Test-and-Punish: How the Texas Education Model Gave America Accountability Without Equity by John Kuhn

1. The Long Flight for Justice

  • This chapter takes us through the legal process started in San Antonio aimed at bringing equality to educational funding. Where funding is largely local, it’s easy to see how rich districts fund better schools with a tax burden that is lower relative to the higher incomes. The process started in 1968 when a parent named Rodriguez was the main player in a suit against the San Antonio School District that claimed that the Texas system for funding schools discriminated against poor citizens. Since then a number of cases in federal and state courts have overturned each other. The basic fight results from the efforts of the wealthy to fight the redistribution of wealth that would be necessary to make all schools at least physically comparable. Since political power and wealth go together, this battle has been unsuccessful for the most part. The wealthy districts along with their politicians and lobbyists have shifted the focus from funding equity to measuring educational quality.

2. The Birth of Test-and-Punish Reform

  • John starts this chapter by wondering it the Texas test-and-punish culture isn’t the result of the character that Texans had to have to develop such an unforgiving territory. He also finds it ironic that even Northern liberal Democrats have adopted policies that seem to be cruel to teachers and collaterally, the children they serve.
  • One contributor to today’s system was H. Ross Perot, who had two third-party runs for president in the 1980’s. As the leader of the Texas Select Committee on Public Education, he gave us a short-lived merit pay system, aptitude tests for teachers, the no pass, no play system that kept kids out of sports and other activities if they failed a course, a summary graduation exam, and other punitive measures.
  • Next we are introduced to the man who appears to be the most responsible for the testing culture we have today. Barnett “Sandy” Kress was a progressive Democrat with deep ties to the Texas business community. 1n 1986 he was named to the Dallas ISD’s Commission for Educational Excellence. In 1991 he proposed that standardized tests be used to punish under performers. Rewards and cash prizes would be heaped if scores improved, while consequences included teacher and administrator firing and school closure. His system turned out to be nearly identical to then one found in the NCLB legislation. This is no surprise as Kress was tight with Governor Ann Richards and her successor George W. Bush.

3. The Huston Mirage

  • In order for the test-and-punish system to be credible, there was a need for some poor districts to exceed expectations on criteria like test scores and drop-out rates. Enter Rod Page, the superintendent of the Huston School District. Prior to landing this job, Page was on the Huston school board and this was his first K-12 public education job. He took a no nonsense approach and let administrators and teachers know that they would produce good results or else. The results were indeed impressive and thanks in part to a journalists who seemed to be dupes, they were soon touted as the Huston Miracle. Governor Bush would soon call it the Texas Miracle. As we have seen in places like China (Zhao, 2014), when authorities expect something, the rank and file deliver, even if they have to cheat. The miracle was soon shown to be the result of people gaming the system. It was easy to game the drop-out rate. All schools had to do was pretend that students who left enrolled elsewhere even when they knew otherwise. As for test scores, outright cheating was supplemented by holding students back and then skipping them over grades where the tests were given. The system also ignored the stagnant results of Huston students on other tests.

4. Test-and-Punish Goes to Washington

  • Traditionally, the Republican party had been the party of small government and local control for education. With George W. Bush placing education at the center of his campaign for president in 2000, the party was now promising a massive increase in the size and authority of the federal Department of Education. With help from Democrats (that John doesn’t mention) Bush pushed through the NCLB legislation during his first two years in office. This soon resulted in both lower teacher moral and lower opinions of public school by Americans.
  • The policies that resulted were created in large part by organizations like The Heritage Foundation and the Business Roundtable. The system was tied blindly to student age levels as if everyone learns at the same speed, and resulted in achingly prescriptive instruction and security protocols. The cut points used to determine passing are magic numbers that only the chosen few seem to understand. Testing weeks can make schools seem like they were ripped from a dystopian novel set in some frighteningly autocratic future. It seems clear that the system is rigged to transfer public funds to the account books of private or private nonprofit outfits. Caught up in all this are the Common Core Standards. While they might be good, too many administrators, teachers, and parents saw them as tangled with the ulterior motives of the business-foundation-government effort to encourage public school flight.
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