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The Testing Scam

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Diane Ravitch absolutely eviscerates the bipartisan education reforms of the last 15 years under Bush and Obama in a review of two new books for The New York Review of Books. The first shows the disaster that was Cory Booker and Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to remake the Newark schools by chartering them all, destroying teachers unions, and using students as subjects to experiment on through constant testing. The other is on a school in San Francisco that does a great job training students to be successful people and with a high college acceptance rate, but which is considered a “failing school” because most of the students don’t speak English as a first language and thus don’t fare well on standardized tests. The whole thing is very much worth your time. An excerpt:

Newark had one major attraction for the reformers. Its schools have been under state control since 1995. The governor had total control of the district, its budget, and its leadership. The district had been taken over by the state because of poor academic performance and pervasive corruption. But in the next fifteen years, the state had not gotten better results than the regime it displaced. Newark’s mayor since 2006, Cory Booker, wanted to uproot the school system and start over.

Booker had been raised in the nearly all-white suburb of Harrington Park, New Jersey, and had graduated from Stanford, Oxford, and Yale. He was a frequent guest on national television shows, and he moved easily among the rich, the powerful, and the famous. Russakoff describes a ride that Booker took with Governor-Elect Christie through Newark one night in December 2009, when they agreed to create a plan for a radical transformation of the Newark public schools. The confidential draft of the plan that Booker sent to Christie proposed turning Newark into “the charter school capital of the nation,” weakening seniority and tenure, recruiting new teachers and principals from outside Newark, and building “sophisticated data and accountability systems.”

In July 2010, Booker attended an invitation-only meeting in Sun Valley, where he mingled with fabulously wealthy hedge fund managers and high-tech entrepreneurs. There he met Mark Zuckerberg. Booker knew that venture philanthropists were looking for a “proof point,” a city where they could demonstrate the success of their business-style school reforms. He persuaded Zuckerberg that Newark was that city. Booker believed that a great education would set every child on the road out of poverty, and he also believed that it would be impossible to do this in the Newark public schools because of their bureaucracy and systems of tenure and seniority. That’s why he wanted to spend money turning the city into an all-charter district, without unions, where like-minded reformers could impose the correct reforms, like judging teachers by test scores, firing teachers at will, and hiring whomever they wanted.

That September, Zuckerberg, Booker, and Christie announced the gift of $100 million on The Oprah Winfrey Show, to tumultuous applause. When Winfrey asked Zuckerberg why Newark, he responded, “I believe in these guys…. We’re setting up a $100 million challenge grant so that Mayor Booker and Governor Christie can have the flexibility they need to…turn Newark into a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.”

As Russakoff points out, “What Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg set out to achieve in Newark had not been accomplished in modern times—turning a failing urban school district into one of universally high achievement.” Like other reformers, Booker earnestly believed: “We know what works.” Zuckerberg’s money would give him the chance to prove it. But while the media saw Booker as the “rock star mayor,” he faced a growing budget deficit and soaring violent crime when he returned from his frequent fund-raising travels.

Meanwhile, even in much wealthier places than Newark, real education, not to mention recess, gets sacrificed to the cult of standardized testing.

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