Dec 1 2013

The Other Education Crisis

Panic over testing feeds drop in creativity

Students boycotting standardized testing at Garfield High School in Washington state.

Students boycotting standardized testing at Garfield High School in Washington state.

“Good morning. My name is 39407957,” said Israel Muñoz, a Chicago Public Schools student, at a Department of Education protest in April. “That’s how they see us students, merely a number”—in this case, his student ID. “Student voices have been persistently shut out.”

In 2001, No Child Left Behind was signed into law, measuring school performance by students’ reading and math scores—and leading some three-quarters of school districts across the country to cut at least one subject to clear time for test prep (CEP, 2006). Under the Obama administration, the fixation on standardized testing—to rate students, hire and fire teachers, and open and close schools—has intensified. In 2010, only 16 states required teacher evaluations to incorporate students’ test scores. As of spring 2013, that figure had ballooned to 28.

The monomania for testing rests on a belief, ingrained in the media, that American education is “in crisis” and the surest way to catch up with international competitors is to listen to big data.

As the vice president of the organization that publishes Education Week, the education “paper of record,” put it (Education Week, 1/12/12), “Americans remain rightly concerned that the nation’s pace of improvement is simply too slow, at a time when our global peers and competitors may be rocketing ahead.”

The system “remains frozen in place, unable to adapt to contemporary global realities,” Eric Hanushek and Paul Peterson wrote in Newsweek (8/28/11). Though the “best available solution” to the country’s debt crisis is a “high-functioning, constantly improving educational system,” American students lag behind their international peers in reading and math proficiency, and most states “have set their standards well below the world class level.”

There’s a second belief that sits uneasily with the dominant one: In a world fueled by innovation, students need to be critical and creative, not just good at tests. The New York Times (7/14/13), which has reported on the excesses of No Child Left Behind (10/30/11), wrote in support of the new Common Core State Standards that they “could move the nation away from rote memorization—and those cheap, color-in-the-bubble tests—and toward a writing-intensive system that gives students the reasoning skills they need in the new economy.”

NBC’s fourth annual Education Nation, a week-long showcase run in October, cranked up the urgency for change. Under the banner of “What It Takes,” and with blue-ribbon funding from “reform” boosters like the Gates Foundation, the event featured a parade of TED-type pep talks about educational innovations and a can-do optimism about the power of number-heavy, market-oriented policy.

“The Joneses are everyone—they’re in Poland, they’re in Finland, they’re in South Korea, they’re not just next door,” said MSNBC’s Tamron Hall. “We need parents to understand…the global competition that our kids are facing.”
Very little of the dialogue at Education Nation included dissidents of high-stakes reform, who were relegated to two-hour “town halls” and isolated panels like “A Reality Check on Testing.” In these spaces, participants unleashed on standardized testing, pre-scripted lessons and the overwhelming pressure to perform. For the rest of the event, the tone was different: High-rolling politicos like Michael Bloomberg and Jeb Bush got stand-alone speaking time, while big-name critics like Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling-Hammond were missing.

Claims of a crisis in education are as old as the education system itself, Ravitch has noted (New York Review of Books, 9/29/11). Those who cite America’s middling international rankings as evidence, she adds, ignore that American students have historically fallen toward the middle. Better yet, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, collected by the federal government, have steadily improved over the past 20 years—a striking trend in light of the handwringing over standardized test results.

Lost in the crisis-talk is another set of issues that are exacerbated, even generated, by high-stakes reform. “Teaching to the test” is evidenced not only in data on instruction time, but in teachers’ mental health (Education Week, 10/9/13) and ongoing incidents of cheating (MSNBC, 4/1/13). And then there are issues that the poorest students experience most acutely, like the threat that school closings pose to student safety (Al Jazeera America, 8/23/13), the increase in “pushouts” for those who don’t make the grade (In These Times, 10/28/13) and the subsequent rise in incarceration rates (Real News, 7/19/13).

But the most basic concerns with testing orthodoxy hit at the root of education. In an Adobe survey (6/13), parents and teachers rated the overuse of testing and assessment as the highest barrier to teaching creativity. As psychologist Peter Gray argues (Aeon, 9/18/13):

If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction—toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.

Similar arguments have been made by longtime critics of test-and-drill education (Henry Giroux, America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth, 2013) and students (Nikhil Goyal, One Size Does Not Fit All, 2012).

These concerns have been noted in mainstream outlets. In 2010, Newsweek (7/10/10), a leading booster of high-stakes reform (Extra!, 9/10), published a cover story on “The Creativity Crisis.” “The necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed,” it declared. Solutions to global problems “emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others.”

That article was the first to report a “reverse trend” to the rise in NAEP scores—one silenced by the alarm over international rankings: Creativity, as measured by the Torrance test (an analog to the IQ test), has declined consistently over the past two decades. Analyzing these scores in the Creativity Research Journal (11/9/11), Kyung-Hee Kim found that

over the last 20 years, children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesising and less likely to see things from a different angle.

Earlier, the creativity crisis was raised in a TED Talk (2/06) by Ken Robinson, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”—the most watched in the history of the program. Echoing Robinson’s thesis, corporate media are full of stories about efforts to tap into students’ deepest capacities by eschewing the regimentation of school-as-we-know-it, including college semesters without homework (Business Insider, 10/17/13), summer school that’s fun (New York Times, 6/30/13), “flipped classrooms” (Fast Company, 2/1/12) and digitally enhanced lessons (Newsweek, 7/10/13).

In the Harvard Business Review (10/04), “creative class” theorist Richard Florida called for a “GI Bill for creativity,” pointing to famous entrepreneurs who built “new businesses in dorm rooms or in garages in their spare time.” He asked, “Isn’t this the real stuff of education in the Creative Age?”

Curiously, these concerns have little breathing room in media conversations about education reform. The Common Core State Standards, the “next big thing” in education reform, are a telling example. The standards promise to help build “tomorrow’s workers and leaders and innovators and entrepreneurs,” wrote New York Times columnist Charles Blow (8/21/13), by giving kids “skills like critical thinking and deep analysis.” But in light of their heavy-handed, high-stakes implementation, they threaten to replicate the destructive mistakes of the past decade.

So while conservatives have accused the Education Department of trying to legislate a national curriculum by incentivizing states to adopt the standards, others have criticized the standards for their liability to usher in more standardized tests—and, in line with the current system, punish those who fail them (Rethinking Schools, Summer/13). Indeed, the standards were written by a cadre of reform players, including the Gates Foundation, and Pearson has already lined up tests to accompany them. As Joanne Weiss (Harvard Business Review, 3/31/11), chief of staff for Education Secretary Arne Duncan, affirmed, “the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.”

In April, the American Federation of Teachers called for a one-year moratorium on any high-stakes testing attached to Common Core standards (without rejecting them outright). At an October forum in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., after more than two-thirds of students in the state of New York scored below proficient on a pilot test based on the standards, parents lashed out at state education commissioner John King. In a rare mixed review, the L.A. Times (7/15/12) wrote that proponents “pay too little attention to enabling teachers and students to take academic risks—considered essential to building creativity—while ensuring that vital academic material is still covered.”

Concerns over the Common Core dovetail with mounting grassroots resistance to high-stakes testing generally. This spring, students staged testing walkouts in Chicago, Denver and Portland. Parents throughout New York pulled their students from state tests, and thousands protested at the Texas capital. At Seattle’s Garfield High School, teachers led a successful boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress test. “It’s gotten completely out of hand,” said Jesse Hagopian, a leader of the boycott, at Education Nation’s Teacher Town Hall (Melissa Harris-Perry, 10/6/13). “I think we need to reframe what the purpose of education is. Because I think it’s not just about career-ready and college-ready. I think it’s also about solving real-life problems that we have in our world.”

Most of the press coverage, though, has been uncritical. The New York Times (4/20/13), USA Today (6/11/13) and regional outlets across the country trumpet the rigor of the Common Core standards, but ignore or dismiss their relationship to high-stakes testing.

“New York City parents are understandably nervous about tough new state tests” attached to the standards, the Times wrote. “They shouldn’t be…. The whole point of the exercise is to replace the mediocre patchwork of learning standards that put American children at a distinct disadvantage when compared with their peers abroad.”

The Baltimore Sun (10/29/13), Miami Herald (9/19/13) and New Orleans Times-Picayune (9/25/13) took conservatives to task for their fear of the standards’ nationalizing implications, but didn’t mention concerns over testing. The Chicago Sun-Times (10/27/13), an ally of test-friendly Mayor Rahm Emanuel, hopes that the standards “will make ‘teaching to the test’ a good thing.”

For corporate leaders, the whole purpose of the standards is the testing behind them. At this year’s Education Nation, echoing more extended treatment at last year’s event, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson (ExxonMobil Perspectives, 10/10/13) said the standards “give us a common way to measure outcomes from state to state to state,” and are “critically important to judge yourself against these international parties.”

It could be that elite commentators are fine with “free play,” but only for some. Creativity is for the “creative class”—the dropouts-turned-entrepreneurs, the tech gurus of Education Nation’s “Innovation Challenge” and those who have the privilege to join them—while everyone else gets creative destruction. In this world, the most important agents of creativity are the reformers—who can’t be questioned.

In an October address to the National Press Club, Secretary Duncan (, 9/30/13) called out “armchair pundits” who “believe government is incapable of meaningfully improving education, or…education reform can’t possibly work since the real problem with schools is that so many children are poor.” Likewise, New York’s King cancelled his remaining 16 parent forums on the Common Core after the first, he said, was “co-opted by special interests” (Education Week, 10/12/13).

The media follows—for now. But as Seattle’s Hagopian told the Real News (10/10/13) about his appearance on Education Nation to represent the opposition to high-stakes testing, “I think that NBC realized that this movement had gained so much traction that it was impossible to deny it and have a credible conversation about education in this country.”

James Cersonsky writes about labor and education and edits student writing at The Nation.

Extra! December 2013