Dark Sarcasm in the Classroom – How We Got Here

Hello, and welcome to the occasional education thread!  Any educational discussion is welcome in the comments!

Today, I’ve decided to give a primer on what all is with education in the US the last 20 years or so with the testing and Common Core and what the hell it all means.  I’m going from memory and am way to lazy to footnote, but I assure you my facts are pretty sound. ( I can’t speak much about higher education, though)

There are two major standardized tests I’m going to refer to here. The first is the Program for International Student Assessment, PISA which is an international test given to 15 year olds around the world every 3 years. The second is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, NAEP which measures students in 4th, 8th, and 12 grade in different subjects every year. Both these tests are considered statistically valid and are standardized, so bell curve and all. I’ll mostly refer to the NAEP  – also called “The Nation’s Report Card” ( ugh) .

The NAEP sorts scores into “Advanced” – think the rarest kinds of geniuses – “Proficient” – think “straight A students” and “basic” – everyone else.  The language is confusing, and you’ll see why.

1983-  A report called “A Nation at Risk” comes out and shows that kids from lower income communities and minorities tend not to score well on the NAEP and don’t do that well in school compared to their peers. This gets the ball rolling for various “education reform” programs throughout the country. A number of these are developed by non educators and aren’t especially successful.

2000 – George W.  Bush is elected president and famously asks, “Is our children learning?”

After he takes office, the No Child Left Behind Act, NCLB is enacted with sweeping bipartisan support. “It supported standards-based education reform based on the premise that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals could improve individual outcomes in education. The Act required states to develop assessments in basic skills. To receive federal school funding, states had to give these assessments to all students at select grade levels.

The particulars varied from state to state, but essentially students from 3rd grade up had to pass yearly English Language Arts (ELA) and math tests in order for schools to receive funding.  Each state set their own educational standards and made up their own tests. Testing and textbook companies made a fuckton of money.  Many states tied teacher performance ratings to test scores. Schools that didn’t make the grade got funding cut and / or were submitted to “reviews” and special designations. Most of these were schools in low income areas, with many minority students or a high proportion of special needs students.

Ever heard of Campbell’s Law? “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”[1]

So, yeah lots of that happened. Lots of scandals where teachers would erase answers, fudge the scores, etc. My anecdote from teaching special ed 5th grade in NYC in 2009 is this:  It was my second year of teaching, the math program was shit, the kids weren’t ready for 5th grade level math at the beginning of the year in the first place, there were numerous behavior and academic challenges. The state math test was in March, there was a snow day, the test was moved over a day, there was a HUGE school wide brawl in the cafeteria at arrival time – around 8:30 and the test began at 9 on the dot. I saw the test, knew I hadn’t covered much of what was in there and figured my students wouldn’t pass. In June, my principal came into my classroom with a cake and celebrated that all my students passed the test. I knew something was up, and it came out later that fall that the state had lowed the “cut” or passing score so it would look like progress was made statewide.

Most educators LOATHED this bullshit. Lots of teaching to the test. Lots of assessing kids throughout the school year – at the beginning and end of a unit, lots of PROVING that students were progressing- so much so that many teachers felt they spent more time assessing than actually teaching.  Most of the state tests weren’t put through the typically things a statitician would do to ensure validity, either.

Consensus was that NCLB was not a success.  PISA and NAEP scores remained flat or dipped down in most cases.

2008 – Barack Obama is elected president and most educators are looking forward to NCLB being a thing of the past.

But alas… Race to the Top, RTTP is enacted and in many ways doubles down on the mandates of NCLB. States had to apply for funding and meet certain criteria. One was to tie teacher performance to test scores. The other was to adopt the new Common Core State Standards.

There could be a whole ‘nother series of posts on the CCSS. Here’s the gist, though. The “architect” of the CCSS is a man named David Coleman.  Remember those categories of the NAEP? He and his team backwards designed them from what a “proficient” score on the NAEP is – the score that is well to the left of the bell curve – scores only “A students” would normally get.  Many elementary school educators were dismayed to have to teach concepts that most kids aren’t typically developmentally ready for.

Now, I’m not knocking backwards design as an educational strategy, and there certainly are elements of the CCSSs that are good practice. But they were dumped onto the laps of rank and file educators who had no training in them. Also? They weren’t field tested or put through any of the rigors a new curriculum or older state-wide standards would have been. Testing  and textbook companies  made a fuckton of money, schools with low income, minority and special needs students suffered, PISA and NAEP scores remained flat – lather, rinse repeat.

In high school many students aren’t required to read a whole novel anymore. David Coleman’s most famous quote is “no one gives a shit what you think and feel.” He’s actually suggested not giving context to readings  here’s his video about a lesson on how to teach MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.,” if you can stomach it.


Sometime in the mid 2000s, the whole charter school movement started to get legs. Charter schools would try to attract families and funding by getting high test scores, in many cases not using best educational practices. Both public and charter schools offered less art, music, recess, gym, etc in favor of ELA and math instuction. Weird curricula appeared.  Last year, I saw a second grade teacher have to have 6 and 7 year olds fill out a Venn Diagram comparing Confucius and Buddha.  No one makes vinegar and baking soda volcanoes and dioramas any more. ( well, the rich kids do)

I teach special ed, so a lot of these issues, particularly the paperwork were compounded.

I left teaching full time in 2014 and can’t speak to teaching under the reign of Betsy DeVos, but I suspect that since she’d like to privatize everything, the RTTP stuff is still in place for most states.  Educators, being the resilient and creative types they always have been, have managed to mostly make a go at the CCSS in ways that make sense for their students – even if your 6th grader comes home with math homework you can’t understand.

But take a look at the number of teacher strikes around the country. Education policy is always on the back burner and we’re kind of stuck in a place where non- educators dictate policy. So lather, rinse repeat.

This is has been a very brief, very biased primer on US education.