Photo by Karan Jain/Flickr
Imagine working in a place where rats regularly skitter across the floor. Where mold climbs the walls like ivy, and floors buckle, soaked and rotted after frequent exposure to rain and snow. Picture exposed wires hanging from cracked ceilings that let water in, while you shiver under your jacket in the winter, or sweat in the sweltering heat of late spring and early fall.
If you’re like most adults reading this, and you don’t teach in a neglected inner city or rural school, it’s probably fairly difficult to imagine. After all, if your workplace had even one of these problems, your company would likely fix the issue right away in order to avoid potential conflict with OSHA or any of a number of local, state, and federal regulations.
Yet children in many places are often forced to accept conditions most adults would never be expected to tolerate.
That was what weighed on my mind last week, as state testing season revived controversies over the movement to opt out of those tests. After years of increasingly successful organizing against test-and-punish education “reform” as widespread dissatisfaction with testing has led to increasing numbers of families declining the tests, proponents of high-stakes testing have increasingly leaned on one particular argument in an attempt to shut down opposition: the idea that we need high-stakes testing to fight for equity between whiter, wealthier students and students of color/students living in poverty.
This argument has never made sense to me.
As I tweeted last week, while I can see how people may believe that standardized tests might be able to tell them something about students’ academic progress, the idea that one needs these tests to identify inequities in education absolutely baffles me.
The differences in learning conditions for rich versus poor students, and in majority-white schools versus schools where the majority of students are of color, are as stark as stark comes. In privileged communities, students attend beautiful, healthy schools with diverse curricular offerings, up-to-date materials and technology, nurses, counselors, librarians and support staff to bolster the work of classroom teachers. In low-income communities and many communities of color, students are offered the exact opposite. And this has long been the case.
That’s why, well before high-stakes testing became an issue in its own right, parents and students in segregated, neglected schools sounded the alarm over the deplorable conditions their children were forced to contend with on a daily basis. For decades now, these communities have organized, walked out, sat in, and sued over untenable teaching and learning conditions.
Yet despite this activism, public officials in many places continue to allow conditions in these schools to deteriorate. As the conservative backlash against civil rights victories gained steam from the Reagan Administration onward, Republicans (and a shameful number of corporate Democrats) at all levels of government have successfully undermined or outright dismantled War on Poverty-era interventions and court rulings, effectively stalling the progress previous advocates and officials made toward closing opportunity gaps.
Yet to hear some pro-privatization advocates tell it, there was no indication that anything was amiss until the 2001 passing of the No Child Left Behind Act. If we're to believe them, the savage inequalities that were obvious to communities fighting underfunding and segregation for decades prior, were apparently invisible to them until they saw the test scores. How on earth is that possible? How can anyone justify leaving students to languish in rotting, understaffed buildings—regardless of the test scores that come out of those spaces?
By claiming that we need test scores to identify and address inequities in education, the powers that be are effectively admitting to something gravely immoral: that they have so thoroughly ignored these communities that they don't know what anyone just driving past these buildings can see. If they listened to communities of color and cared about what they have to say, they wouldn’t claim to need test numbers to act. You don’t need a test to see a dilapidated building, or missing curricular programs and personnel.
(It’s worth noting, too, that despite almost three decades of increased testing, the most consistent remedy most high-stakes testing proponents have ever campaigned for in response to low scores is privatization. Not upgrades in physical plants, or rehiring previously-laid off nurses, counselors, arts and PE teachers, or revitalized library and media centers; just closures and charter conversions. One could be forgiven for wondering why they failed to notice the problem until they discovered how they and their friends could profit from a solution.)
For all the talk of an educational crisis in America’s schools, there seems to be far more evidence of a moral crisis. That so many with the power to do something about this problem claim they need test score evidence that these inequities hurt students—as though the evidence of our own eyes isn’t enough—speaks to a serious lack of care for our most vulnerable students.
So what can we do about this? How can we revive the public commitment to the moral imperative of providing equitable conditions for all children?
While some chatter around the adoption of the Every Student Succeeds Act focused on things like an “Opportunity Dashboard” versus the traditional raft of high-stakes tests, we still haven’t had a full conversation about how glaring inequities in school conditions violate students’ human and civil rights, regardless of whether those conditions are reflected in their test scores. As news of widespread tax evasion makes headlines again, and as we continue talking about systemic oppression and institutional racism and sexism, we need to re-engage our leaders in a serious conversation about fixing this problem.
It's worth recognizing, too, that while they are in the minority, there are some public officials who have taken up the cause of creating a moral budget. I just had the opportunity to hear directly from two leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Reps. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Mark Pocan (D-WI), who directly address systemic inequity in the CPC’s People's Budget.
When I asked about how the People’s Budget addresses decrepit buildings, as well as inequality in educational opportunity, the representatives referenced a two-pronged approach. First, as Rep. Ellison noted, we have to counter right-wing attacks on our infrastructure. “When we talk about $1trillion investment to repair roads, bridges, and restore crumbling infrastructure, schools are part of infrastructure. You may recall, when we did...the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, there was a proposal to do major investment in schools. And in order to get a deal, we needed a few Senate Republicans to come on over. They said, ‘Cut that out, and do tax cuts [for the wealthy].’”
Representative Pocan added the second prong, investing in universally available, quality education from preschool through college. “[In our budget] we have universal pre-K. We fully fund K-12 education. We have a debt-free college proposal that I'm especially proud of...where students [would] graduate with zero debt.”
They explained that these and other proposals would be paid for by levying a financial transactions tax, cracking down on corporate leaders gaming the tax system and hiding money overseas, and adding new tax brackets for the very wealthy to ensure they pay their fair share. They also discussed their support for raising the minimum wage and removing barriers to collective bargaining, two efforts that would simultaneously improve the pay of ordinary workers and increase the amount of money those workers pay into the local, state, and federal tax base that supports public programs like education.
As elected officials vie for our votes this year, we should keep these kinds of proposals in mind. While the People's Budget probably won't be passed intact, progressive legislators say they plan to introduce legislation for individual parts of it throughout the session. Let's make a point of pushing them to prioritize education and infrastructure spending. Further, let's publicize who is pushing to fix glaring inequity in education because it's the right thing to do, and who is claiming that they need to see test scores before they do anything at all.
Sabrina Joy Stevens is the Midatlantic Regional Fellow and a mother, writer, education advocate, and former teacher based in Washington, DC. She is a founding member of EduColor, a collective that works to elevate the voices of people of color in the education policy dialogue. Her insight on various educational and progressive issues has been featured in various media outlets, including MSNBC, TIME.com, The Hill, GOOD Magazine, Education Week, The American Prospect, and The Answer Sheet at The Washington Post, among others.