Friday, November 8, 2013

Test and Punish, by John Kuhn Reviewed: An American Horror Story

Kuhn, J. (2013) Test and Punish: How the Texas Education Model Gave America Accountability without Equity. Austin, TX. Park Place Publications


John Kuhn has a story tell. It is a horror story worthy of Stephen King made even more horrible because it is true. It is the story of how Texas released the “test and punish” monster on public education and how, like a 1950’s science fiction movie, that monster came to threaten the entire country.

Kuhn is particularly well-qualified to tell this story. He is the ultimate participant observer, having served as a public school administrator in Texas and then becoming a vocal advocate for public education when politicians in Texas combined huge spending cuts with a draconian school accountability scheme. He has been a leader of the Save Texas Schools movement and the speech he gave at that organization’s July, 2011 rally (included in this volume) went viral on Youtube.

To tell his story, Kuhn takes us all the way back to 1968, when citizens in one of the financially strapped school districts in San Antonio, Texas, noting the great resources available to a school district just outside of town, sued the State for equitable funding. The fault, of course, lay in the State’s dependence on property taxes, which disproportionately favored wealthier neighborhoods. That suit unleashed a decades long battle between the advocates of equity and the powerful wealthy business people and parents who wished to maintain the inequitable status quo. Guess who won?

It is not, however, the fact that the moneyed interests won that is so important, but how they won. The plaintiffs in the original suit actually won their case, but through a long series of appeals and new lawsuits, the forces for equity won a few battles, but they lost the war. How? The politically influential citizens of Texas hit on a winning strategy: they convinced the people of Texas that funding inequity and poor student achievement outcomes were unrelated. Poor outcomes had nothing to do with money, but were instead “the simple result of bad classroom instruction” (location 239). The convoluted way that this all came to be is the heart of the book and it is quite a tale. Suffice it to say that some of the names involved have come to haunt all friends of public education throughout the country. It is a dishonor roll of conservative politics and reform education mis-leaders: George W. Bush, Rod Paige, Margaret Spellings, Sandy Kress, Ross Perot, John Cornyn and The Pearson Corporation among others.

Cornyn got the ball rolling when the now U.S. Senator, then a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, in a dissent from the majority, suggested that equity in education was not about equitable distribution of funds only, but about educational “efficiency”, which he defined as measurable results of educational quality. Perot moved the ball down the field, when, as the leader of the Select Committee on Public Education, he declared that the schools were not producing enough quality graduates.

That brings us to Sandy Kress who carried the ball over the goal line with a “single minded obsession on standardized test-based accountability.” Working in collusion with his powerful friends in the business community, Kress, in his position as a member of the Dallas Independent School District’s Commission for Educational Excellence, pushed for test based accountability and a system of rewards and punishments for schools, teachers and administrators. If schools did well, there would be rewards, praise and cash prizes. If the scores fell there were punishments such as being labeled “failing schools” and facing the firings of teachers and principals or school closures. Sound familiar?

When Kress moved up to the State Department of Education, the model he began in Dallas was expanded to the entire state of Texas. Eventually, Kress, nominally a Democrat, became new Governor Bush’s education advisor. While Kress was bending Bush’s ear, he was also receiving lucrative consulting fees from Pearson, the company that would come to dominate the Texas testing juggernaut to the tune of 500 million dollars. Test based accountability aligned perfectly with the financial interests of Pearson and that company’s extreme lobbying efforts resulted in Texas testing everything but the armadillos crossing the road on a West Texas highway.

The rest of the story is familiar to most of us. Bush moved from Texas to Washington, D.C. after the Supreme Court ruled him the winner of the 2000 election. Along with Bush came that Houston miracle man himself, Rod Paige, as Secretary of Education. Kuhn devotes a chapter to Paige, called The Houston Mirage, that is a cautionary tale for anyone buying into public school miracle talk. When the news of Paige’s improprieties in manipulating numbers in Houston became too much for him to continue, Bush replaced him with another Texas test and punish advocate, Margaret Spellings. Along the way, in 2002, we got the Texas model of test and punish for the entire nation, No Child Left Behind. Despite the hopes of public education advocates, President Obama and his Secretary of Education have doubled down on test and punish in the form of Race to the Top.

And so, Kuhn shows us, as Texas goes so goes public education in America. Let us hope that this continues to be true for a bit longer, because Kuhn’s book ends on a hopeful note. Parent groups, horrified by the amount of testing their children were being subjected to, have been successfully challenging the test and punish brigade. Politicians, responding to pressure from constituents, began to listen. Wendy Davis, State Senator from Ft. Worth and recent popular feminist hero, called the student assessment system “a colossal failure.” Pearson and its lobbyists came under fire. The number of tests was reduced. Kuhn feels that thanks to the pressure of parent and educator groups, politicians “finally came to understand that education reform was not synonymous with zealotry and over testing” (location 2047).

The book is compelling and informative. I have only two minor quibbles. First, it may have been helpful for the lay person, if Kuhn had clearly defined what he meant by the  “punish” of the title (labeling schools, closing schools, firing staff, even just creating the impression that educators were not doing their jobs). Second, the chapter on Diane Ravitch is interesting, as reading about a true public education hero, Kuhn quotes another writer who calls her “our necessary contrarian”, should be and she is also from Texas, but for me, the chapter detracted some from the narrative flow and focus of the book.

As I said, these quibbles are minor. The book is a must read for all public school advocates. As we all came to understand in school, if we don’t learn our history we are doomed to repeat it. John Kuhn presents a history we would be loath to repeat. If I don’t quite share his optimism at this point, perhaps that is only because I don’t live and work in Texas on the front lines as John does.

One more thing, don’t fail to read the appendices – John’s “Alamo Letter” and his speech to the Save Our Schools rally. They left me in tears of pain and of joy. They are worth the price of the book alone.