The morning I dressed for the first day of the ATP "Innovations of Testing" conference in Scottsdale, my husband and I had the television tuned to C-SPAN. There, in a re-broadcast from just a few days earlier, Bill Gates was addressing the National Governors' Association at their annual meeting. I recalled that only three weeks before that, George Bush had delivered the first State of the Union Address for his second term, where he lauded the "success" of No Child Left Behind, the positive results of testing, and articulated his mission to "demand better results from our high schools."
With perfect rhetorical symmetry, Gates railed against the failure of public high schools, noting that the U.S. ranks 16th among industrialized countries with its graduation rate of 73%. (Gates did not clarify differences in total enrollment or sheer numbers of graduates. A few examples at the top of the list, though Gates did not include names: Denmark has 100% graduation, Norway's a close second at 97%, and Germany comes in third at 93%. Discuss.)
Even as Gates conceded, "I'm not here to pose as an education expert," he followed by saying, "I head a corporation and a foundation." Then he proceeded to elaborate on his observations about specific campuses and key lingo of the test-to-success program. Gates lamented the U.S.'s lack of science PhDs compared to those in India and China, without clarifying the longstanding socio-economic stratification in those countries. He took time to promote his own private foundation's recent financial investments in American schools. One of his most interesting critiques was that only privileged students were studying Algebra II in high school, while poor, minority others were stuck learning to balance a checkbook. (I've seen plenty of AP calculus students who would benefit from practical clues about managing money--and watching for corporate scams--but that's an aside for now.) Variations of Gates' speech were published in national newspapers the following week (the LA Times printed one version March 1).
The evangelical terminology and its business agenda makes a kind of perfect wallpaper--you barely notice it. You take it for granted. When someone as rich as Gates talks about education, glosses over a phrase like "improve schools" or "settle for nothing less," it's easy to see how people figure, "He must have better things to do. So he must really care."
The timing of the ATP conference after such perfect prepping was hard to miss. This became more than a gut impression once the conference began. The keynote speaker, Gaston Caperton, new President of the College Board and former Governor of South Carolina, referred to the same talking points Gates did. Caperton mentioned that he was just coming from the NGA conference, and sometimes he didn't even cite Gates. The same was true when one speaker from Pearson Assessments addressed the general assembly as part of a panel called "Titans of Testing."
A few other highlights from proponents of the managed care model of education:
- "Teachers are not trained to use formative assessments and change teaching on the fly, teachers are not qualified to write their own items...Districts are turning to test publishers for input on formative assessments to prepare them for high stakes tests...Test corporations need to be uncompromising in teacher training for use of benchmark assessments." (Lee Jones, President, Riverside Publishing)
- "We need to acknowledge the similarities of our various textbooks--there's not that much difference [among company textbook products]...If teachers buy in [to focused study guides, shared plans and other data] they might be able to test less--because formative tests are more integrated [into curriculum]." (Steve Kromer, VP and General Manager, Pearson Educational Measurement)
- "I'm not an expert in the field--I bring the business point of view...Formative assessments will replace teacher tests. Turning data into knowlege is key. We need to provide flexibility to non-expert users, be a facilitator of change without becoming the enemy--really reach out to unions, etc." (Jeff Galt, Harcourt Assessment)
- "People are turning to testing corporations and not the textbook companies for tests and formative assessments...Our Natural Language Processing technology can help scan millions of sentences to choose for reading assessments...Professional development and consulting are integral parts of our offerings, but "data driven" decision-making scares teachers...Teachers teach because they love children, and data is noise. They should teach to standards, not in the same way they always have, but it's not test prep. Tests should be tied to textbooks, assessments, and standards." (John Oswald, Senior VP and General Manager, ETS Elementary and Secondary Education)
[Conclusion next week...]