Cutting the Schools-to-War Pipeline

Any nation promising perpetual war on the world is likely to make peculiar demands on its schools and impositions on its teachers and youth.

While it may seem a sideshow to war and exploitation, the sharp pressure from the Bush administration and its liberal allies to re-authorize the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is, in fact, a vital part of the imperial project.

The NCLB is the result of nearly three decades of elites’ struggles to recapture control over education in the US, lost during the Vietnam era when campuses and high-schools broke into open rebellion and, as a collateral result, critical pedagogy, whole language reading programs, inter-active, investigatory teaching gained a foothold; some kids learned they could understand and act on the world-not good in a world where the Masters need the Slaves to deny their own domination.

In de-industrialized America, the centripetal organizing point of most peoples’ lives is no longer a factory or the union movement, but rather school. So, securing every aspect of schooling is essential to elites.

Twinned with the NCLB, now comes the equally bi-partisan New Commission on the American Workforce report, “Tough Choices for Tough Times“. Tough-Tough was authored by such educational experts as the director of the militarized Lockheed-Martin, and university presidents whose incomes are frequently dependant on grants from the military, earmarked for “research.” Tough-Tough calls for national curriculum standards as a means of recapturing the witless patriotism necessary to get people to work, and eagerly fight and die, for what is abundantly easy to see are the interests of their own rulers. To resist NCLB at its choke points is to cut the human pipeline for the promise of perpetual war. Teachers and all school workers are uniquely positioned to do that.

Washington Post reporter Mike Grunwald outlines three claims made by NCLB supporters: (1) to focus on low-performing kids and schools; (2) to strengthen the federal role in schools via curricula standards and high-stakes tests; and (3) to use “scientific methods” to evaluate the techniques and products of educational work, that is, to apply the apparently timeless scheme of F. W. Taylor’s scientific management time and motion studies to evaluate teaching methods and measure the knowledge pumped into kids through intensified surveillance and high-stakes standardized testing. Only the first part, has been trumpeted to the public, though education workers are keenly aware of parts two and three.

The primary thesis proclaimed by NCLB supporters is that every child deserves a good education as a leg up in the US meritocracy. The reality is that doing school reform without doing economic and social reform in communities is, as our colleague Professor Jean Anyon says, “like washing the air on one side of a screen door–it won’t work.” Anyon’s comment is so abundantly clear that it seems only the hopelessly obtuse or flatly dishonest would miss the point, but even though five years of NCLB practice proves it out, unless there is significant resistance from parents, kids, and school workers, what many have learned is a project that turns kids into commodities or customers and educators into production workers.

Most mainstream liberals support NCLB by cheerleading, especially from Senator Edward Kennedy and California Representative George Miller who dismisses critics by simply not meeting with them. Liberal critics of NCLB ingenuously seek to re-load curricula regimentation and high-stakes testing for their own narrow ends, tweaking the law by, for example, demanding full funding (teacher unions) and modest accommodations for scoring problems (most professional associations).

However, key initial proponents of the NCLB project, including curricula regulation and high-stakes exams, make an interesting list, including the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chambers of Commerce, and the leadership of the two huge (combined about 4 million members) teacher unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, who joined together to take out full page ads in the New York Times to demand it.

NCLB and its key components (like textbooks, test production, and test tutoring) are more than profitable for some of its backers. According to the American Association of Publishers sales of standardized tests tripled to nearly $600 million since the introduction of NCLB. The testing industry oligarchy of CTB-McGraw Hill, Harcourt, and Houghton Mifflin control 80 percent of the total market, which is valued at over $7 billion.

Under NCLB, each state must ensure that all schools and districts make “Adequate Yearly Progress,” as measured by math and reading scores. (It should be noted that AYP is fraught with insurmountable technical and political flaws.) If a school fails to improve test scores within three years, a portion of its federal funding is diverted to “parental choice” tutoring programs, which not only weakens the school’s ability to improve, but more importantly diverts public money to for-profit education outfits like Educate Inc. owner of Sylvan Learning Centers whose revenues have grew from $180 to $250 million between 2001-2003 and whose profits shot up 250% in 2003.

Schools are, after all, huge markets-as a for-profit venture public education represents a market worth over $600 billion dollars. However, only a grasp of the nature of US unionism today, corporate unionism that sees a unity of purpose between labor, government, and business “in the national interest,” explains support from union leaders, whose high salaries are drawn directly from the imperial well.

Schools serve to train the next generation of workers, from pre-prison schooling in some urban and rural areas, to pre-military schooling, to pre-middle class teacher training, to pre-med or pre-law, to the private school systems of the rich; schooling is divided along razor sharp lines. Schools do skills training, and depending on where a child is, some limited intellectual training. In public schools, the key issues of life: work, production and reproduction, rational knowledge, and freedom, are virtually illegal.

It is illegal in California, for example, to teach positive things about the communist movement, and hence nearly impossible to teach about unionism. It is illegal to teach about the joys of sexual pleasure. Rather, discussions about sex must be padded with plenty of fear, and promises of abstinence. It is not possible for most educators to merely say that all gods are myths, and the suspension of critique that is faith is a dangerous move. And, in regard to freedom, anyone who visits a school will quickly see that it is a sheer abstraction in schools, as the entire system of surveillance (both physical and intellectual) is designed to eradicate it.

Nevertheless, it is true that schools fashion hope, real or false, and that society’s whose hope through school is erased are commonly steeped in rebellion, as in France, 1968. Redesigning what hope is, and tamping down expectations of school workers, parents, and kids, is part of the NCLB project.

There has been resistance to high-stakes testing. George Schmidt, editor of the Chicago educator newspaper Substance (, was fired from a 28 teaching year career for publishing the Chicago CASE test after it was given in 1999. His dismissal upheld by the courts. The Rouge Forum, an organization of about 4,000 school workers, parents, students, community people, has led successful test boycotts and school walkouts in Michigan, New York, and California. There has, however, been little continuity in this work, perhaps reflecting the problems of a poorly funded volunteer group. Rouge Forum leaders have stuck by their insistence that there is a direct line from the systems of capital to imperialist war to the regulation of what people need to know, how they come to know it, and the warped systems of surveillance that inevitably are anti-working class, racist, high-stakes tests.

In January 2007, renowned education author Susan Ohanian initiated an online petition calling for the abolition of the NCLB online, through The Educator Roundtable. Her effort was immediately attacked by the leadership of the National Education Association with a letter urging their members not to sign the petition. NEA now calls for some limited reform of NCLB, and demands the imperial bribe: full-funding. NEA plans to spend $1 million lobbying to get it.

Other complaints about NCLB have been more off target. The Palm Beach Post of January 11, proclaimed, “The bedrock fantasy is that every child in America will be able to read and do math on grade level by 2014. Everyone knows that can’t happen.”

Setting aside the problem of what “grade level” is, a fully literate population is quite possible with a door to door community based program coupled with a project of social change, as the Cuban literacy success amply demonstrates.
In any case, most of the opposition to NCLB accepts the claim that it is: (1) designed to serve all the children of the nation and that the (2) public schools, our schools, must be reformed. We call both pretenses into question. The bi-partisan, united-as-a class, efforts to demolish the welfare system and the social safety net, to deny poor children health care, food, and safe places to live, to close libraries, and used their state power to assist the storm, Katrina, in making a natural disaster a racist assault, should be sufficient to offset the good motives implied by claim one.

In regard to claim two, we are skeptical about the truly public nature of a national school system that is absolutely segregated by class and race, where the teaching force itself is an apartheid body (about 85 percent white teaching minority/majority kids), where different content is taught to different students based on their birthright, and where test results are as predictable as income levels within zip codes. These may well be their schools, serving the needs of capital, just as the Ford plant is not ours, but Ford’s, is also in question, though both at Ford, and in schools, there is always resistance, as regimented labor and intellectual work both suck. Ford, however, produces machines, and schools produce hope.

Other resisters seek to participate in the NCLB process on the grounds that, “If you are not in the room, your voice won’t be heard.” That sums up the position of liberal historian Gary Nash, the key author of the National History Standards, who wrote them in part because he was concerned that if he did not do it, then the neo-conservatives would. Nash hoped no high-stakes exam would be attached. His standards, which excluded Marxist and feminist interpretations at the outset, were then voted down by a Rush Limbaugh-inspired congress. He re-wrote them and, in our eyes, became what he set out to oppose, his history standards as partisan as could be. And now, as with the Michigan MEAP (long administered by Standard and Poor’s) a watered down version of Nash’s standards serves as the state’s exam.

Support for the high-stakes exams which, in every instance, were born from curricula regulations, make appeals like this: “The rationale for standardized testing has always been a matter of common sense: In order to measure how each student is doing academically, there has to be a standard of measure.” That remains the publicity claim of the conservative Mackinac Center in Michigan, an appeal to simple reason.

We want to focus on high-stakes examinations as a key choke point in public schools and to suggest that, while petitioning to abolish the NCLB and the tests along with it is a fine first step, only direct action in the form of boycotts, matched by outside freedom schooling, can possibly overcome the destruction of reason the tests truly represent, creating a class of counter-curious kids, their level of projected subservience varying with their inheritance. It is equally true that trying to vote troops out of Iraq may be a fine thing, but the direct action of troop refusals, mass disobedience, and throwing military recruiters off campuses, is likely to be the only powerful form of war resistance­creating the kind of self-conscious movement that can be sustained through all the promised imperial adventures.

High stakes testing has its roots in the early twentieth century work of Lewis Terman and Robert Yerkes who promoted the IQ test to prove the genetic advantages of races they had already identified as superior, demonstrating the use of bogus science to determine who should be an officer in a segregated military. Their work in the American Eugenics Society (AES) aimed at identifying degenerate races, in order to purify the gene pool. Their work was used to sterilize thousands of women, against their will. During their Nuremburg trials, Nazis routinely pointed to the AES as an inspiration.

Carl Brigham worked with Yerkes. He’s the key founder of the widely used SAT. Today, the conservative favorite, Charles Murray, co-author of the racist The Bell Curve, which was used as the intellectual basis to demolish the welfare system, published a series of articles in the January 2007 Wall Street Journal suggesting that IQ tests should be used to track youth into specific schools, as “To have an IQ of 100 means that a tough high-school course pushes you about as far as your academic talents will take you.”

NCLB simply puts Murray into the daily life of schools. However, the geneticist effort is deepened by the Taylorist, “scientific management,” aspects of high-stakes tests which not only place educators and students under the constant supervision of those who seek to deem some inferior, but it also meets the key goal of replacing the mind of the worker, in this case a teacher, with the mind of the boss, through strict curricula regulations, eradicating a vital lynchpin of learning anything: freedom.

Here is what we think is a reasonable litany of objections to the NCLB, its national curriculum, and the attached noose, high stakes exams.

High-stakes standardized tests, an international phenomenon, represent a powerful intrusion into classrooms, often taking up as much as 40% of classroom time in preparation, practice testing, and administration;

The tests are flawed in technical adequacy. They invoke a fallible single standard and a single measure, a practice specifically condemned by the Standards on Educational and Psychological Testing;

The tests are implemented and used to make high stakes decisions before sufficient validation evidence is obtained and before defensible technical documentation is issued for public scrutiny;

The tests are employed without credible independent meta-evaluation;

The tests are flawed in accuracy of scoring and reporting, for example in New York in 2000 when thousands of students were unnecessarily ordered to summer school on the grounds of incorrect test results;

The tests pretend that one standard fits all, when one standard does not fit all;

These tests measure, for the most part, parental income and race, and are therefore instruments that build racism and anti-working class sentiment against the interest of most teachers and their students;

These tests deepen the segregation of children within and between school systems, a move that is not in the interests of most people throughout the world;

Inner-city families and poor families are promised tests as an avenue to escape the ghetto and poverty, when the tests are designed to fail their children, boosting dropouts, leaving more children trapped in the ghetto and poverty, deepening inequality and all forms of injustice;

The tests set up a false employer-employees relationship between teachers and students which damages honest exchanges in the classroom;

The tests create an atmosphere that pits students against students and teachers against teachers and school systems against school systems in a mad scramble for financial rewards, and to avoid financial retribution;

The tests have been used to unjustly fire and discipline educators throughout the country;

The exams represent an assault on academic freedom by forcing their way into the classroom in an attempt to regulate knowledge, what is known and how people come to know it;

The tests foment an atmosphere of greed, fear, and hysteria, none of which contributes to learning;

The tests destroy inclusion and inquiry-based education;

The high-stakes test pretend to neutrality but are deeply partisan in content, reflecting the needs of elites in a world becoming more inequitable, less democratic, promising the youth of the world perpetual war;

The tests become commodities for opportunists whose interests are profits, not the best interests of children.

We support the rising tide of education worker resistance to the high-stakes exams, as well as student and educator boycotts. We are sharply opposed to those false-flag reformers who seek to do anything but abolish the NCLB, its tests, and its developing national curriculum.

Liberal reformers on this bent simply lend credence to a government that stands fully exposed as a weapon of violence for the rich, they disconnect the clear class and race domination in not-so public schooling from the empire’s wars, and they mislead people into believing the dishonest motives of prime NCLB proponents. Above all, through their clear opposition to direct action versus the big tests, as in NEA’s attack on Ohanian, they simultaneously seek to destroy the leadership of a movement that could actually succeed, and they once again try to teach people that others, usually elites, will solve our problems, a vile diversion from the fact that no one is going to save us but the united action of us.

Parents and students have a legal right to opt out of the exams, which are little more than child abuse made respectable. That the school worker force is aware of the abusive nature of this testing, seeing second-graders in tears as a matter of routine, cleaning vomit off test booklets, etc., speaks to the levels of opportunism, fear, and racism in the work force.

Nevertheless, many courageous school workers continue to speak out, to call for action, and in some cases to play a leadership role.

Practice suggests that boycotts initiate first in wealthy areas, then when people in poor and working class neighborhoods see that succeed, they follow suit. The wealthy, after all, have the power and outlook to shut down the tests from the outset, and they know regimented curricula simply makes their kids stupid, wastes their time. Peers in private schools never have to take a silly MEAP. Test boycotts in wealthy areas of Michigan and California, for example, have been going on for years.

Poor and working class parents and students, however, need to learn, probably from teachers, that the tests are not designed to make education equitable, but to track them into meaningless jobs, or the military­fighting and dying against what they are never taught are truly the enemies of their enemies. In addition, they need to learn that their power supersedes boycotts in rich areas, in that it can truly bring the testing to an end and even serve as a foundation for much broader social change for equality and democracy.

Ending imperialism is a pedagogical project, involving a mass change of mind that overcomes most, if not all, of the defects built into every birthright of capital. The linkage of education and social action that could come from anti-test boycotts could be part of that change of consciousness so urgently needed now.

We are not barbarians seeking to bring down education itself. We recognize the need to link freedom schooling with test boycotts. Freedom schooling could, for example, be conducted in homes, community centers, or churches, for older students addressing the question of why things are as they are, through community power analyses, while youngsters could be treated to the forbidden delights of recess, free play, storytelling, and playmaking.

We hope to contribute to the movement to take direct action against the Big Tests. Some beacons of education publications, like Substance News in Chicago, and organizations like the Rouge Forum, leading a March 1 2007 conference in Detroit, deserve support.

Rich Gibson is a professor emeritus at San Diego State University. E. Wayne Ross is professor at University of British Columbia. They are co-editors of Neoliberalism and Education Reform to be published by Hampton Press in 2007.