Interrupting the Data Factory: The CTU vs. Standardized Testing

From the November-December 2012 PNL #819

by Ben Kuebrich

On September 10, 2012, for the first time in 25 years, the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) went on strike.

In many ways this is the first major challenge to the bipartisan agenda of turning over public education and replacing it with a corporate model of high-stakes testing, superficial teacher evaluation, and charter schools—a strategy that started with Bush’s No Child Left Behind and continues with Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT).

We should all be paying close attention to what happens in Chicago because it is a harbinger of things to come nationally. Arne Duncan, the current Secretary of Education, is the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), where he used data from standardized testing to close underperforming schools and replace them with charters, with little improvement to show for the changes. Nonetheless, Duncan brought the same philosophy to his national reform agenda, putting in place the 4.3 billion dollar RTTT, a competitive program where states get money for making reforms that will fundamentally change the objectives of educators and the control of schools.

Source: Mike Keefe, Denver Post, 2002Source: Mike Keefe, Denver Post, 2002Through RTTT, states compete for funding by accepting a common set of national standards, lifting caps that would limit the number of charter schools, and tying testing to teacher evaluation and salary. To qualify for funding, Illinois made it law for a minimum of 30% of teacher evaluation to be based on test scores. In recent negotiations with the CTU, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted more.

Chicago teachers rose up against this market-based philosophy of evaluation, with 92% of Chicago public teachers and the majority of Chicago parents supporting the union’s efforts. The CTU won some concessions for their students, like textbooks in class on day one, and defended against proposals to more closely link pay and evaluation to standardized testing.

It Doesn’t End in Chicago
Through programs like RTTT, Republican and Democratic administrations have chosen a model of evaluation that may seem common sense in our increasingly market-based society: test the student’s ability to do a task before and after a year with a teacher; compare those students’ improvements to other students, other teachers, and other schools; reward teachers and schools that do well, fire teachers and close schools that don’t.

But under this model, knowledge that can’t be reduced to A through E on a test has no significance for evaluators and will have increasingly less emphasis in the classroom. During a nascent form of the current trend, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire labeled this reductive style of teaching the “banking model of education,” with the teacher depositing information for the students to file and store. The teacher fills students with facts “detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance.”

While we use gaps in test scores to claim a never-ending education crisis, our current solutions create students ill-equipped to take on complex problems in the real world. We won’t solve the climate crisis, poverty, endless war, racism, or rampant consumerism with answers A through E.

Furthermore, national education reforms like RTTT scapegoat teachers for gaps in achievement, even though studies show that external factors like a student’s home life and income level are a much stronger indicator of their performance in a classroom than teacher quality. This matters in a place like Chicago where nearly nine in 10 public school students live beneath the poverty line. Acknowledging the connection between inequality and the classroom means broadening the scope of education reform instead of narrowing curriculums and punishing teachers.

Beyond narrowing the curriculum, one of the few known effects of the nation’s current reform agenda is that it reduces the number of public schools and unionized teachers—lifting the government’s responsibility to provide quality education to every student and diminishing the role of teachers to make the decisions that affect them. Instead, school boards of CEOs are hiring statisticians and using RTTT money for assessment software, replacing our system of education with systems of data collection.

It is clear that we need to fight the new bipartisan consensus on the corporate model of education. Diane Ravitch, a well-known education scholar, might say it best: “The CPS strike is about the heart and soul of public schooling [...] The education ‘crisis’ nationwide has been co-opted as a means of pushing privatization as the be-all-and-end-all solution to the ‘achievement gap.’ Schools are not businesses, children are not widgets, and teachers are not robots or machines. Let’s start there.”

This critique is the start, and the courage and democratic process of the CTU is a way forward. Instead of scapegoating teachers and unions, and flooding education with testing for their “accountability,” we need to trust the people in the classrooms enough to ask them for solutions. Through solidarity, democratic organizations, and the bonds between teachers, students, parents, and community organizations, we can win this fundamental human right: quality public education for all.


Ben is a teacher and doctoral student at Syracuse University.