Radical Teaching and NCLB: Hursh’s “High-Stakes Testing”

Published online 3 June 2008.

This is a short review of David Hursh’s High-Stakes Testing and the Decline of Teaching and Learning.  Hursh’s book is important because it achieves three important aims: 1) to detail how the personal and the political intertwine at the level of schools and schooling, 2) to show how standards-based reform is based on an economic agenda, namely neoliberalism, and 3) to show that alternatives to neoliberal schooling are possible in all respects and that such alternatives can be created by politically-organized parents and teachers.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

Book Review: Hursh, David.  High-Stakes Testing and the Decline of Teaching and Learning.  Lanham MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

David Hursh’s High-Stakes Testing and the Decline of Teaching and Learning is, like Tollefson’s Volatile Knowing, a sustained criticism of the No Child Left Behind Act in the name of democracy.  Hursh, however, comes from a rather interesting background: he was a prominent teacher at a participant school in the “free schools movement” of the late 1970s, and his ultimate philosophy of schooling holds up John Dewey as an ideal, like the writers of Dewey’s Dream did, but rather out of the hard experience of a brief teaching stint in a rather utopian school experiment.  Hursh’s book interweaves personal history, American educational history, and a critique of NCLB in easy-to-read, motivating fashion.

Hursh prefaces his discussion of teaching in a “free school” with a longer narrative of growing up in Levittown, NY in the 1950s and becoming radicalized in the 1960s.  The crucial moment in this upbringing, for Hursh, occurred in the summer of 1968, when as a working-class student he was attending college at Kansas State University:

By the end of the summer, I had concluded that the United States was not “the best of all possible worlds” but was, in fact, a racist, classist, and sexist society.  I was beginning to understand how my own working-class experience gave me an understanding of the world that differed from that of my middle-class peers.  Furthermore, I realized that democracy in America was and continues to be at risk.  Such a realization required that I begin to think through the characteristics of a democratic society and how we might nurture them.  (19-20)

After discussing how he came to embrace the philosophies of progressive educators, and especially John Dewey, Hursh then begins to teach at a private school in Omaha, Nebraska.  His reflection upon those years is highly critical of prior misunderstandings of “freedom”: they underestimated the value of adult authority, they overvalued individualism, and they failed to integrate subject matter, clinging to the division of “subject areas.” (39-41)  But Hursh and his school did some interesting and creative learning projects nevertheless, and so even today Hursh is “working with public school teachers funded by a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences on designing and implementing units that focus on the relationship between the environment and human health.” (47)

Later in this book, Hursh even discusses the program of nontraditional high schools that were to compose the “Performance Standards Consortium” – a program for several small schools in New York state “in which students were not tracked, but taught using an interdisciplinary curriculum and assessed through portfolios and projects.” (72)  However, the “Performance Standards Consortium” schools were compromised in the 1990s by New York’s imposition of “Regents’ Exam” requirements upon high schools.

Hursh then discusses opposing currents in American education, mostly paraphrasing Kliebard’s The Struggle for the American Curriculum; this is the prelude for his critique of NCLB.  The educational trend Dewey most opposed was that which subordinated the student to the economic system; for Hursh, NCLB is neoliberal educational legislation, and so it only makes sense in the context of neoliberalism.  Neoliberalism, then, is the renewed marketization of social affairs that accompanies the present-day historical era, and “for neoliberals, markets, individual choice, and privatization are democratic and efficient solutions.”  (66)  NCLB is the culmination of a trend in education “reform” favoring high-stakes testing, manipulating a discourse of “accountability” to push a back-door privatization of the public schools (as well as a private hijacking of the global economy).

Hursh does show how NCLB fails to deliver on its promises.  As the book says in its first chapter, “the tests are not as objective as proposed, student learning has not improved, and academic inequality has not decreased at the rate equal to that before the reforms.” (9)

Hursh ends with a ringing call to social activism:

What we need, as Anyon (2005) and I (2006) have called for, is a new social movement in which educators work with others to combat not only the rise of high-stakes testing, accountability, markets, and privatization in education, but also the rise of markets and privatization in all of our social policies and the neoliberal thinking that supports those policies.  (143)

The question remains, with this book as with Volatile Knowing, of how the standards-based, neoliberal version of education “reform” became so successful.  How did we get to a place where neoliberal reform threatened the public schools with the possibility of complete privatization?

Perhaps such a topic is beyond the scope of Hursh’s book.  Hursh’s book succeeds well at its intended goals: 1) to detail how the personal and the political intertwine at the level of schools and schooling, 2) to show how standards-based reform is based on an economic agenda, namely neoliberalism, and 3) to show that alternatives to neoliberal schooling are possible in all respects and that such alternatives can be created by politically-organized parents and teachers.

Nevertheless, it behooves us to see how the neoliberal economic agenda could take over public schools so easily.  There are plenty of histories of neoliberalism to read – Levy and Dumenil’s Capital Resurgent or Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism or Harry Shutt’s The Trouble With Capitalism might be good places to start.  But I’d have to imagine that one problem with schools in this respect is that they aren’t “rooted” in some of the ways in which Hursh has hinted.  Schools are empty places.  The typical public school classroom, with desks and chairs and teacher space, is not located anywhere.  It is isolated from the geography of life.  As a room, one of many connected by hallways to the school auditorium, cafeteria, gymnasium, library, and offices, the schoolroom is an epiphenomenon, an empty space where an abstract “learning” unconnected to the world may take place.  It is a mere cell, connected to the vital organs of the school, and the school is like a body of which the brain lies elsewhere.  In much the same way, the suburban household is a mere cell, connected via roads and highways to the vital organs of the city center, in a body imposed upon the natural environment.

One of Hursh’s themes is that the neoliberal agenda is imposed upon schools through geographic manipulation – “restructuring of the urban economy and urban space.”  (107)  Perhaps the urban spaces of 20th and 21st century society are so amenable to restructuring because the public school doesn’t do anything with them.

The most desperately needed scientific knowledge of the 21st century will be ecological knowledge, so as to allow world society to survive abrupt climate change.  The proposed “techno-fixes” will at best offer alternative energies to supplement world society’s destructive fossil fuel habits, or mitigate the core problem of human overexertion upon the natural world only slightly.

We should then try to imagine schools uniquely adapted to cope with the need for ecological knowledge.  Such schools would be held in ecological spaces: gardens, preferably, or wildernesses if they are available.  Such schools would have as their first and last task the cultivation of ecological sensitivity – the ability to know what is going on in a natural setting within a conceptual framework sensitive to the concept of ecosystem resilience.  Such a vision would be fully consonant with Hursh’s Deweyan understanding of education.

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