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Abbott, pioneering prevaricator

crowPoliticians should have as many words for lying as Inuits have for snow. To tell the truth in politics requires only the inverse of the courtroom oath: I promise to tell some of the truth at least some of the time, so help me Fox News. Now a right-wing political group has asked the Supreme Court to make lying in politics a First Amendment Right. And you thought nothing got done in Washington.

Politicians are already entitled to taxpayer-funded cars, junkets, pensions, and full-time salaries for part-time jobs. Now the Supreme Court is weighing whether politicians are entitled to their own truth as well. No wonder a recent Rasmussen poll measured a puny 6% approval rating for Congress.

There’s no crying in baseball, but it’s hard to imagine politics without lying. Denying a politician the pleasure of the dodge, the shade, the evasion, and the verbal wink would be like wanting a world with only one shade of blue. Still, giving political lies constitutional sanction would complete our journey from not being able to lie about chopping down the cherry tree to denying the tree was there in the first place.

Any politician can lie. I once had a client caught in a massage parlor of ill repute. He claimed he was there to interview a witness, admittedly without his pants. In the old days, that was a scandal. These days, that’s amateur hour.

We are at the dawn of a new age of political lie, the falsehood that unashamedly proclaims the ridiculous as self-evident. This next-level lie claims that the smoking gun was just having a cigarette if indeed the gun existed at all. Not just any politician can tell a lie of such towering ambition. Only the most accomplished of the next generation of political prevaricators can even attempt a feat of such daring and skill that it leaves us in gasping admiration.

That is how Texas Republican Greg Abbott makes me feel. In a state over-populated with politicians fluent in hooey, Abbott deserves special acclaim for what he recently did when he rolled out his education plan. It’s actually a privilege to be the one to tell you what he did. It’s that special.

Abbott, who is running for Texas Governor against Wendy Davis, opposes universal pre-K. Instead, he wants to improve early childhood education with what he calls “gold standard program” that will direct state funding to pre-K programs showing the greatest success.

Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 1.09.54 PMHe ran into a bit of a problem on page 21 of his plan that lists three ways to measure the effectiveness of a pre-K program: having the teacher observe, judging the student by his or her work, and “Direct Assessments, norm referenced standardized tests”.

Texas is where the Education Spring rebellion against high-stakes testing started. A grassroots group of angry mothers known officially as Texans Advocating for Meaningful Assessment and unofficially as Mothers Against Drunk Testing convinced the legislature to roll back the number of tests required to graduate high school from 15 to 5, and a recent poll found that 56% of Texans want to get rid of the rest of them. Making kids put down their crayons so they can take standardized tests plays as well in Texas as advocating the abolition of tackle football.

Despite clearly stating in his plan that he wanted “assessments at the beginning and end of the year” for pre-K students who don’t now take standardized tests, Abbott denied that he was advocating increased testing.

“Suggestions to the contrary are absurd,” said his spokesman, whose future in political lore should be secure for then claiming that the proposal that 4-year-olds take “norm referenced standardized tests” was “there for informational purposes only.”

It almost makes one weep with wonder. Claiming that one’s proposals exist without meaning or context brings us closer to a more perfect union. We truly live in the golden age of political deceit, thanks in part to pioneers such as Abbott. With humble respect, I bow down to my betters, and that’s the truth. You can believe me. I’m in politics.

On Apr. 23, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column. 

Teaching writing wrong

exceptionalismIf you have a seventh grader, then you know that he or she just got done taking a standardized test for writing. The good news is that our country’s education policy recognizes that writing is a necessary skill in the information era. The bad news is that because of the way we administer and grade the writing standardized tests, we’d have a better idea of whether our kids can write if we looked at their texts.

The problem is not that we expect our children to learn to write essays. The problem is that we expect these essays to come in a standard format that lends itself to mass-scale scoring and apples-to-apples comparisons. So to really make sure our children never learn to write well, Pearson looked to the one place no one would look to for clear, helpful writing—the legal profession.

In Texas and in the 17 states in which Pearson—the world’s largest testing company—designed the Common Core tests, students took a writing test on a page filled almost entirely by a rectangular box filled with 26 lines. At the bottom of the page was the warning, “Students may not write outside the box.” You might think 26 lines is an arbitrary limit to place on a student’s thoughts until you realize that each page of a legal pleading is also 26 lines.

These are not the five-paragraph essays we learned with the introduction, three supporting points, and conclusion. Our children—mine included—are being taught that good writing is filling in the box and using all 26 lines.

My seventh-grader took the writing test this week and had to write three essays. One of his prompts was “What are the benefits of laughter?” When he told me what he wrote, he said that he organized his points like a real essay, but he didn’t indent the paragraphs because his teacher told him not to. His essay was a solid block of words.

The problem wasn’t the teacher. Besides being handsome and funny, my seventh-grader is in an honors program. The fault lies with the graders Pearson hires to evaluate the millions of essays written by 13-year-olds every year. You would like to think that for the hundreds of millions of tax dollars we pay them every year that Pearson would hire retired teachers, laid-off journalists, or starving graduate students. You would probably also like to believe in the Easter Bunny.

Todd Farley knows better. He wrote a funny insider memoir called “Making the Grades:  My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry.” Because states needed millions of essays graded on unrealistic deadlines, corners were cut. They hired graders off Craig’s List. They hired raging drunks, burnouts, and folks who spoke English—badly—as a second language.

In the blur to meet deadlines, essays that used all 26 lines got the better scores, and teachers learned to game the system. When state officials learned what was happening, they passed regulations to ensure that trained professionals had sufficient time to fairly evaluate student essays. And then the Chicago Cubs won the Super Bowl and the Republican Party demanded Obama’s face be carved into Mount Rushmore.

What actually happened is that Pearson, which remains largely unregulated despite effectively running education in our country, programmed machines to grade essays. They promise this will be even cheaper than hiring human morons, and we’ll get the results more quickly.

In 2012, an MIT professor found that an electronic grader designed by the Education Testing Service is just another video game with hidden cheats. Longer essays with bigger words got better grades than succinct, well-argued essays. Worse yet, the computers could not discern truth and assumed any fact was correct. Your child could fill up 26 lines about Obama’s Kenyan birthplace and get a good score. We’re training children to write like lawyers for Fox News.

One of the benefits of laughter is that it helps you accept what the testing industry is doing to our education system, but the joke’s on us. We want to make our children “college and career ready,” but all they’re learning to do is game the system. Great. More lawyers.

What it means when Abbott cites a white supremacist

snake handlersAfter unsuccessfully mansplaining equal pay for three weeks, Greg Abbott, the Republican frontrunner for Texas governor, finally changed the subject by citing the work of a “white nationalist” in opposing universal pre-K. “Oops” doesn’t quite cut it, but this is more than a simple gaffe. Using Murray’s research could lead Republicans toward education policies that rely more upon eugenics than on equality.

The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Murray a “white nationalist” who uses ” racist pseudoscience and misleading statistics to argue that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.” The difference between Murray and a cross-burning white supremacist is that his sheets have a higher thread count, and Abbott is not alone in using Murray’s discredited research. Paul Ryan cited Murray when he blamed poverty on lazy black men.

When top Republicans cite someone whose research “proves” white men are intellectually superior to women and minorities, it is probably because they agree with his conclusions. As in 2012 when Republicans kept parsing rape, citing Murray reveals an emerging conservative belief that not everyone can be educated.

This would reverse a generation of egalitarian Republican policy started by George W. Bush, who said he wanted “high standards for all our children and all our schools.” Leaving aside their miserly opposition to equitable and sufficient education funding, Republicans have tried since the 1990s to prove that they could “fix” schools that predominantly taught black and Hispanic students.

The problem is that they tried to use standardized tests to achieve this, which makes as much sense as trying to grow by measuring yourself against a wall. Hold everyone to the same standards, and they will magically achieve them, closing the achievement gap. This is proof by assertion, a “build it and they will come” trope.

We built it, but they didn’t come. Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig and Jennifer Jellison Holme at the University of Texas at Austin discovered that three factors predict—with alarming accuracy—test results and therefore school ratings: the child’s race, ethnicity and class. In fact, Dr. Vasquez found that Texas had become more segregated than before we set out to close the racial achievement gap, especially when you considered the growing population of Texans who spoke Spanish as a first language.

From this we might conclude—as many Republicans seem ready to—that certain people just aren’t “college material.” This new breed of Charles Murray-citing Republicans apparently believes that the truth is self-evident and that we are not created equal. In the face of overwhelming patterns in test scores, a belief that sufficient instruction and support can lift any mind into the light seems hopelessly naïve. We’ve tried that, they will argue, and we’ve failed.

Liberals argue that we have to address inequality, and while I agree with that, we also have to question whether we are measuring progress with the right yardstick. Maybe standardized tests that consistently demonstrate higher achievement for wealthy whites than poorer minorities prove not a disparity in innate ability but in unequal opportunity. This is exactly why we need universal pre-K, not to mention expanded access to summer school opportunities and better prenatal care. Now is the time to put out more ladders, not pull up the few we have.

And we need to stop substituting accountability for equity. As a Texas Democrat, you won’t catch me saying this often: George W. Bush was right. We need to hold everyone to the same high standards regardless of their skin color, zip code or tax bracket. There is nothing Americans cannot do if given the resources and opportunity. But we cannot measure our progress with tests that don’t tell us anything we can’t learn from the census.

The danger of justifying petty public policies by referencing the work of a racist is that taxpayers might give up on forming a more perfect union. The entrenched racial achievement gaps are not cause to forfeit this fight. The war is just, but that doesn’t mean we are fighting it the right way.

A Bill Hammond-sized loophole

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 7.03.06 PM It’s funny how loopholes are always just big enough to accommodate a lobbyist. In Texas, the legislature recently banned lobbyists for testing companies from serving on education accountability advisory boards, but Bill Hammond, a lobbyist representing Pearson’s interests, is serving on an accountability panel. It may sadden you to know that Texas is messing with ethics, but fear not: It appears no one is listening to Hammond anyway.

The high-stakes testing mania started in Texas led by Sandy Kress, a business-friendly Democratic lawyer linked test scores to accountability. Kress became George W. Bush’s testing guru in Austin and then in Washington before becoming a lobbyist for Pearson.

But back in Austin, lawmakers treated Kress like a regular citizen who happened to know something about education. Rick Perry appointed him to state boards on which Kress advocated for more testing, higher stakes, and tougher penalties. When he offered expert testimony, he rarely identified himself as a testing company lobbyist, instead citing his role on the state advisory panels.

When the backlash against over-testing came in 2013, the lawmakers turned on Kress, the guy who got them into this mess. In the law rolling back testing requirements, the legislature included a ban on testing lobbyists from serving on advisory boards. Kress could only turn to one place for support: Bill Hammond, a politically influential lobbyist and president of the Texas Association of Business.

Pearson was a member of the Texas Association of Business, but Hammond really seemed to be relishing the fight. When a group of mothers angry about over-testing organized and started bending ears and twisting arms at the capitol, Hammond accused school administrators of going “about scaring mom.” He might as well have patted them on their heads and told them to get back in their kitchens.

To complaints that the rigorous exams were preventing almost a quarter of the Class of 2015 from graduating, Hammond hired a plane to circle the capitol pulling a banner that read, “Is 37 percent correct on Algebra too hard?”

tunnelSomehow, belittling Texas moms and mocking their children did not work. The legislature passed testing relief, so it struck some as a little strange last year when the Texas Education Commissioner put Hammond on the Accountability Policy Advisory Committee. Hammond, after all, was a lobbyist who indirectly represented Pearson and was certainly not shy about speaking up for their interests.

“It does violate what the legislature intended when it didn’t want industry people running the show,” said Craig McDonald of Texas for Public Justice, an ethics watchdog group.

The good news is that Hammond seems peeved about what the APAC recommended recently. According to H.D. Chambers, an APAC member and a superintendent of a suburban Houston school district, Hammond argued that 15% of Texas schools should be labeled as failing.

“I want parents and taxpayers to have the truth, so that they can know the true condition of our schools,” said Hammond. “They should be able to make decisions based on facts, not politics.”

But Hammond’s 15% failure rate would be the third level of politics imposed on the accountability rating. For a school to avoid failure, an arbitrary number of students (55% in this case) would have to pass the test, passing being set at another arbitrary number, such as the 37% Hammond thought was too easy.

All this makes some question what Hammond is doing on the advisory board at all, including McDonald, who wants the legislature to “tighten the language” in the ban on testing lobbyists to include Hammond. “The literal definition of being a registered lobbyist is not a good enough firewall in this instance,” he said.

“I would like for the legislature to ensure that no outside influence related to the testing industry has any impact on accountability policy in the state of Texas,” said Chambers.

In the end, Hammond is more successful at getting on the accountability committee than is he in getting his way. Hammond wants a guarantee that an arbitrary percentage of Texas schools will be labeled as failures, but so far the only one who has failed is Bill Hammond. Almost makes you feel sorry for the guy.

This column was syndicated by Cagle Cartoons on Mar. 31, 2014. 

Don’t look now, but “Education Spring” is arriving

NCLB“Education Spring”—the rise of public education advocates against the business-backed privatization movement—is spreading across the country and has finally reached Washington. But if you’re wondering why standardized testing is causing such a stink these days (after all didn’t we manage OK with the SAT, ACT and other tests?) all you have to do is go back to where this all started in Texas. Providing cautionary tales to the rest of the country is a public service we provide here. You’re welcome.

Here’s the rub: No Child Left Behind, an outdated law begging for replacement, requires every eighth grader to pass a standardized test in math. Texas also requires students taking Algebra I to pass a state standardized test, and many children take Algebra I in the eighth grade, which means many Texas eighth graders have to pass two math tests, only one of which actually counts. The other is just to satisfy NCLB, which was based on an earlier Texas law in the first place.

The state education agency asked the federal education agency for permission not to double-test eighth graders. Texas is where high-stakes testing was born, so when Texas is asking for relief you know things have gotten a little out of hand. But this month Sec. Arne Duncan denied the request, which means next month hundreds of thousands of Texas 14-year-olds will learn an important lesson, but not one about math.

Giving one child two tests in the same subject to satisfy a federal law that never worked and no one wants anymore is a bi-partisan failure. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama are fundamentally wrong that we can use standardized tests as a measuring stick to make our children, in effect, taller. The only thing we accomplish by double-testing eighth graders is revealing not just that the emperor has no clothes but he’s sleeping off a bender in a dumpster.

Everywhere you look Education Spring is breaking out. The anti-test rebellion that started in Texas two years ago has spread to other states. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 179 bills dealing with K-12 testing have been introduced. A bipartisan bill in the Virginia Assembly backed by teachers unions and the new governor, would cut the number of tests from 34 to 26. New York has capped how much time schools devote to testing while Missouri reduced it.

And in California, state officials won a standoff with Sec. Duncan over their insistence that it made no sense to collect data that compared the apples of an old test to the oranges of a new test.

March was a big month for the pushback against high-stakes testing as it finally breached the walls of congress. On Mar. 6, Reps. Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) introduced a bill to move from annual testing to “grade-span” testing, or testing once every few years. This would save millions of dollars, reduce testing abuse, and free classrooms to innovate new ways to educate children. Obviously, it has no chance of passing.

Another Arizona Democrat—Rep. Raúl Grijalva—became the first to support the Network for Public Education’s call for congressional hearings into the “misuse and abuse of standardized tests.” Since the federal education budget rivals what we spend on defense, it might be nice to examine what we’re getting for all our tax dollars.

But none of that is what is grabbing the national headlines with it comes to education. That honor goes to Hillary Clinton, who just announced she will attend a higher education conference early this week with ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sec. Duncan at the George W. Bush presidential library. The public education advocates opposing test-based reforms are going to need a lot more firepower to convince Hillary she’s hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Even so, few expected the mutiny against high-stakes testing to get this far. But if angry parents can convince Texas legislators to offer testing relief where they previously only preached the empty gospel of rigor, then anything is possible. It’s been a long, cold winter, and at long last Education Spring might be arriving.

On Mar. 24, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column.

Texas taxpayers win a round against Sandy Kress

What makes more sense for Texas public schools: forcing them to buy Texas Instruments graphic calculators that cost more than $100 for each 8th grader or allowing them to download apps for $15? To pass the required 8th-grade tests, the students need one or the other.

School districts knew which choice they preferred:

School districts receive on average $80 per student in state funding for textbooks and other instructional materials, including technology. Superintendents said their materials budgets for next year will be stretched thin by the science and math textbooks recently approved by the State Board of Education and the $100 calculators would have been an unnecessary cost if their students also had access to a tablet.

Forcing schools to buy a graphing calculator for every single 8th grader in Texas would make Texas Instrument probably in excess of $1 million at a time the state is failing to increasing funding to keep up with population growth. And you can only use a TI graphing calculator to do one thing; schools can use tablet computers for innumerable purposes. In a state that prides itself on being miserly with the public purse, you’d think this would be a no-brainer.

Enter Sandy Kress, a lobbyist for Pearson (the testing company), for Amplify (Robert Murdoch’s pre-K tablet company), and, as it turns out, for Texas Instruments as well. And initially, Texas Education Agency commissioner Michael Williams sided with Texas Instruments, saying that using a tablet could help students cheat on tests. Using the calculators would prevent that, he claimed. This might be true if the kids have never heard of YouTube where one can find numerous tutorials on how to use TI graphing calculators to cheat on tests:

(Full disclosure: Though I would not have hesitated to cheat on a test as a student, I am a father now and want all students to benefit from my lack of knowledge. Cheating is a useful skill in life, but understanding the math makes life more interesting. Make your own decisions, but choose wisely please. Also, save your money and floss. Lecture over.)

Yesterday, however, Commissioner Williams reversed himself and decided to allow schools to use apps and not graphing calculators for 8th graders only.

“I continue to have concerns about ensuring test security and preventing cheating,” Williams wrote in a letter to superintendents. “For districts that choose to use technology other than a handheld graphing calculator, there will likely be additional test monitoring and security measures put in place to ensure that the integrity of the test is not compromised.”

It wasn’t a total loss for Kress, however. The state still requires high school kids taking Algebra II to use TI graphing calculators.


With pre-K, we’re all smart enough to be president

Once upon a time, before Netflix and Tumblr, we could not waste hours on the Internet binging on television and reposting Supernatural gifs. In those dark times—before DVRs and streaming movies—getting sick meant having to watch whatever was scheduled on daytime television. We lived like animals.

That’s how I ended up in bed in Oct. 2000, watching George W. Bush’s appearance on Oprah in which he confessed to feeling intellectually outclassed at prep school.

I can't think of a single thing to say“Were there many times you thought you weren’t smart enough?” asked Oprah.

“No—eventually, I realized that smarts are not only whether or not you can write well or whether or not you can do calculus but smart also is instinct and judgment and common sense and there’s a lot of folks in my state whose instincts and judgment and common sense I respect a lot. They may not have even have ever gone to college, so smart comes in all different kinds of … different ways,” said Bush.

Word for misplaced word, Bush’s soliloquy is exactly the opposite of what we should tell our children. To form a more perfect union, we need to embrace that smarts aren’t instinct and people skills but mastering complicated subjects such as calculus. That’s why I am proud to have helped elect San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who risked his future to fund pre-K with higher taxes.

One of the cool things about working for Julian Castro—and for that matter, his identical twin brother Joaquin, the congressman—is that he is smart in a way we wish those who governed us were. He and his brother grew up working class in San Antonio and got into Stanford University before getting their law degrees at Harvard.

The surprising thing about their exclusive educations is that they contend that the kids they grew up with were just as smart as the people they went to college with. That’s why in 2012 Mayor Castro pushed for pre-K because, he said, “with high-quality, full-day pre-k, all things being equal, a student is more likely to succeed, graduate from high school and go to college.”

Pre-K is the new black in Democratic platforms. Barack Obama included $750 million in his 2015 budget  to kick start universal pre-K, and Wendy Davis is making expanded access to pre-K a centerpiece of her gubernatorial campaign. Castro, Obama, and Davis all point to longitudinal studies showing long-term educational benefits and compounded financial returns on taxpayer investment.

But a no-brainer to a Democrat is a Republican’s excuse not to think. In 2011, Rick Perry and the Republican-led legislature cut pre-K funding by $288 million, and now about two-thirds of poor Texas children don’t have access to pre-K.

Now that everyone has realized we have the money to pay for it, some conservatives are claiming pre-K doesn’t work. Russ Whitehurst, a former U.S. Department of Education official under George W. Bush and now of the Brown Center for Educational Policy, is trotting around an analysis of a pre-K experiment in Nashville.

“Not one of the studies that has suggested long-term positive impacts of center-based early childhood programs has been based on a well-implemented and appropriately analyzed randomized trial,” Whitehurst claimed, which would be shocking if it were true, but about the only thing correct in that sentence is the spelling.

my whole brain went what the hellAs W. Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research laid bare in the Washington Post last month, Whitehurst mischaracterized some studies, ignored others, and presented conclusions that were “appallingly inaccurate for someone who claims to be an expert,” wrote Barnett. I only have a liberal arts degree in Russian, but even I felt bad for Whitehurst after reading Barnett. It’s that obvious.

Why would conservatives misrepresent facts—OK, lie—to discredit early childhood education? Maybe they see having to pay taxes for pre-K as funding day care for poor, minority kids—something I saw argued in Mississippi when they were debating whether to have kindergarten. Maybe they think 4-year-olds should not just have equal opportunity handed to them as if it’s their American birthright. Maybe they are just cheap.

Or maybe they want to preserve the status quo in which a child born to a patrician political dynasty has more opportunity to succeed in American than do identical twins raised on San Antonio’s west side. But if we can live in a world of unlimited entertainment possibilities, why can’t we do the same for educational opportunities?

On March 17, 2014, The Austin American-Statesman published this column.


One aspect of pre-K that I was not able to get into was the encroachment of the accountability movement into early childhood education. I’ve written about this recently, specifically my worries about Sandy Kress lobbying for Rupert Murdoch’s education tablet company to get money for pre-K testing. You can a very serious report from the University of Virginia here or a good article from the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss here. She wrote the oft-quoted line, “[K]indergarten is the new first grade when it comes to academics.”

I asked Mayor Castro about the concerns about imposing accountability on 4-year-olds. Here’s what he had to say about how San Antonio’s pre-K experiment is handling testing:

“We incorporate age-appropriate assessments that are not the stress-inducing tests that have befallen a lot of states including Texas. I believe there are appropriate kinds of assessments for pre-K. I believe in Texas tests have been overused and the high-stakes nature is not good, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have assessments that are appropriate at that age.”

Sounds good, though as I’m sure he’d agree, we need to keep an eye on this.

GOP is going nuclear on “battlefield of ideas”

cpacCPAC—the political convention that is to conservatives what ComicCon is to nerds—did not sort out the Republican field for 2016, but it did reveal something much scarier. Unlike most years when Republicans insist they should fight for ideals they never define, this time conservatives sketched out a frighteningly radical agenda. Taking CPAC speakers at their word, the next Republican generation will make us pine for the comparatively bi-partisan moderation and restraint that characterized the George W. Bush administration.

The surest way to whip the overwhelmingly older, male, and white CPAC conventioneers into a frenzy was to play up the notion that the problem is that Republicans have been too cooperative, too compromising.

“If you want to lose elections, stand for nothing. When you don’t stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don’t stand for principle, Democrats celebrate,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, ignoring how polls punished his party when he “stood for principle” and shut down the government.

“We’ve got to start talking about what we’re for, not what we’re against,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

“It’s time for a rebellion on the battlefield of ideas,” said Rick Perry. The Texas Governor loves guns so much he jogs with a loaded handgun, but if a “battlefield of ideas” exists then Perry’s an unarmed pacifist.

It is easy to mock a political convention that invited Donald Trump to speak, much less attend, but his stale anti-immigration harangue was no worse than most. Cruz advocated “repealing every single word of ObamaCare” and abolishing the IRS. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio mocked the United Nations and backed the same aggressive unilateralism that we are still cleaning up after in Iraq. Adorably, Perry came out as pro-postal service: “Deliver the mail, do it on time and, heck, do it on Saturdays.” Heck, indeed!.

It was their new ideas that should scare the bejesus out of Americans. Rep. Paul Ryan is recognized as the pre-eminent conservative thought leader, but that’s like being heaviest blade of grass. At CPAC, he dressed austerity in compassion’s clothes, saying, “What they are offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. The American people want more than that.” Yes, but we don’t feed souls by starving bellies, and Paul’s budget cuts food stamps by $125 million.

Public school teachers came in for some abuse at CPAC from Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who said, “Wouldn’t it be special . . . if we actually hired, fired, compensated our teachers based on how well teachers are doing rather than simply how long the teachers had been breathing in the classroom?”

Behind this contempt for teachers is a drive toward using standardized testing scores to measure the effectiveness of teachers, something education historian Diane Ravitch has called “junk science.” But labeling public schools as failing and teachers as ineffective for reasons beyond their control will open the door to radical and unconstitutional change.

South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott described this as a parental utopia that would effectively privatize America’s public schools and force taxpayers to subsidize religious indoctrination. Parents “should be free to choose home schooling, public schools, charter schools, parochial schools,” said Scott. “Because when the parents have the choice, the kids have a chance.”

To be fair, it wasn’t all dumb and dumber. Sen. Rand Paul, whose curly hair looks like it covers a skull containing an actual working brain, took a real risk by joining with Attorney General Eric Holder to push for ending mandatory minimum sentences. Allowing federal judges to exercise discretion with non-violent drug offenders could return some needed sanity to our criminal justice system. And maybe this once, Paul will be the Republican who survives working with Obama.

The big winner of CPAC was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whom Perry and Christie praised in their speeches. Because he’s facing re-election at home, Walker skipped CPAC, sparing him the unflattering exposure of being measured against the lesser lights onstage at CPAC. With apologies to Perry, maybe the only way to win a battle of wits with Republicans is never to fight in the first place.

On March 10, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column. 

“Divergent” depicts testing dystopia

divergentThe next big teen franchise is about to explode over movie screens nationwide on Mar. 21, except this time the kids aren’t scared of werewolves, zombies, dark wizards, or sparkly vampires. The villain in Divergent is something they can’t run away from and they can’t kill: standardized testing. Kids these days live in a world in which their futures are determined by high-stakes testing, making Divergent a dystopia they can believe in.

Because of its resourceful and tough female protagonist, Divergent will draw comparisons to The Hunger Games franchise. But the popular Jennifer Lawrence movies are all about income inequality and poverty whereas the new film, based on the 2012 bestseller by Veronica Roth, questions whether our children can still determine their own futures.

The central feature of Divergent is that children are given aptitude tests that sort them by virtues, sometimes separating them from their families. These sorting tests are nothing new in popular young adult fiction. Harry Potter had the Sorting Hat that grouped students based on their innate traits. The Hunger Games held a lottery to single out a boy and a girl for ritualized murder. And in the Percy Jackson novels, only genetics—not skill, talents, or knowledge—could get a child into Camp Half Blood.

But Divergent, intentionally or not, puts high-stakes testing at the center of the educational dystopia it portrays. As in present-day reality, testing takes time away from classroom instruction and occurs on a single day. The Divergent tests measure aptitude, not comprehension, and serve mainly to sort students according to immutable traits into one of five factions “to determine who we are and where we belong.” In schools, we use standardized tests to figure out whether someone is “college or career ready.”

To Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, Divergent speaks to the No Child Left Behind generation that has, he says, a “growing consciousness” of the “varying degrees of alienation from school in which testing is a key part.”

“Indirectly, they are a way impersonal forces control their lives and make their lives, in their perceptions, … more boring,” said Neill. “Testing is part of that. Clearly the evidence is that students are unhappy with the testing regime and how that is playing out in schools, the drill and kill.”

The evidence Neill is thinking of is the rising tide of student-led strikes against testing. In California and Illinois, hundreds of students have walked out of tests. In Massachusetts, students protested by ignoring the essay prompt and writing their own essays explaining why they opposed the tests, a risky move when passing the test is a graduation requirement.

About half the student body at the New Vista High School in Boulder, Colorado came up with a new twist when students there wore white shirts, jeans and badges bearing their student identification numbers to protest the Colorado Students Assessment Program, chanting, “standardized tests produce standardized students.”

In 2013, more than 50 students in Providence, Rhode Island inadvertently came up with the most apt demonstration against standardized testing when they held their “zombie protest.” Made up as the undead, they staggered during downtown rush hour traffic while chanting “no education, no life.” But zombies are so last year.

“There’s a lot of growing protest in the misuse of standardized testing,” said Neill. “A movie like that could capture that energy and advance that energy.”

My sons, who face a pressure about standardized testing that is completely foreign to my generation, are already on my case to pre-order tickets for opening night. They are big fans of the novels and are eager to see this world on the silver screen, but in truth, they’ve already seen it every year in their school at test time.

On March 17, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column.

“Education Spring” is right around the corner

slave shipIn the state where high-stakes testing began, a few hundred teachers, academics, and activists came together last weekend to hasten what one leader called an “Education Spring.” The Network for Public Education gathered in Austin to plan the resistance to the status quo of high-stakes testing and an encroaching corporate privatization movement. This first-of-its-kind convention might finally provide an effective opposition to the corporate reform movement that wants to run education like a business.

“With groups like this one and so many others, all of which are active in so many ways, in so many parts of the country, we are standing on the threshold of the Education Spring,” said John Kuhn, a Texas superintendent known for his fiery speeches. “We’re here to shake up the educational world, and our movement is only growing. This is our spring.”

Central to the group’s discontent is the primacy of high-stakes testing, an innovation pushed in Dallas in the early ‘90s by Sandy Kress, then a politically active lawyer friendly with the business community. With Kress’ help, using standardized test scores as the primary measure of school accountability became Texas law under Ann Richards, and when George W. Bush became president, Kress helped him sell No Child Left Behind to skeptical Democrats.

Now Kress lobbies for testing giant Pearson, and Barak Obama’s Race to the Top has made high-stakes standardized testing “the purpose of education, rather than a measure of education,” said Diane Ravitch, a leading critic of overtesting, in her keynote address to the convention.

In Austin, the Network for Public Education called on Congress to investigate the “over-emphasis, misapplication, costs, and poor implementation of high-stakes standardized testing in the nation’s K-12 public schools.” Far be it from me to suggest Congress hold another show trial, but this one might end in a hanging. It would be worth it to see Kress put under oath to explain why states spend an estimated $1.7 billion a year on standardized tests that a National Research Council study shows have failed to increase student achievement.

The first buds of Education Spring are cropping up all over. In Orlando, a dying 11-year-old boy was forced to take the state exam. In 2013, Florida also required a 9-year-old born with an incomplete brain to take the test. Why? Because, wrote Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, “It would be a moral outrage to deny that opportunity to any child based on any reason including special needs.”

But Americans increasingly don’t need a study to tell them that high-stakes testing is not just unaffordable and absurd, but unworkable. Obama’s rollout of his Common Core national curriculum has made the debut of the Affordable Care Act look like D-Day. Once one of its biggest backers, the nation’s largest teachers union has pronounced Common Core “botched” and pulled its support.

The real problem facing Common Core isn’t in Washington but in the 45 states and the District of Columbia (OK, that is Washington) that have adopted the new national standards. In red states, critics see a federal takeover of local public schools, a provincial and politically motivated position that is nevertheless not without merit, as federal law forbids Washington from dictating curricula to the states.

In blue states, parents and teachers complain that their children are ill prepared for the higher standards, guaranteeing failure in the name of rigor. Education Sec. Arne Duncan has responded oddly, telling “white, suburban moms” that their kids aren’t “as brilliant as they thought they were.” I’m not making that up.

Meanwhile, a new anti-testing uprising is beginning in Chicago where Duncan used to run public schools. Teachers at two public schools have voted to boycott the state-mandated tests, and parents at more than 50 area schools have served notice that they are refusing to let their children take the tests, or “opting out.” The school district has threatened teachers with disciplinary action if they support the boycott or encourage parents to join it.

Like this winter, it seems like the era of high-stakes testing will never end. But thanks to a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens who gathered in Austin, Education Spring might be right around the corner.

On March 5, 2014, Cagle Cartoons syndicated this column.