Testing . . . Testing . . . Testing . . .

Edd Doerr

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff, writing in his 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, attacked George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education “refor m” legislation. NCLB instituted a regime of testing, not only of students but also of schools. “Failing” schools could have their funding cut back. Wrote Lakoff: “Less funding in turn makes it harder for the schools to improve, which leads to a cycle of failure and ultimately elimination of many public schools.” These would be replaced by a “voucher system to support private schools. The wealthy would have good schools—paid for in part by what used to be tax payments for public schools. The poor would not have the money for good schools. We would wind up with a two-tier school system, a good one for the ‘deserving rich’ and a bad one for the ‘undeserving poor.’” Actually, as I have written in this journal and elsewhere, we would end up not with a “system” but with a disorganized, growing proliferation of faith-, ideology-, class-, and ethnic-based schools far worse and more costly than anything we can imagine.

Lakoff’s prescience has been borne out. Education expert Diane Ravitch’s 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, makes this clear. She writes that “Billionaire Boys’ Club” foundations, enemies of teacher unions, and politicians, few if any of whom ever presided over a K–12 classroom, have sold the American people a bill of goods: “They have spread the illusion that endless testing in the limited areas of math and simple literacy will somehow bring us to an educational Utopia. It has led, instead, to a dumbing down of standards, a mania for multiple-choice testing, and a rapid diminution of content in social studies, literature, science, the arts, and foreign languages.”

Leading the charge toward mediocrity, she writes, was Bush’s NCLB program that “bereft of any educational ideas, . . . was a technocratic approach to school reform that measured ‘success’ only in relation to standardized test scores on two skill-based subjects, with the expectation that this limited training would strengthen our nation’s competitiveness with other nations.”

“Under NCLB,” Ravitch writes, “the federal government was dictating ineffectual remedies, which had no record of success.” Scores of public schools in major cities closed “because they were unable to meet the unreasonable demands of NCLB.”

“As a nation,” Ravitch concludes, “we need a strong and vibrant public education system. As we seek to reform our schools, we must take care to do no harm. . . . [P]ublic education is in peril. Efforts to reform public education are, ironically, diminishing its quality and endangering its very survival.”

Ravitch is backed up by George Washington University Graduate School of Education Professor Iris C. Rotberg, whose magisterial new book, Balancing Change and Tradition in Global Education Reform (2010), is an in-depth, up-to-date survey of educational developments in sixteen countries on six continents. Rotberg, in her concluding essay, and the authors of the section on the United States voice similar criticisms to those of Ravitch and Lakoff.

Although the authors of the sections of Rotberg’s book on Canada and Australia do not discuss the adverse effects of tax aid for nonpublic schools, the section on Chile goes into the almost purely Milton Friedmanesque voucher plan that the thuggish Pinochet military dictatorship imposed on that country. Chile’s vouchers have not improved education noticeably but have become entrenched and perhaps politically impossible to dislodge. That should serve as a warning to politicians in the United States.

While we are on the subject of school vouchers, let’s note that Newt Gingrich’s new book, To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine, which is either a PowerPoint guidebook for the Tea Party movement or a manifesto for a 2012 presidential campaign (or both), comes out strongly for school vouchers. Knowing that tens of millions of U.S. voters have rejected vouchers or their variants in over two dozen statewide referenda, Newt rarely uses the word but employs instead the disingenuous term K-12 Pell Grants.

Newt, Newt, Newt

Speaking of Gingrich, Newt’s new book would be a lot thinner if he had not used the term secular socialist until it wore out. Newt comes out full force for vouchers (“K–12 Pell Grants”), government-sponsored school prayer, home-schooling, allowing public school teachers to proselytize, barring federal courts from hearing establishment clause cases, stopping U.S. support for the United Nations Population Fund, reinstating the Reagan/Bush I and II “Mexico City” anti–family-planning policy, using churches for politicking, and increasing the number of charter schools without limit. Newt now carries the torch lit by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

In July, Newt had a letter published in the Washington Post bloviating about how our rights were given to us by his deity. In my response, printed by the Post on July 21, I noted that

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, we were a small band of revolutionaries up against the world’s most powerful empire. A third of our people supported independence, a third were Tories, and a third were indifferent. Jefferson invoked the deity to challenge the prevailing European idea of the divine right of kings.

If our rights come from the Deity, then why was this discovered only in 1776, why were these rights confined to some white men, and why has the Deity been so stingy about spreading rights throughout the world?

We have rights because we conceived them, asserted them, fought for them and created the machinery for protecting them. Our basic document of government, the Constitution, begins with “We the People,” not “We the Worshipers.”

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


Cognitive scientist George Lakoff, writing in his 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, attacked George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education “refor m” legislation. NCLB instituted a regime of testing, not only of students but also of schools. “Failing” schools could have their funding cut back. Wrote Lakoff: “Less funding in …

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