Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Here is a guest post by Iamcompucomp who is the creator of some very cool YouTube videos based on today's test and punish accountability policies and the drive to privatize public education.

The idea of working to close the so-called “achievement gap” in education is very similar to the concept of “greenwash” in environmentalism.

Greenwash is the term used to refer to propaganda deliberately used by polluters to cover up what they are really doing. A typical example would be the plant-a-tree days that are funded by big oil and auto companies. Obviously, no amount of tree planting will ever undo their damage, yet the public relations people know that greenwash is a great way to protect their profits from costly calls for more government regulation: it distracts people from real causes. It encourages people to “take personal responsibility” rather than blame corporations who are made to look like leaders of environmentalism.

Similarly, when we look at education, we find that its new mission around the globe has, ever since NCLB, become “closing the achievement gap,” that is, leaving no child left behind. I call this “gapwash” because it covers up the real problem of the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, a gap which was caused by globalization and technology which together have dealt a death blow to the “decent jobs” of yesteryear’s working class and given rise a new super-class of billionaires. “Closing the gap” gives educators a feel-good mission of raising test scores and graduation rates as it preserves the illusion that they are actually doing something to raise children out of poverty. Because, as many scientific studies have conclusively demonstrated, poverty will always be the single greatest cause of failure at school (and wealth not surprisingly predicts success), there is never any danger of the gap actually being closed. It is the perfect War on Terror for education. If it were actually possible to close some kind of achievement gap (and the sheer range in incomes and intelligences guarantees that it is not), the fact that it could never bring back the jobs that were exported to places that lack labour rights would become all too obvious.

Just as with greenwash, the real cause can never be addressed, but moreover, the “wash” distracts and diverts all energy into the busywork of what should be called “Stupid Goals” (referred to in today’s highly commercialized education lingo as “Smart Goals”): raising math and literacy scores or pass rates with the aid of all manner of commercial pedagogy (e.g. test strategy enhancement and/or systematic cheating as seen in recently in Atlanta), creative grade accounting (such as the various forms of “credit recovery”), and political manipulation (as seen most notably in New York under billionaire mayor Bloomberg).

Until this century the teacher’s job had been to educate and to provide equal opportunity, but the “closing the gap” agenda welded student “outcomes” to the fates of individual teachers, schools and districts. Education is now the perfect scapegoat for both child poverty and a seemingly chronic shortage of “human capital” needed in virtually every OECD member country to “make us competitive in the global marketplace.” The underlying mantra is always the same: “If we could only be more like Finland (currently number #1 on testing) then we’d all rich.” In reality, Finland’s gap is very largely attributed to the smaller economic gap between rich and poor. Yet, the corporate media, driven by barons like Rupert Murdoch, even scapegoats education for the 2008 Wall Street meltdown:

Society also gains when its citizens achieve. According to one study by McKinsey, if we had closed the gap in educational performance between ourselves and nations such as Finland and Korea, America’s GDP would have been as much as $2.3 trillion higher in 2008. That would be a 16% gain. Imagine that kind of gain compounded over time, and you begin to appreciate why other nations are putting such a premium on their school systems.

Not surprisingly, Murdoch wants to close down the what he and his ilk like to call “failure factories” in the poorer areas and replace them with charters.

Indeed the fact that “closing the gap” has become the mission of billionaires such as Murdoch, Gates, Broad, and the Waltons (of Walmart) ought to make us just a little suspicious. It is interesting how deeply caring they all appear to be when it comes to closing the gap IN SCHOOLS but how they oppose closing the gap outside school through progressive taxation or the provision of other social services, such as health care, welfare, or improvements to minimum wages. They encourage “right to work” legislation to allow for scab labor, but they oppose the right to job opportunity, which might limit the freedom of corporations to pull up roots and move to where the pickings are cheaper. Think-tanks and foundations which front for wealthy donors have a similar fixation with equalizing outcomes when it comes to school, but no conscience whatsoever for the poverty itself.

What is their motivation for putting the screws to public education? In simplest terms those with vested interests and a religious commitment to the ideal of schools as businesses in a free marketplace, want to privatize education. In a press release printed as news in the Calgary Herald, brimming with NCLB-style gapwash, the Fraser Institute’s Peter Cowley spells out the basic game plan. Suitably titled “Children should all have a chance to succeed”, the article demands "…bold action on the part of the provincial government. Instead of letting kids attend chronically low-performing schools, let's demand that Alberta Education open the province to school operators from around the world who have found ways of successfully meeting the challenges of children with personal and family characteristics not unlike those in Alberta's lowest performing schools. Let's encourage these more successful school operators--some of whom are already profiled on to establish themselves here in Alberta so that they can duplicate their success with those same kids that the current Alberta system is now failing.

The same “if-they-can’t-close-the-gap” justification for privatizing can be found in the literature of all libertarian and neo-conservative think tanks. It is also the hallmark of Obama’s Race to the Top program, which encourages replacement of the low performing schools with charters. Similarly Gates demands the bottom ten per cent of teachers (as defined by test score production) be fired. There are emphatically NO EXCUSES allowed in this game. The truth about poverty is strictly off limits.

Most teachers now see the evil of NCLB in the US and that is why tens of thousands are marching to “Save Our Schools” this summer. What many teachers, and sadly their unions, have failed to recognize even now is that the achievement gap is not a legitimate goal in the first place. It creates accountability for something which is impossible. This is done as a means of putting a spotlight on the supposed failures of public education. It becomes little more than a ritual of humiliation in which fresh sacrifices are constantly demanded by sadistic reformers in the name of "saving the children". .

The irrelevance of the achievement gap in relation to the real economic gap cannot be overstated. For example, in the U.S.(and several other countries) boys’ literacy is presented as a gap which must urgently be closed. But while girls consistently outperform boys on literacy tests, the average incomes of women are well below those of men, and there are considerably more women living in poverty.
 This is just about as absurd as it would be for us to say that we now need to close the gap for the rich or people with lighter skin. What it really shows of course is that the closing the gap agenda, has, like Hal, in 2001, taken on a power-tripping life of its own, one that benefits the "innovators" who constantly dream up new needs, accountabilities and inadequacies that can only be resolved through private sector "solutions."

Indeed, such accountability as is imposed for closing poverty, race, ethnicity or gender gaps in terms of “outcomes” is nothing but a strategy for undermining public schools, replacing them with charters, voucher schools and a huge arsenal of for-profit delivery systems such as e-learning, tutoring, data warehousing and turnaround consulting. It is a formula for turning a broad, knowledge-based education with an emphasis on democratic participation into mere skill training for jobs and test score competition, a formula which allows the big education corporations and investors on Wall Street to take over, to replace expensive, unionized teachers with cheaper “practitioners” or “facilitators”, scripted lessons, and computer software. And, above all, using the gap to keep schools in a permanent crisis of underperformance is a formula for profit.


  1. Wow! This is one of the best things I've read in a very long time. (Great video, too!)

    As a reading specialist, it bothers me greatly when the achievement of students learning to read in English is compared with the achievement of those learning to read in Finnish. The Finnish spelling system is one of the easiest languages to learn to read and write. English is one of the hardest. In addition, the attitudes and resources surrounding literacy in both countries are also very different. If these were equal (or at least pretty similar) for both sets of learners, I would not mind the comparison, but they are not. Early proficiency in literacy is correlated with later academic success and these differences matter greatly.

    If you are interested in learning more, I did a quick Google search and found these two articles that will shed some more light on the topic:

    "Literacy in Finland"

    "Holy grail of Finnish education a 'red herring' for English schools" -

  2. On reflection, public education was deemed so important we made it mandatory and, as is mentioned, it was a broad, knowledge based education with an emphasis on democratic participation. Heeding these differing standpoints and the potential for gains, public education is at a fork in the road and we can continue the way we have done which does not seem to be working for almost half of our children, literacy and then learning. Many seem puzzled about the next step and are both judgemental and seemingly hesitant, bogged down. On one hand, we could be broad minded and see that taking personal responsibility means challenging traditional ways of thinking and ways of doing. we could be problem solvers and creative around self-awareness and introspection to allow individuals and groups to revolutionize what is being done regarding lacks and gaps in educating and the first change is our judgment of students who, for whatever reasons, gradually lose their basic grammar reading and cursive writing skills while still in elementary grades, becoming overwhelmed with newer harder classroom material on transition that they begin to struggle.
    Too often schools respond to behaviours which can be a response to weak literacy skills. Dealing with these judgements and misdirection may stop the progress of deficit thinking. What should be more important than ‘left behind’ which tends to focus key people on the end or ‘outcomes is preventing any child from ‘falling through the cracks’. Far too many children may end up struggling due to natural regression and the loss of their ELA and reading skills while in the elementary grades and would not be able to truly benefit from any type of educating process. Recognize their struggles may be due to lacks and gaps in K-12 ELA grammar instruction and that thirty percent are struggling by the end of grade six and almost half of our youngest adults end up leaving years of schoolng with weak literacy skills. Every child should have the right to come into school and expect to have someone teach them how to read and write cursives giving them the advantage, hope and opportunity to continually learn whether they are gifted, regular or special education and regardless of circumstance.
    There is the public perception that schools do teach students to read and write cursives and do have an expectation of proficiency at every grade level. Test this view by providing student Achievement Tests (such as a CAT) to spell out the fundamental cause of a student struggling and rather than converging on the end or waiting for them to falter and coding them learning disabled, prevent students from ever experiencing the stress of not being able to read and write well.


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