Nearly a decade after the federal No Child Left Behind Act became law, standardized tests are still king in the nation's public schools. And the stakes of those exams are higher than ever for teachers and principals whose evaluations are linked to those scores.
The Obama administration has promoted such use of test score data -- as well as closing or restarting schools with chronically low scores -- as a tool to improve public education.
Thousands of people who think those policies are hurting public schools are making their way to Washington, D.C., for a Saturday rally outside the White House. The Save Our Schools March has star power behind it: actor Matt Damon has RSVPed as a speaker, and comedian Jon Stewart is making a video for the rally. Diane Ravitch and Pedro Noguera, scholars who have attained celebrity status in the education world, also are among the rally's headliners.
One of the galvanizing forces behind this three-day event is Anthony Cody, a former Oakland public middle-school teacher and blogger who recently left the district after more than 20 years. He said that Save Our Schools supporters are troubled by campaigns to pin the ills of public schools on teachers and employee unions. The two biggest teacher unions contributed a total of $50,000 to the march, but he said the movement is "truly a grass-roots effort," with most of the other $100,000 coming from individuals.
Cody argued that since teachers are closest to the challenges of public schools, they should be driving education policy -- not philanthropists, such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates. He said the dominant school reform narrative today is that "the teaching profession is hopelessly in need of radical change."
"We want to shake that story up. We want to tell a different story," Cody said.
The participants at this weekend's event are demanding that education policy better reflects teachers' views and insights, that curriculum be developed locally, that school funding be distributed equitably, and that standardized tests are no longer used to measure the quality of teachers and schools.
School districts across the country are putting in place systems to tie decisions about teacher tenure and layoffs, in part, to student test scores. A bill that would have allowed California districts to base layoff decisions partially on test results, rather than seniority, died in the Legislature this spring, but local schools that received federal improvement grants are required to revamp their teacher evaluation systems to include that data.
Daren Briscoe, deputy press secretary for U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, would not directly respond to the concerns of the march participants, but he suggested that there was common ground. He also said Duncan "has been clear that fill-in-the-bubble tests that narrowly measure students' knowledge are not the ideal," and that the department has spent $350 million to help develop new assessments that would more broadly gauge what students have learned.
"While we're aware that there are differences of opinion about how to best address these issues, no one is arguing that we should simply continue the status quo," Briscoe said.
Molly Servatius, who teaches at Paul Revere Elementary School in San Francisco, took the train to Washington this week. She said she thinks the focus on test scores is demoralizing for teachers and depriving students of a well-rounded education. So far, she said, few other young teachers seem to have joined the movement; she said she's disappointed, but not surprised.
"There's a stigma around advocating for your job and your students," she said. "We have to sort of go with the grain, and to work toward high test scores."