The Glen Ford Report: High Stakes Testing is a Weapon for School Privatization

by the Real News Network

White House pledges to reduce standardized testing are bogus, says Ford. Administration policy is to use standardized testing to "fail" public schools and replace them with charters.

by the Real News Network

JARED BALL: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I'm Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

In case you missed the weekend announcement from the Obama administration, there would seem to be a reversal of the previously heavily promoted Race To The Top, and the culture of test and prep that has come to dominate many conversations around public education. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says that it remains important that there be at least some form of annual tests to assess student progress, but that the new plan is to reduce class time spent on standardized tests to less than 2 percent of instructional time. To assess the value or meaning behind this announcement in this edition of the Ford Report is the executive editor and founder of Black Agenda Report, Glen Ford. Glen, welcome back to the Real News.

GLEN FORD, EXEC. EDITOR, BLACK AGENDA REPORT: Thank you for having me, Jared.

BALL: So tell us what you think of this announcement, and if in fact it does appear as it seems, to be a reversal, and if it in fact has any teeth behind it.

FORD: There are no teeth behind it. The president says that he'll come up with new guidelines in January. The trimming down of the time that they say would be spent on these tests is small. Nothing essential is going to change. And of course, nothing can change in terms of this administration, its relationship to testing, and its relationship to charter schools. And they are inseparable, we can't look at one without looking at the other. This was just a theater of false contrition. And there's a reason for it that we'll get to in just a little bit.

But the high-stakes testing regime, the reason for it, its whole reason for being, is to flunk public schools in black and brown communities so that space can be made for charter schools. This is the Democratic way of school privatization. And they can't accomplish it without this high-stakes testing. President Obama has thrown the whole weight of the federal government behind charter schools, that's why he's behind high-stakes testing. He has become the biggest privatizer of public education in U.S. history. That is, bigger than George Bush. Much worse than George Bush. He's already shifted billions of dollars in public monies away from the conventional public schools and into the charter schools, and he's created the conditions that have led to the firing of tens of thousands of black teachers. And in fact, under his regime we see more black teachers being fired than at any time since the desegregation era, the school desegregation era of the '50s, when black teachers were fired en masse. Now the same thing is happening again under the guise of education reform.

And to make the Obama administration's privatization plans complete, he has put in charge of the Education Department a man, John King, who has spent his entire career as an advocate and educator in charter schools. That is all he knows. And his job is to turn all of the federal educational machinery to the purpose of spreading charter schools.

So we know that charter schools is the model that President Obama has been working towards all along, and the only way to achieve that model is to continue to flunk out public schools, and the only way to do that is with high-stakes testing. So the question then becomes why is President Obama at this point in time trying to pretend as if he wants to ease up on the testing regime? The reason is this is an election year. There was a Gallup poll that was conducted this past summer, and it showed that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not believe that what's wrong with the public schools is bad teachers or unions. They believe that what's wrong with their public schools is insufficient funding. And that goes for all groups of the American public, including black parents.

So the Democrats need to put forward a different kind of face as they go into this election year. They badly need the millions of unionized teachers, public school teachers, to not just get out and vote for Democrats, even though Democrats have been making their jobs more and more insecure, they need those teachers to man the phone banks as they traditionally have in favor of Democratic candidates.

So Obama's act this past week, his apology, was all a kind of theater of lies. But what we know his legacy will actually be will be having sold public education down the river. And that's a hell of a legacy for the first black president.

BALL: Glen, if I can just very quickly get you to respond to a couple points. Again, just very quickly. One is I've seen in some of the critiques the federal government doesn't have--critiques of this claim coming from the White House, that is, that number one the federal government doesn't determine for schools how much testing actually occurs, that they can use the bully pulpit to encourage this or that but it's really up to states and local school districts. And the other thing is, in terms of how much is dedicated towards testing. The other is, is that if the stakes--that is, if rewards or financial benefits are attached to test scores, then how would even this claim change any of that?

FORD: Well, I don't understand the second part of the question. But in terms of the power of the federal government to influence what kinds of tests are administered, and therefore how much time is taken up with the tests, they have a great deal of power. And it's, it is more than the bully pulpit. The federal government, under Race To The Top especially, has initiated a kind of a point system for schools. That point system can be used, and the educators at the local level know it, as a threat to not withhold federal funds, but to withhold awards of additional federal funds. Which is the same thing. So yeah.

BALL: And that's what I meant. That's really what I meant by the stakes being attached to the tests, that if those benefits are still attached to these scores, then what point does it make to say that we're going to reduce the amount of time allotted for testing? Schools are still going to feel compelled to prepare their students to do well so they can get that increased funding.

FORD: Of course. If you're a salesman and half of your earnings come from commissions, and only the other half is through salary, the threat to give you a route that doesn't produce many commissions is a real threat, and it's the same thing with schools. If you put forth a menu that you make clear is the one that the federal government prefers in terms of testing, and the school doesn't order from that menu, well, the school can expect that it won't be looked on favorably when those bonus monies are handed out by the feds.

BALL: Glen Ford, thanks again for joining us here at the Real News.

FORD: Thank you.

BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News as well. And for all involved, again, I'm Jared Ball here in Baltimore saying, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you're willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we'll catch you in the whirlwind.