The corporate MCAS agenda
Published in the Brookline
August 17, 2000
This is a preliminary local version of a
on 2002/2003 list of Top 25
As a long-time critic of corporate power and a more recent participant
in the movement against high-stakes testing in Massachusetts, it didn't
take long to notice that the major supporters of tests like MCAS are big
corporations. They're working hard to impose the standardized tests not
just in the United States but--thanks to the International Montetary Fund
and World Bank--all around the planet.
Three competing theories might explain the corporate agenda: the do-gooder,
the cynical, and the conspiratorial.
Corporations claim to be do-gooders. Corporate officials and their front-group
institutes and think tanks say they worry about the lack of qualified
applicants for today's high-tech workforce. They just want public education
to do a better job. This argument appeals to parents who believe the propaganda
about failing kids and lazy, unionized teachers--especially parents in
the half of the population that hasn't benefited from high-tech mania.
Here's the corporate method. First, states standardize the curriculum
around job-relevant, business-defined basics rather than locally-determined
priorities. Schools then teach test-taking skills and memorization of
isolated facts rather than critical thinking, depth of content, and other
frills. Next they create one-size-fits-all tests to ensure that the revised
curriculum is taught. Finally the penalty: no diploma for those who fail,
whether they pass their courses or not.
Test defenders say those who run the stressful gauntlet "get a diploma
that really means something." Those who fail or drop out "get what they
Cynics, mostly liberal ones, reject the do-gooder explanation as a ploy.
Standardization's real goal, they argue, is not to improve public education
but to destroy it. Why? To build support for the right's preferred union-free
alternatives: private schools, charter schools managed by for-profit management
companies, and taxpayer-funded school vouchers.
Since only public school students take the standardized tests, kids whose
parents can afford private schools don't have to agonize year after year
about potential failure. That so many test supporters--including many
state legislators--send their own kids to parochial and other private
schools adds to the cynicism.
So does the proliferating corporate investment in for-profit charter
schools and test-prep tutoring programs. All those people making money
off parental panic makes cynicism pretty understandable.
Conspiratorial types offer a third analysis. According to groups like
Boston's New Democracy, the primary corporate goal is not to make money
off private education but to lower expectations about what education can
provide. In this view, corporations are out to dim the hopes of students
whose teachers might otherwise teach them they can get somewhere in life
if they work hard and graduate.
The corporate problem is that educated people expect to get somewhere
good. And despite all those high-tech job openings, there's even more
of a need for low-tech service workers. Cooks. Domestics. Cashiers. Assemblers.
Delivery drivers. This is the real new economy, but it's not what today's
students envision for their middle-class futures.
There's nothing more dissatisfied, even revolutionary, than an educated
work force that can only find low-paid jobs requiring low-level skills.
People tend to accept poverty when they think there's no alternative,
but not when they've followed the rules and still can't get ahead.
The corporate solution is simple: raise "standards" to arbitrary levels,
assign impossible tasks and impossible tests, increase competition and
stress, and make our kids think they're too stupid for anything better.
Don't get me wrong. Public education has serious problems. Chief among
them is an underfunded, inequitable financing system dependent on local
property taxes, compounded by vastly disparate family and community resources
that lead directly to disparate outcomes. This remains true in Massachusetts
despite recent minimal efforts to close the gap.
The solutions, monetary and political, are not reducible to punitive
tests or missing-the-mark "education reform." High-stakes testing only
ensures that more kids drop out into the lowest level of the service economy
or into prison or welfare. Most who remain in school get trained for higher-level
service jobs, while relatively few are tracked into elite public exam
schools or high-tech private-school heaven.
What students won't learn in corporatized schools is how to think for
That's not a bad outcome for the corporate sponsors, conspiratorially