Homework, Testing and Stealth Apartheid in Education

Humans are a species of ape that evolved more developed brains to compensate for the greater dangers of living on the ground instead of sheltering in the trees. Monkeys cluster into troops of several families each, for the mutual protection of the young, and to exert authority over the territory a troop inhabits. The monkey population of a jungle, for each species, will be distributed as a mosaic of troops, and the boundaries between these troops are the lines along which the competition for resources takes place. The survival and status of any single monkey is tied to that of its troop, and each member is imprinted with the behavior of excluding outsiders. This is to coalesce the members into a defensive force when attacked, and an offensive force when gaining territory and resources. It is also to guard a member’s personal rank in the troop hierarchy, by excluding the competitive threat of new members.

It is helpful to keep these features of monkey life in mind when trying to understand the politics of education.

We must concede at the outset that humanity, like a mix of oil and water, will avoid solution and segregate into cells of pure type; our tribalism and racism are embedded in our natures, and it is only by conscious effort that primitive fears and instinctive behaviors can be redirected. It is a social convention — politeness — to assume we all make such conscious efforts today, but this in not actually the case. The unfortunate reality is that our society is quite hypocritical, and that most of us harbor prejudices, stereotypes, fantasies, preferences and impulses that we are ashamed to admit to, often even to ourselves. It is a social convention — politeness — not to talk truthfully about what we really want, and how we really think. While our highly developed frontal cortexes make it possible for us to devise conscious behaviors that redirect our primitive instincts, this advancement in brainpower also makes it possible for us to avoid truthful assessments of reality, by fabricating lies, euphemisms and delusions, and all these are extremely popular in our society.

To understand how we run primary and secondary education in the United States, it helps to accept these unflattering facts of our social selves. Though the picture to be presented was shaped by observations in California, it can be applied to much of the country.

The Mosaic of Schools

Most of the children in the United States are educated in publicly funded primary and secondary schools. Parents who have a greater sense of religious or racial or ethnic tribalism, or a greater sense of class competitiveness (which are all forms of fear) and have the financial means to assuage those fears, will fund the education of their children in private schools. Money is the measure of social immiscibility, it buys exclusivity.

It is a legal obligation of the governments within the nation to provide local systems of public primary and secondary education (K-12). These are funded by tax revenues, and so are resented by all individuals and corporations that define themselves by their property and profiteering. Since greed is another popular attribute in our society, these resentful taxpayers are a large population, and they organize politically to minimize their own taxes, as well as to minimize the funding of institutions serving tribes they disown (“those kind of people”). One has to recognize the strong correlation between property, or class, or “ownership,” and “race” in the U.S. “Property” is stingy, and when spending prefers its own troops.

So, city and state governments run their K-12 public education systems like insurance companies: discharge the legal requirements to eliminate the liability, and do so at minimum cost. Similar to HMOs, these are EMOs, education maintenance organizations. A school district is the local government bureaucracy (usually a separate and city-wide jurisdiction) that performs the specific tasks of education, at costs limited by the combined amount of the local, state and federal tax subsidies awarded to the district, and which in turn are set by tax politics.

The essence of any bureaucracy is inertia and accumulation: it is not a rolling stone, it swells with moss. School districts will naturally try to maximize their income, to compensate for the penuriousness of tax politics at funding the resources for the children and the teachers (who in the early grades often supplement their classroom supplies from their own pockets), and the infrastructure of education. Also, they want to fatten the salaries and benefits of the administrators, teachers and service workers in the school district; which is pure human nature, and often enough justified in this field.

While most of the funding for school districts is from taxes, there can also be small private contributions, and corporate and foundation gifts, which are always part of some marketing or political agenda. These commercial forays into the schools are a corrupting influence — literally as in the case of soda machines dispensing tooth decay to school children, with the intent of corrupting their minds by embedding “name brand recognition” — and they are symptomatic of an anti-social tax imbalance. Charter schools are another example of the commercialization in public education, and they are also a tactic for union-busting.

The school district is itself a bipolar entity: its administrators seek to advance their careers by fulfilling the state mandates, primarily for cost, and in this they are in perpetual conflict with the teachers whose pay they always seek to limit, and who long ago organized into labor unions to protect themselves against the unrelenting pressure against their compensation (or employment). The stingier the tax base, the more acrid the labor dispute.

With the possible exception of in some very depressed and dangerous neighborhoods, parents will feel an instinctive “troop loyalty” to their local school. School is where their children are preparing for their futures, it is a community of hopes and dreams and the bright effervescence of youth. It is natural to experience a sense of community with the parents of your child’s schoolmates. This sentiment can organize itself as “parent councils” allied to the school, and which contribute funds and labor to improve the school site and to provide additional resources, such as instructors in physical education, art, music, language, and for extra-curricular activities. Many such parent councils could form or group into political action committees lobbying for additional public money for education, but this is not typical (that is much more work and with little likelihood of payoff before your child ‘ages out’ of the school).

Obviously, neighborhoods with wealthier residents are likely to have better organized and funded parent councils, and more “perks” for their local schoolchildren. Additionally, the reputation of such schools benefit from the nature of their student bodies because of the obvious socio-economic correlation between affluence and achievement in school: families experiencing multi-generational affluence generally offer a home environment of greater stability and intellectual attainment within which their children can develop. Schools populated by such children, and given additional resources by parent donations, will be “better” by every accepted technical and popular measure. Any parent would want their child in such a school, and any parent whose child attends a lesser school will chafe at the “equity disparity,” since public education is supposed to be non-discriminatory.

We are back to the monkey troop mosaic. How do we achieve equity? And, is it really a generally-held social goal to do so? Can a school district, in fairness, actually reduce the funding of a “good” school in a “rich neighborhood,” or prevent the most senior teachers in the district from choosing to work there (job-site choice is a seniority benefit specified in labor contracts) so as to compensate for the equity imbalance with a poor neighborhood school? Wouldn’t that be imposing a special tax burden on the parents of the wealthier neighborhood, and mightn’t that simply discourage them from further contributions?; or chase away the most financially able, to other school districts or to charter or private schools?

Many “poor” schools are those with the very different and difficult challenge of extreme ethnic diversity from large immigrant communities, and so many first languages (there are 12 in some Oakland, California schools). This can be in addition to serving economically disadvantaged populations.

Is it possible to provide a uniformly equitable educational experience to every child, with school districts funded primarily by local (real estate) taxes in a nation of steep socio-economic and ethno-race disparities?

No, and we want it that way. Our first instinct is to seek to be in with the winners (“let’s use Grandma’s address to get him into a better school,” “let’s move over the hill to get into a better school district”). Our sympathies for the losers are insufficient to limit the advantages of the winners, and our tribalism and stinginess prevents raising all schools (in a state) to the conditions exhibited by the best examples. This, in any case, is the message transmitted by the political realities of today.

Money-and-Testing versus Children-and-Learning

A total of $972B was spent on public and private education at all levels in the U.S. in 2007. An average of $11,000 was spent per public school pupil (the highest public school per-pupil figure of 2005, and equalled by the Swiss), and public school pupils are 85% of the 37.9 million grammar school children and 16.5 million secondary school students in the U.S. Taking $6000 per pupil as an average spent on the 15% of students in private schools and home schooling (much higher costs for elite schools, typical of parochial schools, much lower for home schooling) my estimate of annual expenditures on primary education is $388.5B ($354.4B public, $34.1B private), and for secondary education it is $169.1B ($154.3B public, $14.8B private), for a total of $557.6B ($508.7B public, $48.9B private). This is a money stream of ‘Pentagonic’ proportion, so naturally it will attract considerable political attention.

The income of a school district is often about 40-some-odd percent from local taxes, 40-some-odd percent from the state (from income, sales and corporate taxes) and a small percentage from federal grants. The ratio between local and state funding proportions varies across the states. The school district exerts “local control” of the school system (physical plant, selecting the superintendent, labor contracting) and curriculum, but the state sets many standards and imposes numerous mandates (and takes direct control of districts that go bankrupt).

With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), the federal government now exercises greater influence on state educational standards. The NCLB imposes the requirement on the states to carry out standardized testing, issuing rewards or punishments in the form of federal grants to school districts either awarded or withheld on the basis of the test scores.

The US education system must serve a very diverse population, and in this regard it is at a disadvantage when compared internationally on standardized scales with good education systems with more homogeneous populations, like that of Finland.

Also, the domestic comparison of public and private schools is flawed because these two systems educate different types of populations. Private schools can cheery-pick their clients for socio-economic shine, academic potential, and mental and physical fitness. They do not have to make concessions for special education; submit to NCLB testing (only public education is so punished); or retain students deemed disruptive or academic failures, and who can be expelled permanently.

Public schools must accept all, accommodate all (though this is a bureaucratic struggle in cases that do not correspond exactly to one of the legally mandated accommodations), and cannot reject any. That adds overhead expenses to their per-pupil costs, making public schools unavoidably more expensive than many private schools. When these realities are factored into consideration, the US public school system can be judged to provide a worthy education for many of its students. The harshest criticisms of public education are broadcast by corporatist factions hostile to any effective socialist and democratizing institution; they also favor privatizing Social Security. (“Is Public Education Working? How Would We Know?” by Robert Freeman, http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0103-22.htm)

The cunning hypocrites of the George W. Bush administration had a real genius for stroking the yearning racism in the resentful hearts of the ownership class, and with the connivance of seasoned congressional ‘pork barrellists’, they devised the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, which skewed federal funding for education to the outcomes of standardized tests in mathematics and reading. This was supposedly to ensure parents were getting value for their money and could choose “good” school districts and pressure “bad” schools to turn out “bad” teachers, and to have their children taught with the instructional methods that would ensure they achieved to the standards set.

NCLB is the fruit of the “standards-based education reform” movement, which began in the late 1980s, surging in many states during the 1990s, and which was the standard camouflage of the school privatization forces. Its basic idea is to set absolute standards of what students “should” know and be able to do; to have these standards guide the development of curricula at the local level; to measure student performance, or “outcomes,” by standardized tests; and to align assessments and professional development (of both students AND teachers) to these standards. Basically, an overt paleo-conservative control-freak nightmare of social engineering covering a covert privatization prospecting caper.

A basic criticism of standards-based education and NCLB is that “it is not realistic to expect all students to perform at the same level as the best students, nor to punish students simply because they don’t perform as well as the most academically talented”

The [NCLB] Act requires states to develop assessments in basic skills to be given to all students in certain grades, if those states are to receive federal funding for schools. NCLB does not assert a national achievement standard; standards are set by each individual state, in line with the principle of local control of schools. The Act also requires that the schools distribute the name, home phone number and address of every student enrolled to military recruiters and institutions of higher education, unless the student (or the student’s parent) specifically opts out. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_Child_Left_Behind_Act)

The second clause noted above is no doubt to allow every college, and not just Harvard, to recruit your high-achieving Johnny or Jill.

“Teach To The Test,” and Homework

How do state education departments and local school districts respond to NCLB? Are you kidding? Since money is on the line all the way down from the state’s Title 1 grant (of federal funds to school districts, for disadvantaged children) to the local administrators’ raises and the teachers’ paychecks: the states can lower standards so as to “raise” test scores, the administrators narrow the curricula to the core material featured in the anticipated tests, and the teachers teach to the test.

Teachers cannot “waste time” coddling the slower learners (why should children develop at their natural pace when tax revolters want “accountability?”), nor can the school district “waste resources” on enrichment activities for the fraction of gifted students, unless there is a separate state program to fund such activity, and provided it doesn’t distract the teachers from the overarching goal of priming their classes for “the test” (three weeks in April-May!).

Your child is a chip in a high-stakes game for career advancement and economic survival. As a result, all the fundamental material that is so essential to learn, like the times tables, and that was once “drilled” and taught by patient and creative repetition because of the evanescence of attention among the very young, is now sent home as “homework,” because there is no time to teach it in class. This is why your child is burdened with homework, often of excessive quantity; it is displaced teaching.

The ideal amount of homework is zero: do real teaching and real learning during school, and allow the child to decompress, play, and engage in family life in those few hours between the bell closing the school-day and the goodnight kiss at bedtime (instead of displacing the entire family’s after-work after-school activities in order carry the burden of a child’s homework). The play, music lessons, time with friends, and family life after school are so essential to a child’s development. (The Case Against Homework, by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, 2006, Three Rivers Press/Crown Publishing Group, http://www.thecaseagainsthomework.com/).

As schools try to cram more and more into the day to prepare kids for No Child Left Behind testing or simply to stay competitive, there’s no way teachers can get through all the material, especially with ever-growing class sizes. The result: assignments that cover concepts and techniques that haven’t been taught thoroughly in class or that are brand new — even though this is ineffective, according to educators. “Homework seems to have supplanted teaching,” says Marcia, [a] mother from San Francisco. “Whatever the teacher hasn’t finished becomes homework.” Increasingly, parents are expected to take up the slack. (The Case Against Homework)

Robbing children of their time to be free, to instead do homework (often requiring a parent-tutor interrogator), because the necessary teaching was evicted from the curriculum so as to devote months of school-days programming children to function like robots primed for regurgitation at their anticipated tests, because every paycheck in the school system rides on the elevation of those test scores, is a most despicable intergenerational crime, and an utter debasement of teaching.

Betty Olson-Jones, president of the teacher’s union in Oakland, California (the Oakland Education Association) recently stated in a public meeting that teaching to the test is like holding a lit match to a thermometer in a cold room. Naturally, the indicated temperature rises, but you have not heated the room. Real teaching to real students, as opposed to programming automatons-in-training, is like warming up a real space so the rise of the indicator corresponds to an actual change of environment.

State education departments can canvass the best insights of academic experts in education and child development, and recommend standards and methods; but, ultimately, actual learning is crafted by an individual teacher for each individual student, as a knowing and very human interaction shaped by the realities of the personalities involved. Standardized testing is the delusion of measuring out standardized children produced in standardized environments; and who can ever believe their child and their child’s learning environment to be standard?

The only method of any effectiveness to improve any (and so every) child’s learning is to provide more focused adult attention, ideally a single tutor per child. We can surmise that Alexander the Great was an indifferent student, but his education was probably better than might have otherwise been the case, because he was tutored by Aristotle. As our children are placed in larger groups before a single teacher, they receive less thoughtful consideration during the development of their thinking processes. One can imagine how learning would improve if the student-to-teacher ratio was 3:1 to 5:1 during grammar school (instead of 20:1), 6:1 to 8:1 during middle school (grades 6, 7, 8) (instead of 30:1), and under 12:1 through secondary school.

Hire more teachers and layoff more administrators? Yes, if children’s learning is more of the goal than the manipulation of money flows. “Children” versus “money,” “learning” versus “testing,” how do you see your school district?

Shallow Curricula For Hurried Children

In my 1950s schooling, I spent all of third grade perfecting the times tables. Today, they send them home and ask parents to infuse them into their offspring in two weeks, and then move on (with copious homework) to double and triple digit multiplication, estimating sums and differences, the rounding of large numbers, and even long division! Yes, I saw these later in fourth and fifth grades, and could understand them then because I had the good basis of the times tables on which to build. Imagine, even in those primitive times I eventually got smart enough to do calculus in high school, and to be drafted. So, what is the rush today, beyond an artificially induced money panic?

Fewer than one-third of US 4th-grade and 8th-grade students performed at or above a level called “proficient” in mathematics; “proficiency” was considered the ability to exhibit competence with challenging subject matter. Alarmingly, about one-third of the 4th graders and one-fifth of the 8th-graders lacked the competence to perform even basic mathematical computations (Rising Above The Gathering Storm, The National Academy of Sciences, 2006)

The recommendation of national experts in math and science education, on primary school math and science curricula, is that fewer and basic concepts be presented, and that more time be devoted to each. This is to build a solid foundation of understanding in young minds of hummingbird-like flightiness, on which a more elaborate framework of learning can be erected later, as their ability for complex thought and sustained attention increases.

The National Research Council recommends that schools [K–8] present fundamental concepts gradually over several years, rather than cramming them into a few weeks or months. It also suggests focusing on core topics, such as the atomic-molecular theory of matter, evolution, cell theory, and Newtonian laws of force and motion. (Janet Raloff, “Strategies To Improve Teaching,” Science News, December 8, 2007; Vol.172 #23, p. 366)

The NRC’s recent book, Ready, Set, Science! Putting Research to Work in K–8 Science Classrooms (National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2008) “aims to improve science education by building on the results of a recent study of U.S. teaching methods and emerging data on how children learn and retain scientific concepts.” It “offers examples of classroom projects that let kids assimilate such concepts by testing them out.”

What exists in too many early-grade classrooms is a jumbled heap of a curriculum with many disconnected bits, like a slumping unstable talus slope eroded from a once monolithic mountain of knowledge. All this does is confuse the eager if simple minds of children. The reason one-fifth of 8th-graders, nationally, cannot do simple calculations is because they still don’t know the times tables, and whatever personal circumstances may conspire to impede their learning, they definitely have not been helped by being rushed along through shallow curricula, which reflect the underlying societal impatience for monetary payoffs.

The ideal 3rd-grade math curriculum would train children to have the skills of first-rate bookies and odds-makers. Besides the arithmetic of sums and differences, this is the mathematical skill of greatest impact: the ability to find products, to perceive fractions and proportions. Any educational system focused primarily on children’s learning would ensure EVERY child could do this by the end of fourth grade BEFORE moving on to other concepts in mathematics, or anything involved in general science. We should base our pacing of instruction on the developmental clocks of the children — individually — not to one artificial standardized timer wound by the impatient hand of the revolted tax-obsessed mentality of the ownership class.

No homework, slow down, simpler curricula, more playground breaks, person-to-person teaching in the class, no high-stakes testing, pacing and focusing attuned to the natural cycles of attention and distraction of children, and their natural rate of information absorption. Children are like fresh blades of grass in that they can’t be yanked up to be made to grow faster, that can be deadly. Instead, they blossom eagerly into favorable environments that are tended and prepared by patient and perceptive adults who anticipate the children’s development.

The Sacred Cow

The great difficulty for many parents will be that they cannot let go of their competitive fears, and they will defend homework — the sacred cow — and testing as tools that will give their youngsters a leg up. After all, many competitive parents are part of the tax-obsessed mentality of the ownership class that pushed for the NCLB type of institutionalized pressure on the states’ public education systems.

This anxiety over financial accumulation (“success”) is blind to such facts as:

According to a 2001 review of more than 120 studies of homework and its effects by Professor Harris Cooper of Duke University, the country’s leading homework researcher, and his updated 2006 review of an additional sixty studies, there is very little correlation between the amount of homework and achievement in elementary school and only a moderate correlation in middle school. Even in high school, “too much homework may diminish its effectiveness or even become counterproductive,” writes Cooper in his research review of early 2006.

Many countries with the highest scoring students in achievement tests, such as Japan, Denmark, and the Czech Republic, have teachers who assign little homework. Meanwhile, countries such as Greece, Thailand, and Iran, where students have some of the worst average scores, have teachers who assign a lot of homework. Americans students do as much homework as their peers in other countries — if not more — but still manage to only score around the international average.

Citations for the two items above, as well as more data and recommendations are to be found in The Case Against Homework.

It only takes a few minutes of reflection to realize how much better our children would be if freed from homework and the testing driving it:

— They would have more opportunities for play and physical exertion during and after school, counteracting the obesity-inducing damage of the fast-food, TV and internet ‘couch-potato’ commercialism they are bombarded with.

— Kids’ school backpacks would become much lighter, if they need them at all, since they can dispense with the lugging back-and-forth of workbooks, binders and assignment notebooks (or ‘day planners’). Many kids today have backaches because they are so loaded down.

— They would have the time to get more sleep, the lack of which is a significant health and developmental problem. For children, lack of sleep has a similar effect to a limitation of oxygen: it harms mental development. Also, with enough sleep, mood improves and stress is reduced.

— Children diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder), and that today may be drugged to “calm them down” so they will sit through long class periods, might be easily accommodated if allowing to burn off their extra energy for fifteen minutes in the playground every forty-five minutes, and for hours after school, ensuring a sound night’s sleep and alert mind the next morning. A 19th century accommodation to be sure, but it works (ADHD often diminishes with age, and fades into a normal adolescence or young adulthood; usually a 3 to 5 year lag in the development of focusing attention and impulse control, compared to peers). And, is it really worth it to drug your kid to put him or her through the teach-to-test and homework grind?

— It is true there is a small proportion of children who have more serious problems in regard to attention and/or hyperactivity and must be treated with specific interventions (this is not a euphemism for drugs, they need helpful “company”), but the explosion of much milder cases today is largely driven by the undue pressure put upon our schoolchildren.

It is only in a world where schooling or adherence to a particular set of social norms is compulsory that a condition like ADHD becomes a disorder. There was greater scope over a century ago than there is now for children to do other things in childhood and wait until they settled down in adolescence without being treated for their condition. (–David Healy, interviewed by Christopher Lane)

Some parents take things one step further in the effort to give their kids an edge: They try to get them diagnosed with a learning disability, even if they don’t have one, says one family therapist from Northern California. “Most of the kids I see are pretty normal, average kids. They don’t have learning disabilities. But the parents want to do all this testing and get all these special arrangements,” she says. Such arrangements include extra time on tests and tutoring. (The Case Against Homework)

Paraphrasing Jesus Christ’s “the word was made for man, not man for the word” from the New Testament, imagine: a school system that is molded to the requirements of each child, not a school system that regiments all children to an arbitrary standard whose purpose is entirely mercenary.

Education as a Monkey War

The real purpose of No Child Left Behind standardized testing is to maintain segregation.

Neighborhoods and districts with “good schools” and “high” test scores are “rich” and primarily white. “Poor,” “minority” and many “urban” schools are those with large non-white populations, with many immigrant children and so many languages; and parents with less money.

For he that hath, To him shall be given; and To he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.” (Matthew 13:12).

In the case of our monkey war over education we might apply the above freely this way: For the school district that hath high test scores, To that school district shall be given $, and To the school district that hath not high test scores, from that school district shall be taken even that $ which the school district has. This is how NCLB will dispense its “grace.”

The parents of children in the more homogeneous, “higher performing” schools do not want to mix with the lower social classes and darker races, and they want to have greater “competitive” advantages given to their children (i.e., to graduate with high grades from a “good” school and get into a “good” college, to go on and make more money in a “good” career). This segregation is based on primitive racism, plus primitive competitiveness, plus fear, and the usual comfort most people find in their ethnic and class clannishness.

The smarmy reactionaries of the George W. Bush administration crafted the NCLB Act to preferentially funnel government money to the whiter wealthier neighborhoods, it is stealth apartheid.

It is also stealth union-busting, because test scores are used to judge teacher and school performance, and to make salary and job-action decisions in the public school systems. Increasing the funding to charter schools encourages non-union hiring, and school privatization enterprises. Also, NCLB incites pressure for school privatization by stoking public resentment over “low performance” as showcased by test results from hard-pressed public schools. The clause about military recruiting seems to be merely incidental to the NCLB package, and thrown in for convenience.

I think the key to understanding NCLB and the current distortion of public education by teaching-to-the-test and homework-as-displaced-teaching is to see NCLB as being targeted pork barrel to encourage public school privatization and enable stealth apartheid, and a tactic of top-down class warfare in the same spirit as the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

While a cunning and clever ruse, it is sad to think that such mean-spirited small-mindedness exists, to so callously destroy the learning experiences of millions of children just to advance the grasping monetary ambitions, and to indulge the worst prejudices of the ownership class.

The best hope for the future is that enough parents and children revolt simultaneously, killing the sacred cow of homework, and joining into a large enough political force to overturn the NCLB distortion of public education, before the children “age out” of the system and the parents lose personal interest in the struggle.

MANUEL GARCIA, Jr. can be reached at mango@idiom.com

Manuel Garcia Jr, once a physicist, is now a lazy househusband who writes out his analyses of physical or societal problems or interactions. He can be reached at mangogarcia@att.net