The nation exploded in surprise that thirty people nationwide, including two famous actresses, were indicted for participating in scams to get their children into elite universities. Educators similarly exploded in surprise, but for a different reason– we were shocked that the wealthy and powerful were being held accountable for something that’s been widespread for decades. Educators have known about this– and more– for years, yet no one has listened to educators about the widespread inequities in education.
Are you ready to listen now?
Let’s start with the obvious:
Standardized tests are worthless. Educators know that performance on a standardized test is nearly useless in measuring a student’s overall performance in a subject or in predicting a student’s future performance in that subject. A standardized test only measures how good students are at taking standardized tests, which is why plonking down $1300 for an SAT prep course can bring a student’s scores up so dramatically in a such a short period of time. I’ve been teaching both university and high school students for 30 years, so believe me when I tell you that teaching someone how to take the SAT in my subject is entirely different than teaching my subject. Take a look at the job requirements for a Kaplan employee— they’re not looking for a PhD in the subject or experience teaching it; what they want is a high SAT or ACT score in the subject. High standardized test scores can be bought if you have the money for a test training class. Add to this our longstanding knowledge that people with economic privilege score higher on standardized tests overall, and you can see what these tests are really measuring.
But that’s not the only reason standardized testing is problematic. The SAT, PSAT, and AP exams (among others) are administered by a company called College Board. On the surface, they appear to be a nonprofit devoted to creating and administering standardized tests. Have you proctored one of these exams recently? I have. When students take the PSAT, a practice exam whose scores are never distributed to anyone but the students and their high school, College Board insists on students providing full legal names, home addresses, and social security numbers when each exam is already given a unique identifying code. College Board asks for pages of optional information such as phone numbers, GPA, and whether a student’s parents are US citizens.
Here’s why: College Board makes millions selling the student data they collect to anyone with the cash to pay for it. Here’s the link— buried deep on the website– that helpfully provides various payment plans. You can buy information on individual minors for just 45 cents “per name,” pay $7.710 for the right to roam free through the collected information of minors in an “unlimited annual subscription,” or upgrade your annual subscription to an unlimited “Segment Analysis Service™” for $17,750. Here’s a chart of the kind of data you can buy— including race, GPA, “religious interest,” and whether the student is a “first generation” American.
Is the ACT better? No.
Companies that market various services to students purchase your child’s information in order to market to them. College Board pressures students to check the box opting in to “Student Search Services” by requiring test proctors to read a paragraph extolling its virtues, pretending that opting in will result in elite universities recruiting them– without considering that universities are just as likely to use that data to eliminate them from consideration. Students are also told that opting in will result in scholarships contacting them, a deeply unethical promise that plays on the very real fears around paying skyrocketing tuition. This private company’s executives are dangling the false promise of scholarships to students to entice them to hand over data– data that those executives sell to enrich themselves and ensure their own children have unfair advantages over the very students whose data they sell.
Standardized testing exists to generate wealth for testing companies, and for companies that purchase the marketing data testing companies gather.
But testing companies aren’t the only private companies lining their pockets with public education funds. Two of the most successful education profiteers are companies that market educational systems and companies that create charter schools.
In the past few decades, schools were suddenly labeled “in crisis,” and the phrase “failing schools” was everywhere. Nothing had changed– in fact, literacy rates were at an all-time high– but suddenly schools were all “failing” due in large part to “bad teachers” protected by unions. Never mind that non-union states have lower test scores than union states. Facts were not the point. This was marketing meant to shift public opinion, and it worked beautifully. Standardized tests were quickly positioned as the key factor used to measure “teacher effectiveness” and identify “low-performing schools” by demanding that scores rise by a set percentage each year in order to “pass.” This makes no sense, as pedagogical effectiveness can only be measured using a complex variety of assessments and data. Just ask anyone who’s been through a WASC report. This also makes no statistical sense, since the student population at any given site or in any given teacher’s classroom changes from year to year, so you’re comparing two different populations. But, again, this was not about facts. This was fear-mongering meant to manufacture a crisis. The crisis was manufactured by business-friendly politicians so that corporations could sell us the solutions.
In addition to the billions of tax dollars shelled out to testing companies, and the additional profiteering in selling your child’s data, there are further billions to be made in educational systems and charter schools, all of which depend on maintaining the mythology that schools are “failing” and that we must continually hemorrhage money into private companies to “save” our schools.
It’s important to understand that the educational system is unfairly structured in favor of the wealthy at its core. Public school funding is based on property values. Yes, you read that correctly: higher property taxes means more money for schools, because so much about K-12 public education is district by district. This translates into endless benefits for the affluent: higher teacher salaries that attract and retain talent, smaller class sizes and more varied classes (including the art, music, and theatre programs that translate into better grades and better student retention), better facilities, better extracurriculars– in short, everything that educators know improves student outcomes. Poor Black women are jailed for “stealing” educations when they falsify residencies to get their children into higher-rated schools, but those schools are only better because the wealthy unfairly structured the system. While the children of the wealthy are given the best of everything, my public school teacher husband has had to seat students on the counters because there were not enough chairs. But there’s plenty of money in his district to spend on educational systems and charter schools.
Educational systems. Without getting too deep into the ed policy weeds, pre-2018, schools that went into “program improvement” were forced into choosing from a list of draconian measures that included firing every single teacher or purchasing an expensive “program improvement” educational system from a private company. While the rules have become somewhat less draconian, “low-performing schools” are still singled out through testing and are still required to take steps to “improve.” These “educational systems” sold by private companies are expensive and proprietary. Teachers must undergo hours of training on the new system and have almost no flexibility for what we call “differentiated education”– changing things up for individual students who have different learning styles, the gold standard in pedagogy. While I have all the academic freedom I had in university teaching in my private school classroom, my public school teacher husband is required to teach to a system that is, in a word, wretched. I’ve found multiple errors in the material the system requires his students to use, everything from teaching students erroneous grammar to study questions that don’t match the reading . Even without the errors, no educator on the planet would say a one-size-fits-all system was pedagogically useful. It’s the antithesis of effective pedagogy. Yet these essentially useless systems drain billions of tax dollars out of schools and into the pockets of the corporate profiteers who sell them, while those corporate profiteers send their own children to expensive private schools with individualized instruction.
Charter schools. Charter schools are run by private companies but, somehow, are considered public schools and funded by your tax dollars. The charter school system was a gift from a business-friendly government to private companies as the first step towards privatizing education. Literally any company that files the paperwork can start siphoning tax dollars out of the local school system and into their own pockets without having to prove they actually know how to teach. Don’t get me wrong– there are good charter schools out there run by true believers with a vision– but too many charter schools are run by people with no experience in pedagogy or school administration. In order to collect public funding, you need students, and charter schools have aggressively marketed themselves. Shady charter schools have run wild in areas that lack economic privilege, preying on desperate parents, promising a better education than the woefully underfunded public schools– schools the charters are helping to defund– and pretending to deliver results by manipulating test scores through weeding out low performers in the admissions process, “counseling out” low-performing students, and suspending them or just marking them absent on test day. Charters are notorious for low teacher pay and poor treatment of teachers because they’re exempt from hiring union teachers, just as they’re exempt from almost all the regulations and oversight we put in place to ensure high-quality public schools. While there are good charter schools, the program itself was designed as a love letter to regulation-hating corporations who wanted to privatize public education, and as such it privileged the needs of the wealthy over the needs of the students, and created a host of problems for which charter schools have become notorious among educators. And while all aspects of privatization of public schools, like charters and vouchers, have been the darling of the right, it’s worth noting that charter schools were created by the Clinton Administration and heartily supported by the Obama Administration.
This is the tip of the iceberg; there’s so much I’ve left unsaid, including the critical influence of racism on all of this. This is just a taste in the hope that people will begin to listen to educators when forming ed policy. For decades, we have formed ed policy around the lie that educators cannot be trusted to helm education, and now we have a ship that has been all but handed over to corporate raiders and privateers.
For the past few decades, education policy in America has been set largely by business-friendly politicians who have done everything they can to use public education funding to line the pockets of the wealthy. They have allowed testing companies to collect and sell personal data about minors. They have wildly overstated the efficacy of standardized tests and increased their importance in every sector of American education to create revenue for testing company executives. They have used those standardized tests to create impossible standards for schools to meet, and when schools inevitably “failed,” they forced schools to purchase expensive “program improvement” systems from private companies. They’ve used those standardized tests to justify handing public funding to private companies to open “charter schools” with no oversight. In short, bad ed policy has opened the coffers of public education and tacked up a sign saying, “Carpetbaggers Welcome.”
Believe educators when we tell you where the problems are– and where they are not. Stop allowing the wealthy to enrich themselves by raiding public school coffers. Put education policy back in the hands of educators.