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Volume III, Number 6, June, 2005

Faux Reform:
The Empress Has No Dress

While trumpeting quality, the Feds are really just pretending. They are not about quality. They cannot walk the talk.

Unwilling to pay the price of real testing like that employed by Connecticut, for example, they are using the vise-grip of NCLB to impose cheap testing across the land.

The Ed Department is pushing change strategies on schools that are wrong-minded, unproven and potentially damaging. High aspiration states like Connecticut are being told to lower their standards in order to test more often while keeping within the limited budget funds provided by the Feds.

Some of the measures imposed on states by the Ed Department violate sound principles of learning. They represent an actual reduction of educational quality.

We have unqualified, untrained people* giving advice to those who know better and have stronger educational credentials. Their advice is driven by politics and ideology rather than educational savvy.

The two people suggesting that Connecticut lower its standards and shift to cheap testing both come from states with questionable educational track records. The Secretary comes from years of poor results in Texas (see article). The Assistant Secretary who urged Connecticut to retreat to multiple choice testing comes from years of poor results in Arkansas (see below).

They share a history of faux reform.

The Empress has no dress!

Note article on her credentials.

*This nation should require that its Secretary of Education has served as a teacher and school administrator, has performed well in an educational graduate degree program and has demonstrated leadership in producing credible improvements in student performance as measured by tests such as NAEP (The National Assessment of Educational Progress.)

In May, the Secretary of Education wrote to the Commissioner of Education in Connecticut and made the following (preposterous) statement unsubstantiated by research evidence:
"Like you, I am committed to ensuring that the core principles of the law are preserved - ensuring that all students regardless of their skin color, spoken accent or street address receive a quality education - which can only be achieved if we measure student progress annually and disaggregate the data."
Source: May 3 Letter from Secretary Spelling to Commissioner Sternberg. To download as a PDF file the full text of the original document and Connecticut's response, click here.

The goal of taking care of children is fine, but the leap to imposing annual testing on all states is unsubstantiated by credible research. To the contrary, as was fully outlined last month in this journal, even the Texas experience contradicts the Secretary's assertion. Click here for the article. The phrase "can only be achieved if" is absurd in its claim, given the failure of this approach in Texas where this Secretary and her President tried annual testing unsuccessfully.

Like several other states, Texas tried annual testing for years when the Secretary worked for then Governor Bush. She failed to produce real learning gains. Texas shares the dubious honor of leading the nation (along with Mississippi) with the largest gaps between state claims of progress and actual results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Source: Rand Study - "Achieving State and National Literacy Goals, a Long Uphill Road: A Report to Carnegie Corporation of New York” at

The Empress Has No Dress

It is curious to watch this Secretary of Education giving advice to Connecticut. Her advice amounts to a dumbing down and cheapening of a high standards testing program. Connecticut's testing program assesses children, schools and teachers less frequently than the Secretary's simplistic, bargain basement approach, but it is superior in many respects.

Connecticut uses open ended questions and requires a substantial writing sample - quality measures the Secretary has suggested dropping in order to remain within budget.

While paying lip service to quality, the directives imposed from Washington actually promote lower standards and a testing program that will deliver a narrow curriculum and lowered aspirations. Cloaked in a curious mixture of smooth talk and heavy handed threats, the NCLB rules and regulations do the opposite of what the Secretary claims.

The New Values: Feet to the Fire

These autocrats must believe that their crude forms of accountability are the best ways to improve student learning; yet, there is no evidence to support this strategy.

If you strip away the fine words and the packaging, the main change strategy employed by these people is thinly disguised bullying. Accountability sounds less ominous, but it merely cloaks a more sinister reality.

"Hold their feet to the fire and children will become better readers!"

Accountabilty and frequent testing have become the Empress' new dress.

Threadbare and lacking in substance, this testing tactic is "see through" fashion at its worst.


"We are prepared to work closely with you on the other issues outlined in your April 22 letter, including . . . the development of assessments based on modified achievement standards."
Source: May 3 Letter from Secretary Spelling to Commissioner Sternberg.

This is code for dropping the high quality, open ended response items that Connecticut prefers while falling back to mere multiple choice testing as was suggested by Assistant Secretary Ray Simon during the session with Connecticut in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Simon's track record for giving advice? He ran the Arkansas Department of Education for six years before leaving for Washington in 2003.

"Arkansas has some of the highest percentages in the nation of public schools categorized as academically troubled on the basis of student test results," according to a new report compiled for the Education Commission of the States.

"Twenty percent, or 233, of Arkansas’ 1,159 public schools are classified this year as being in Year 1 of the School Improvement program mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. That puts Arkansas in a tie with Nevada as the fourth worst-performing state in that category. Similarly, 6 percent of Arkansas schools — 69 — are categorized as being in Year 2 of School Improvement, putting the Natural State in a tie with California for the third-worst ranking in the nation."

(Quotes from Arkansas Democrat Gazette, entitled, "State's Schools Rank Poorly in National Report", 3-29-05.)

Capacity Building Should Be The Focus of Reform

These Washington bureaucrats are ignoring what we know about making real change in schools.

Capacity building should be the focus of reform, not testing and bullying.

Research supports the value of capacity building. When teachers and schools are given the professional development and support that increases their ability to strengthen student performance, schools get better. When the society provides the social support systems and decent jobs that sustain healthy families and secure childhoods, student prospects improve.

The Feds' focus on annual testing is an ideological obsession that distorts the educational agenda and ignores what we know about winning sustained improvement in schools.

If states do not stand up and say "No!" to this bullying as Connecticut, Utah and others have, they run the risk of experiencing the same kind of faux-miracle that took place in Texas. To some of these folks, appearances are everything. They are satisfied with lowered drop out rates unmatched by lowered attrition rates. They are satisfied with state testing results that cannot stand up to rigorous national testing.

The imposition by Beltway bosses upon the states of testing programs, reading programs and change strategies is unconstitutional and wrong-minded.

© 2005, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.