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John White Defends Test-Punitive Ed Reform Against “Critic” Betsy DeVos

February 13, 2018

On January 16, 2018, US ed sec Betsy DeVos spoke to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) about the failure of ed reform to date, and the need for a cure: to go “bigger” than choice, to, well, a form of unbounded choice:

Choice in education is not when a student picks a different classroom in this building or that building, uses this voucher or that tax-credit scholarship. Choice in education is bigger than that. Those are just mechanisms. …

Which leads to my final point: if America’s students are to be prepared, we must rethink school. …

It’s past time to ask some of the questions that often get labeled as “non-negotiable” or just don’t get asked at all:

  • Why do we group students by age?
  • Why do schools close for the summer?
  • Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun?
  • Why are schools assigned by your address?
  • Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place?
  • Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in?
  • Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace?
  • Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?
  • Why do we limit what a student can learn based upon the faculty and facilities available?

Boundless choice.

DeVos ostensibly arrives at her boundless-choice conclusion because America has had No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT), with its Common-Core appendage, and still, PISA “performance” is not only not improving, but it dropped in math from 2012 to 2015.  2015 PISA math is below average, but DeVos wants the US PISA rankings to move:

The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.

Note that US PISA scores from 2000 – 2015 are erratic across testing years in science, math, and reading.

The US has never fared well on international tests, and NCLB and RTTT hasn’t coincided with US PISA, test-score, ranking-rising magic.

If being tops on PISA translated into world dominance, Singapore would have become a major world power years ago. However, US PISA rankings allow DeVos to transform NCLB and RTTT failure into a handy soapbox for a solution to all that allegedly ails us: boundless choice.

Now, what is interesting is that Louisiana state superintendent John White, who, like DeVos, is a proponent of charter and voucher choice, tries to paint test-centric ed reform as having worked its marvels on American education after all, with the glorious outcome (and indeed, saving grace) being “true public-private partnership,” as White published in this February 08, 2018, Washington Post op-ed.

White stops short of including any hint that public-private partnership too often involves the private serving itself at the public’s expenses and out of the public eye until some fraud hits the news. Sometimes the fraud just keeps coming in the same ed-reform-embracing places, like DC, for example. Or Los Angeles.

Or Ohio. Or Arizona.

But back to White

Let us consider White’s op-ed at its beginning. In his opener, White paints DeVos as a critic of ed reform progress:

On the extremes of the right and the left, there is a growing desire to discredit a generation of progress in American public schools.

Critics have adopted a “nothing works” stance: The previous four presidents, the story goes, have advocated higher learning standards, tests that measure whether students met those standards and an expectation of action based on results. Yet, these critics assert, there’s been no progress. Therefore, standards, tests, accountability systems and a generation of new schools dedicated to serving the poor must not have worked.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos picked up this thread in a speech last month, assailing “federally imposed tests,” “state mandates,” “centralized control” and “top-down reform.”

NCLB certainly fits the bill on all of White’s italicized terms above– and NCLB is the federal law that began test-and-punish from the federal government down to states, districts, and teachers and students in classrooms.

In an effort to show American progress via testing obsession, White skirts PISA in favor of fourth-grade NAEP scores (not eighth-grade NAEP). He also travels back to pre-test-and-punish times, to 1983 and A Nation at Risk. Both maneuvers help disguise the fact that the NCLB advent of test-and-punish has not produced test-score-heightening marvels even on non-international NAEP.

Let’s witness White’s lubricated logic in action:

Let’s take the claim of failure first. The most widely trusted yardstick of American students’ learning is the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Over the past quarter-century, the share of American fourth-graders fully proficient in math on the NAEP increased by 27 percentage points. The share of proficient fourth-grade readers increased by seven percentage points. Over that time, proficiency among African American fourth-graders increased by 18 percentage points in math and 10 percentage points in reading, and Latino fourth-graders’ proficiency gained 21 points in math and nine points in reading.

Note the manipulation: We’re going back “a quarter-century,” and we’re not only avoiding PISA; we’re also dissing eight-grade NAEP.

However, if one compares NAEP proficiency in math prior to NCLB (1990 – 2000) and following passage of NCLB (2003 – 2015), one sees that in both fourth-grade and eighth-grade math, NAEP proficiency rates rose at a higher rate prior to test-punitive NCLB than following passage of NCLB– with proficiency rates actually decreasing from 2012 to 2015– an issue White skirts. (In other words, White’s proclaimed “27 percentage points” fourth-grade NAEP proficiency-rate increase was 29 percentage points in 2012 and fell two points in 2015.)

From the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) on fourth- and eighth-grade NAEP math across the years (page 2):

photo (8)

NAEP in reading (1992 – 2015) provides even less of an argument for the merits of test-centered ed reform, with eight-grade NAEP reading proficiency rate at 33 percent in 2002 and then dropping below that until 2011, when it reached 34 percent:

From NCES on fourth- and eighth-grade NAEP reading across the years (page 2):

photo (9).JPG

Keep in mind, folks, that this false yet “remarkable story of school change in the United States is precisely that it has comprised a true public-private partnership.”

White wants more school choice, but he also wants test-based reforms to stay in place. Keep in mind that in order for him to package them as working, he has to carefully construct a card house out of select NAEP scores. He does so in hopes of manipulating the very public he supposedly wants to empower.

In the end, DeVos and White are more alike than different. Both DeVos and White selectively manipulate test data in order to nudge public support for their intersecting agendas — DeVos wants support for privatization, and White also wants privatization with a continuance of failed accountability schemes that are used to justify increased public spending on private programs and products.

Both push for school choice, and both use test scores to argue for what they want. However, it also seems that White wants to be sure that DeVos doesn’t go too far in disparaging test-centered ed reform. After all, without a public buy-in for test score reform, market-based ed reform would be undone.


photo (10)


I wrote a few books. Here’s one on the history of charter schools and vouchers:

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

And here are two more: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. Swell stuff.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

One Comment
  1. Edd Doerr permalink

    The questions by DeVos are bizarrely stupid. And AEI has been a foe of public education since before DeVos began her crusade against public education.

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