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The corporate MCAS agenda

Published in the Brookline TAB

August 17, 2000

This is a preliminary local version of a column
on 2002/2003 list of Top 25 Censored Stories!

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 deserve."

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 themselves.

That's not a bad outcome for the corporate sponsors, conspiratorially speaking.

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