Ever since the Thatcher-Reagan love-in of the early 1980s, English education has taken its cue from developments in the US, united by a commitment to the Chicago school of neo-liberal economics which Reagan initially derided, only changing his tone when it became politic to do so. In England, the result of adopting Reagan-style outcome-led policies was Thatcher's flawed 1988 Education Act, which replaced local governance with central control and created Ofsted as a policing and enforcing device. Blair's 1997 administration might have moderated this approach, but instead it was embraced with enthusiasm.
One advantage, though, of the transatlantic-bridge tendency is that we can use American experience to prepare for what could happen here. With this in mind, I draw attention to a marvellous article which appeared recently (21 July 2014) in the New Yorker magazine, and which reveals the disturbing consequences of standardised testing once it dominates school process. Since access to the New Yorker is difficult without a subscription, a brief summary of this piece - “Wrong Answer,” by Rachel Aviv - is offered below, followed by a few parallels with the current English context.
The driving force behind testing is the belief that assessing outcomes will tell you everything you need to know about teachers, students and school improvement. Neo-liberalism reinforces this, because markets function by comparing outcomes from competing providers: how they are reached is immaterial. The election of the Republican George W. Bush as president is key to this story, since his “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2002 depended on measurable outcomes as the key to school improvement. The basic idea was that by requiring a school's test results to improve year on year, students would learn more and American education would soon lead the world. After three or four years of this draconian legislation, its effects on schools were beginning to emerge: this is the point at which the New Yorker article begins. So we now turn our attention to the Parks Middle School, Atlanta, Georgia in spring 2006, where the consequences of outcome-based educational policy are influencing both teachers and students ...
The school is in a run-down area where half the homes are vacant and armed robberies are commonplace. Even so, the NCLB Act requires that all US students must take the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, to implement federal achievement standards and also make “adequate yearly progress” by an annual increase in test scores. This legislation was based on a school accountability system used in Texas with - according to President Bush - amazing success. These claims have since been found wanting, but they helped to get Bush elected and they underpin his “No Child Left Behind” Act - which requires that all students in every school must achieve proficiency in maths and English as determined by test scores. Whether a student is lazy or lively, well-heeled or impoverished, is of no consequence: only the numbers have significance. If a school's progress falters, federal funding might be available. Conversely, without the stipulated improvement the school must be closed.
Parks Middle School had to reconcile the demands of the Act with the challenge of students living close to the poverty line: fewer than 40 per cent graduated from high school, and most came from broken homes. The schools superintendent for the district, however, had faith in the Bush remedy. She believed that public education could be improved by applying the values of the market place. She set school objectives for accountability and student performance, and if a school met its targets, every employee received a bonus. Teachers were evaluated on student test scores, and would be fired if their students failed to meet the targets within three years. The prevailing mantra was “No exceptions, no excuses.” But how could the yearly improvement in test scores be met, with students from difficult backgrounds in a run-down area where crime was rife?
Inevitably, as teachers and principals came and went, it dawned on individual teachers that Parks students could not meet this classroom target, year on year. The students could not deliver enough right answers on the multiple-choice tests. If Parks was to stay in business, somehow the students' performance on the test papers had to be enhanced. Some teachers found a way to peek at the tests in advance, and then concentrate on teaching the examined topics. Or one could covertly gain access to the completed papers and change a few wrong answers to right ones, by erasing one blob and filling in another. Such conduct was professionally indefensible, but somehow the demands of the federal Act had to be reconciled with the impoverished homes of the students: then they might gain some encouragement and turn up for another year of schooling. Others might justify such extreme acts as a way of righting a wrong that stemmed from a misconceived view of education, and some gained reassurance when discovering, eventually, that other teachers were similarly engaged: as one remarked, “All our little problems that we grew up hiding from the rest of the world - it became our line of communication.”
There were four sub-superintendents in the school district, who subjected teachers to mid-term reviews. In the case of Parks Middle School, one teacher's review read, “Please understand that no excuse can or will be accepted for any results that are less than 70 per cent of school-based target acquisition.” The teacher replied that the targets were unrealistic, that it took three months just to gain a student's trust, and some students lived alone with neither parent at home. Indeed, the need to enhance student scores was recognised unofficially by the principal, since if the school didn't reach its annual target it would be liquidated and the students moved to schools further away - which would be a discouragement to learning.
Matters came to a head when a sixth-grade teacher complained to the district superintendent that the principal was attempting to persuade teachers to cheat, and the local teachers' federation complained to the district central office that the principal was intimidating staff. A private investigator was hired, and concluded that some teachers had cheated on the Georgia Middle Grades Writing Assessment. But no action was taken, and the following year the school had to score even higher than before, in accordance with federal law. One teacher remarked that the legislators who wrote the No Child Left Behind Act must never have been near a school like Parks. But the legislation was entirely in accordance with the strictures laid down by President Reagan back in the 1980s, who argued that the entire US school system was in crisis because of lazy teachers and lack of accountability. (One could argue that a similar attitude, on the part of Mrs Thatcher, led to her flawed 1988 Education Act.) Reagan's view was challenged at the time by David Berliner, then professor of education at Arizona State University, who suggested in his persuasive book “The Manufactured Crisis” (1995) that these criticisms were unfounded: there was no crisis until Reagan invented one. Berliner has since been in touch with Rachel Aviv (author of the New Yorker article) and pointed out that the “No Child Left Behind” legislation in effect asked teachers to compensate for factors outside their control: “The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.” This is, of course, the position taken by recent English education ministers: it is all the fault of lazy teachers, to which payment by results is the only solution.
Since Parks Middle School had to show test-score improvement or die, at each year's end the secretive massaging of test scores continued: no one discussed it, but teachers had gained access to the room of the school's testing coordinator, and the principal made no secret of the need to enhance those scores. And so, by 2009, it emerged that 90 percent of eighth graders had passed the exam: Parks was hailed as an outstanding school, winning a “Dispelling the Myth” award (sic) and gaining national prominence. But a month later, two reporters on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered that the testing gains at Parks, and at some other Atlanta schools, were statistically unlikely. The governor asked the state attorney general to investigate after the discovery that one in five Georgia schools showed erasure marks on the test papers.
It has since emerged that cheating took place in forty other states; Atlanta was one of the few that subpoenaed educators, after finding that 44 schools had cheated and that “a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation has infested the district.” Nine teachers and officials were sacked, and the scores of Parks students then dropped each year. Now, however, the stakes for testing in Georgia have been raised: a new teacher-evaluation program bases 50% of the assessment on test scores, and is combined with a merit-pay system. The authority has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
This summary of the New Yorker article does scant justice to a valuable account of a misguided way to improve education. But it will strike a familiar chord with teachers in England, since the current government is totally in thrall to the doctrine that the quality of education can be determined by assessing outcomes. When I took up my post in Denver in 1991, I soon heard about a pundit who had declared that the future lay with outcome-based education. One or two local school districts had responded, and begun the task of deciding which outcomes would need to be measured. But then came the problem of determining how a desirable quality like “the ability to work cooperatively” could be numerically assessed in a reliable fashion. Fortunately, Denver has a high proportion of thoughtful graduates, and the weakness of this approach soon became evident. But recent English ministers of education are obsessed by outcomes, forever revising examinations and syllabuses and burdening teachers with demands for data. They have yet to recognise the importance of process, and of approaches like the slow-education movement which address process.
As W.E.Deming has remarked, to try to improve process by studying outcomes “is like driving by looking in the rear-view mirror.” Meanwhile, teacher morale in English schools continues to decline, and devices like recruiting new graduates directly into teaching - another American idea - are merely an expedient. The full implications of this focus on measurable outcomes have yet to emerge, and perhaps a change of government in 2015 will herald a more intelligent approach to school improvement. In the meantime, America's love affair with testing dogma continues: President Obama's “Race to the Top” program for raising test scores is simply a variant of George W Bush's legislation - now generally referred to in the US as the “No School Left Undamaged” Act. Schools in England must contend with the increasing influence of Ofsted (now costing more than £200m annually), with its increasing prominence as an arm of government, and with the looming impact on teachers of performance-related pay - an infallible strategy for undermining trust and creating ill will. At least the staff at Parks Middle School were united against a common enemy: to destroy team spirit by setting teachers in competition with each other is a recipe for disaster.
Maurice Holt is Emeritus Professor of Education, University of Colorado, Denver