The Great Te(s)t Offensive

by Martin Harris

Folks with longer memories will recall a trio of things from the (not-so) Soaring Sixties: one was the Tet Offensive in VietNam, which failed militarily but succeeded politically; a second was the major expansion of Special Education as part of the overall Great Society ambitions of the Johnson Administration; and a third was the introduction of the phrase “French Disease” by the writers of The Wall Street Journal, to describe the electoral strategy of inviting dependence on government, via jobs and contracts or transfer payments and freebies, to both the upper and lower classes, with the calculation that the former can remain in power permanently when enough of a grateful and enlarged under-class will reliably vote for them, in trade for the “stuff” they promise. That syndrome was then being demonstrated by a series of French governments more interested in building re-election support by offering “stuff”, than by building the productive economy via initiatives in tax and regulatory relief. Today’s domestic Te(s)t Offensive is the fairly new campaign, ostensibly to hold K-12 teachers responsible for student achievement failures even though (another product of 60’s-era educational innovation) teachers no longer are permitted to control their classrooms by means of once-traditional disciplinary means up to and including removal of problematic disengaged and disruptive (non) students to the principal’s office. Te(s)t is an acronym for Teacher Evaluation by Student Testing.

The seriousness of this new offensive can be gauged by the emergence of a brand-new teacher-accreditation (non-governmental, for presumably enhanced credibility) organization, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, which has just named its very first Board of Directors. Its multi-page web site says that it will soon publish on-going standards for teacher-college graduates once established in their own classrooms, using as criteria, among other things, how well their students perform on achievement tests. Like the original Tet Offensive and the Special Ed initiatives, it has (a little Humble Scribe speculation here) an objective other than its seeming goal. Doing more “good things” for special-ed kids, we began to understand at the time, was much less about literally (and improbably) correcting the physical and mental constraints these kids had inherited or acquired than it was about increasing K-12 staffing (see French Disease motivations, above) and it now seems likely that “teacher evaluation by student testing”, when “Students-Who-Won’t- Learn” can’t be removed from the classroom, is similarly about increasing K-12 staffing, this time by necessitating newly-hired Resource Officers in every classroom where disruption or worse is possible. In the 60’s, Special Ed expert Jean Garvin, at the Vermont Education Department under the Commissionerships of first John Holden and then Richard Gibboney, occasionally described her objectives in just such terms: with enthusiastic adoption of “mainstreaming”, she explained, many Special Ed kids would need personal aides to support them in non-Special Ed classrooms, and that would mean, she said, more votes for the school budget at March Meeting time, irrespective of the instructional diversions thus caused. And, indeed, Vermont has long had one of the highest-in-the–Nation percentages of Special Ed kids in “mainstream” rather than SE classrooms. The parallel to today’s teacher-evaluation initiative seems a fairly clear-cut example of what the Journal first labeled as “the French Disease”, a policy of using any problem to grow government employment and support, whether the problem itself is reduced or not. Indeed, Jean Garvin addressed exactly that aspect of her Special Ed responsibilities when she observed that, for obvious reasons, the SE staff couldn’t and wouldn’t actually be expected to solve their kids’ physical and mental problems to any measurable standards, just to try their best to ameliorate them.

This political calculus may well explain widespread State Education Department support for both the new CAEP and for its new accreditation standards, not only for teacher education itself,, but for measuring on-going teacher achievement in the classroom once employed in the K-12 establishment. Until now, teacher hostility to being measured by student scores, when they can’t, as their predecessors once did, effectively control their classrooms, was widespread and well-publicized, and enjoyed considerable parent and taxpayer support precisely because the public is well aware of both the chronically-low student-achievement test score problem and the concerns over what’s going on in the classroom. Those worrisome trends include not only the multiple shifts from one supposedly innovative reading or math curriculum to another, but the multiple anecdotal reports of political ideology and social engineering taking instructional time away from the once-traditional basics, and, of course, the constant anecdotes of classroom disruption and school yard bullying, not just an inner-city phenomenon but occasionally making news even in demographically and socio-economically less-stressed Vermont. In Addison County, for example, all three high schools –Middlebury, Mt. Abraham, and Vergennes Union– have made the news columns in recent years. In that respect, the recent adoption of the Common Core Curriculum creates a pair of new problems.

First, as the first CC test scores from New York have just shown, student achievement hasn’t risen, even with ever-shrinking class sizes and now, a brand-new curriculum; and second, with a very few exceptions in Texas and Oklahoma, restoring teacher control of classrooms has not acquired legislative encouragement; and so the pressure for teacher-evaluation by-student-testing has gained political clout. What better way (think French Disease) to seem to address it than by welcoming it and then calling for more staff?