Standardized policy directives have their roots in the most widely read federal report on education ever issued by the White House. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education, was authored by a Commission formed by then Secretary of Education, Terrel H. Bell, and David Pierpont Gardner, the President of the University of Utah, was issued in April 1983. The National Commission on Excellence in Education which formally issued the report consisted of college presidents and principals of schools of lower and higher education, and heads of industry. A Nation at Risk sounded a warning based on the American dream of opportunity and upward mobility upon which so much of national discourse rests, declaring “part of what is at risk is the promise first made on this continent: “All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost” (A Nation at Risk 115). The Commission’s report was meant to situate education so that all students had access to “excellence in education, and admonished against the inequitable treatment of diverse populations, by arguing that equity and quality are essential and crucial values to our economy and society” (A Nation at Risk 117). A Nation at Risk made plain its finding of public school failure, particularly at the high school level, by giving credence to this narrative even though the evidence for public school failure and declining achievement was weak so that future standardization initiatives of NCLB and RTTT would be supported based on the conclusions of the report. These initiatives were largely responsible for the degrading of public schools through standardization and technologized curriculums and lead to the aggressive public funding of privatized charter schools which are concrete manifestations of neoliberal ideologies, that were ascendant since 1980. As the narrative of failure in public schools took hold, the demand for school choice justified the growth of charter entities, representing a challenge to traditional public schools. The Common Core State Standards, funded by the Gates Foundation and imposed by the Obama Administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, became a provocateur as the quantity and quality of education for K-12 students declined through curriculum narrowing methodologies. Despite the official promotion of these policies with enormous public and private funding, parents and educators assessed the impact of No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”) that was implemented in 2001, and Race to the Top (“RTTT”) in 2009 as punitive.
At their formation, NCLB and RTTT failed to rely on seasoned educators for their wise and pragmatic insights regarding student learning. A Nation at Risk called for more required traditional courses at the high school level, but did not target grades 3-8 as would NCLB, RTTT, and CCSS. At the time of its publication in 1983, the reading level of black students posited a 32-point gap between their white peers that decreased in 1988 to a 29-point gap and hovered in this range until 1999 where black reading scores began an upward trajectory (NAEP 2012 Trends in Academic Progress 16). Hispanic reading achievement levels took on similar characteristics, but its scale score was higher than black students in 1999, with a 28-point gap with white students (NAEP 2012 Trends in Academic Progress 16). The math scores for black students posits a consistent upward trajectory from 1983 through 1990 that is in direct contrast to the narrative of unrelenting failure in urban communities that was put forth in A Nation at Risk.
The Commission’s strong and urgent caution likened the state of education to war and warned that without new approaches to education parts of society would become technologically disadvantaged because of inept skillsets, so that unpreparedness to compete would situate minority students as marginalized others. The Commission argued that this outcome could be avoided by supporting its greatest resource, given the tools on hand such as utilizing pedagogy to engage and encourage students’ interests in learning, by providing support for “individual learners’ education experiences, so that students perform on the boundary of their ability in ways that test and push back personal limits” (A Nation at Risk 117). This recommendation came out of concern that the Nation would essentially lose its ranking as a leader in the education of students. The Commission’s report emphasized the need for competency to work with new technologies, and called for a revitalization of curriculum so that students experienced essential information, and argued with a focus towards high school students that “studies of science and technology must be constructed with knowledge of the humanities if they are to embody creative and humane ideals, just as the humanities must be informed by science and technology” (A Nation at Risk 116). The Commission believed high school students should be exposed to a broad selection of core classes, which posits a salient point that could be adopted with the implementation of constructivism in K-12 classrooms, mainly that interdisciplinary methodologies aided by technology as a tool for learning, together with educators’ pedagogical practices to guide and encourage student interests in learning, achievement gaps, and illiteracy would occur at much lower rates. NCLB and RTTT can be differentiated to A Nation at Risk because it called for “improvement of teaching and learning including a mix of curricular encompassing English, history, geography, economics and foreign languages. Curriculum narrowing was instituted through a narrow focus on reading and math in NCLB, RTTT, and CCSS.
The federal initiatives NCLB and RTTT did not alleviate concerns related to literacy but were constructed based on the Commission’s call for reform. Built on neoliberal ideals, NCLB and RTTT created a demand for deregulation and privatization in the education sector, negating the Commissions call for reframing and revitalizing curriculum to engage students’ interest across subjects, which would have been plausible under community control that was causal during the 1968 strike. During the ensuing decades, policies have not been established to ensure that quality and qualitative educations would be undergirded by access to content and interdisciplinary study, or that students in lower socioeconomic and minority communities, would have access to pedagogical practices that support their growth. Instead, with a goal of increasing student achievement, standardization has ushered in an era of choice bolstered by an argument that traditional public schools have failed to evidence student achievement, paving the way for neoliberals to support and encourage the growth of charter networks.
Standardized accountability measures have produced classroom methodologies that have become increasingly more stringent since their inception in 1965 under The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”), and with each new Iteration. In 1991-1992 the Department of Education supported national standards that included a broad range of subjects including history, civics, economics, the arts, geography and foreign languages. It is regrettable that Lynne Cheney, the sitting Chairperson of the National Endowment for the Humanities, voiced concerns that caused a national political firestorm and backlash in the fall of 1994, claiming “history standards that had not yet been released were politically biased so that the call for national standards covering broad subject areas was defeated in 1995” (Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System 16, 20). Not only did these events undermine efforts to teach history from a social perspective inclusive of race, class, and gender, but they occurred simultaneously to the development of charter schools. Events of 1994 reflect concerns in education today, as it was the year that “Congress established a program to award federal dollars to spur the development of charter schools” (Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System 125), effectively supporting the growth of public/private networks.
The Goals 2000 Educate America Act which passed in 1994 provided federal funding to states to write their own standards, to improve school quality. This initiative, like its successors NCLB (2002), emphasized accountability and school choice under an objective of 100% proficiency. RTTT (2009) posited a more stringent goal, that “the U.S. would be the world leader by 2020 in the production of college graduates,” introducing competition amongst states for federal funds as well as the Common Core State Standards. These initiatives utilized the Commission’s recommendations in their formation which stemmed out of its insistence on uniform curricular standards across the Nation’s high schools based on its view that public high schools had failed. Although A Nation at Risk did not propose privatization and charter schools, it gave credence to and fueled the future standardization initiatives of NCLB, RTTT and CCSS, because their objectives were largely based on student achievement and were constructed so that the original intent of the defeated 1995 National Standards have not been met, making the absence of content a salient issue affecting how students experience education today. Given this climate of targeted high proficiency, administrators structured classroom practices to meet the demands of NCLB even though the temerity of the 100% goal was unequally hinged to weak curriculum structures. The high stakes nature of testing that was introduced into education under NCLB contributed to levels of stress in classrooms that worked against student proficiency and overemphasized preparation for test taking rather than contextual learning. NCLB essentially began the era of school deregulation that made it possible for reformers, privatizers, and entrepreneurs to reap monetary benefits through “the formation of education companies” (Schneider 21), producing an ideal of school choice into mainstream education that challenged traditional district schools through competition. Perceived as failing, under-resourced traditional schools have become hard pressed to compete with charter schools who are sometimes well funded through private entities. The fact that some charter schools do not outperform traditional public schools on standardized tests, makes it reasonable to argue that although they may be better resourced, their students may also not gain educational equity or intellectual property.
By the time RTTT was introduced in 2009, schools had already become indoctrinated with cultures of high stakes accountability testing and were ripe for reformers, privatizers and entrepreneurs to substantially change the landscape of education. RTTT became the first initiative to distance financial equity away from states although financial support continued to be received through city, state, and Title I funding. States competed for federal aid to win stimulus dollars and governors were in the undesirable position of having to commit to meeting specific criteria that included implementing into citywide district schools the as of yet unstructured Common Core State Standards (“CCSS”). This initiative posits that punitive measures would affect educators and students alike, as curricular narrowing, tracking, teacher firings and the closing of schools became normative, paving the way for school choice. These imperatives cemented standardized learning as high stakes because they were not created to contribute to students’ literacy, but rather to situate students and educators in data driven testing environments that claimed to prepare students for college and career readiness. RTTT did not reframe undesirable aspects of NCLB and like its predecessor, did not support curriculum building or autonomy for educators’ pedagogical practices. Instead, RTTT exacerbated high stakes methodologies in classrooms. The punitive requirements of measuring student progress based on reading and math achievement scores, separated students from experiencing opportunities to absorb knowledge through access to content across subjects, and diminished opportunities for students to explore their natural capacities for curiosity and reflection of text that is the hallmark of critical thinking needed to absorb knowledge on deep levels. This paper advocates for the construction of learning experiences that protect students’ acquisition of literacy and their education equity, regardless of socioeconomic status or location. Accessibility to content without time restraints must become normative for the success of all students. To achieve this, it is necessary to reframe students’ classroom experiences through introducing constructivist and purposeful approaches to learning that include openness and collaboration in trust filled circular relationships between students and with their teachers.