece originally ran in USA Today on January 8, 2020 under the headline,“Bernie Sanders: America must end high-stakes testing, finally invest in public education.”

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