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Public Education Policy

California currently has no statewide testing program for primary- and secondary-school students, a fact that is a result of a bitter battle that was fought in 1994.
Megan Shaw

Issue #27, September 1996

Although state law mandates it, California currently has no statewide testing program for primary- and secondary-school students, a fact that is a result of a bitter battle that was fought in 1994 over CLAS, the California Learning Assessment System. CLAS was a statewide testing program that was the culmination of years of work on the part of public school educators to determine what children should be learning at school and how they should be tested on that learning. CLAS was the most comprehensive examination administered with the goal of testing children's ability to think and reason. But within one year of implementation, Governor Pete Wilson overturned CLAS and, in the guise of responding to concerned parents who want schools to go "back to basics," blocked all funding of statewide testing until an entirely new committee could be assembled to create an entirely new test.

The overturning of CLAS is the best publicized episode in a long war between leftist education theorists and right wing conservatives over the project of the education of children. While the right attempts to publicize itself as secularly as possible, its political objectives, when analyzed, regularly reveal an ideology mediated by religion, and the struggle over public education is no exception.

In the last fifteen years, leftist education theorists have developed a proposal for primary education that involves a restructuring of the respective roles of teachers, students, and the public school curriculum. CLAS was the single most broadly implemented piece of policy that reflected this development, a mass-distributed test that had open-ended questions and required students to analyze information, make evaluations, and express reasoned opinions. The instructional approach that supports this theory is driven by outcome goals. Outcome goals are broad statements developed by schools and districts that state the knowledge and skills students must demonstrate in order to graduate. Curriculum in individual schools is then developed with those goals in mind, and assessment of achievement within the curriculum holds students accountable for long-term growth in their body of knowledge and skills. While such policy does exist at the national level, as exemplified first by President Bush's America 2000 and later its update, President Clinton's Goals 2000: Educate America Act, these policies are statements of vision and are not the same as programs that reach individual children as CLAS did. Therefore, while they have been attacked by the right for their ideas and language, they have not been as easy for the right to mobilize against.

Under the leadership of current research and the Goals 2000 policy vision, public schools across the country are restructuring to accommodate curricula that is oriented towards having children investigate questions they develop and having them construct their own theories, rather than study from textbooks. Teachers are reformulating their role as facilitators of the students' "knowledge work" instead of the traditional role as dispensers of information. To develop their capacity in the facilitators' role, teachers are forming collegial groups and investing their union membership with a commitment to outcome-based education.

Someone unaware of this shift in public education might have been perplexed to hear Bob Dole, in his speech accepting the Republican nomination for the presidency, forcefully assert that if elected, he will "disregard teachers unions and their political power for the sake of parents, the children, the schools, and the nation."

Teachers' unions? An uninformed observer might wonder what could be more innocuous than public school teachers, and might also wonder at the reasons behind the force with which Bob Dole condemns them as a group and considers doing so to be a big political selling point. But Bob Dole is a publicly prominent face on a continuum of groups who object to education restructuring, especially that which is theoretically grounded in the right's interpretation of Goals 2000. Groups that have publicly spoken out against education reform include the Republican-aligned Concerned Women for America; Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum; the non-sectarian sounding Citizens for Excellence in Education which is a division of the National Association of Christian Educators; and the separatist group Citizens for Academic Excellence (CAE).

CAE has published an 800-page point by point refutation of Goals 2000, which interprets it as a plan to "[move] the nation educationally toward a new world order," taking primary issue with the proposition that America develop internationally competitive content and student performance standards, commenting that "an international standard will eventually neutralize nationalism and create a single world government" (from Patrick, James R., ed. America 2000/Goals 2000: Moving the Nation Educationally to a "New World Order." Modine, Ill.: Citizens for Academic Excellence). This group is extremely mistrustful of the federal government, but they share an intimate connection with Bob Dole's patriotic campaign for the presidency in their common rejection of the idea that teachers should be coaches who help children investigate and develop ideas and opinions. For example, a science unit for second graders might revolve around questions that students submit for consideration, such as "what makes the wind whistle?" or "why does a drop of oil in water make a rainbow?' The teacher then coaches the students to find answers to their questions and in doing so, guides them through the development of theories, the postulation and testing of hypotheses, and the forming of conclusions. This process introduces children to science as a task of constructing knowledge about the physical world in a way that does not set a limit on what they can learn, as would a textbook which teaches simplicities such as "plants are green and need water and air to live." A science unit that is based on a student question would then give students an opportunity to meet one of the school's outcomes, that "second graders will develop and test two scientific hypotheses and explain their results."

The right's rejection of this constructivist theory of education is, at its core, based on an accurate suspicion that where children are encouraged to think for themselves, they may come to look at religious faith critically, or at least become predisposed to investigative, critical thought in general. The fact that teaching is a traditionally female-dominated profession, and that it is closely related to child rearing, presents a sinister echo in patterns of the religious right's political campaigns: that the young who cannot speak for themselves must be rescued from nurturers who cannot be trusted with them. This pattern has been played out to tragic extremes in the case of the "debate" over abortion, and is evolving again, if more subtly, in the debate over public education. These two trends are similar insofar as they have a common agenda to remove children, born or unborn, from the public policy sphere. This agenda can be explained as an effort on the part of the right to claim children as symbolic spiritual property. This is the point at which the right's political agenda is heavily informed by a religious perspective, in considering children, both born and unborn, to be souls that need to be "saved" from public policy that threatens to destroy them. In the case of abortion, the religious right considers souls to be literally destroyed, in the case of public education, what is at risk is their unchallenged capacity to hold faith in religion. Taken to its logical conclusion, this agenda would end in the complete privatization of primary education in America.

This is the heart of the battle that the religious right is waging, a battle that has focused on testing programs as a pivotal point of weakness in the political strength of education reformers. In the case of the effort to overturn CLAS, there was a ripple effect which had a deep and sustained impact on all dimensions of public education. Shortly after the right succeeded in overturning the outcome-based statewide testing program, Governor Wilson signed a bill authorizing the state of California to pay schools $5 per student to administer any of a set of state-approved, norm-referenced tests. Coincidental with the passing of this bill, The McGraw-Hill Companies published a new multiple-choice test, the Curriculum Frameworks Assessment System (CFAS). CFAS made claims for evaluating critical thinking skills, but the extent to which it appears to do so while in fact not doing so has been well documented (from Susan Harman, "New Life for Old Tests." Thrust for Educational Leadership, May/June 1996, vol.25, no. 7, pp. 20-23).

In order for cash-starved schools to get the $5 per student bounty, they must administer such a test, if not CFAS then the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), or the California Achievement Test (CAT). To score well on the tests, students must be taught "to the test", so outcome-based education must be set aside, if not entirely discarded, in favor of the "back to basics" textbooks favored by the religious right that teach the memorization-based instructional materials that turn up in the standardized tests. It should come as no surprise that the McGraw-Hill Companies owns Macmillan/McGraw Hill, Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, and SRA/McGraw-Hill, all of whom publish basal textbooks that are key in preparing students to score well on the CFAS, CTBS, or CAT, all of which are also published by McGraw-Hill subsidiaries (from Susan Harman, "New Life for Old Tests." Thrust for Educational Leadership, May/June 1996, vol.25, no. 7, pp. 20-23). The result of this arrangement is that, through apparently unrelated government legislation, schools are being paid cold cash to not teach outcome-based curricula.

This successful strike against education reform in California is typical of the right's political campaigns: grassroots organizing, a Christian theological point of origin, and a successful presentation of themselves as small, disorganized Davids ("concerned parents") fighting Goliath (teachers' unions). This is a gross distortion of the actual political power held by the concerned parties, as the right's claim of a lack of such power belies their success in getting the teaching-testing-cash loop rolling, while on the other hand, were teachers unions in fact the power brokers that the right portrays them to be, teachers would probably be earning more now than they did ten years ago. They do not.

Of concern to leftists in the coming year is how structures in the realm of education will be targeted next by the right in its attempt to remove children from the sphere of public influence. The controversy over school vouchers is the next focal point of the right's campaign against school reform. The right would like to see the government fund education, if necessary, only in raw funds (in the form of vouchers) distributed directly to communities, even to individuals, to pay for the education of the children of those communities and individuals, either in parochial schools or home schools. Home schooling is the ultimate removal of all children from influence by the secular public sphere, and therefore a very attractive option to members of the religious right who do not want any strangers coaching their children to become thinkers unlike themselves. A voucher plan, which would secure government funding for private schooling and ultimately home schooling, is an ideal solution to their problem.

The public campaign for a national voucher plan, which is now a topic in the current presidential campaigns, is an example of the right making use of leftist rhetoric to divert attention from its original intent, at the same time making its goals highly marketable in the media. The claims reported in the newspapers are that supporters of voucher programs are either the poor who cannot afford private schools, or representatives of those poor who do not speak for themselves. While claiming the privilege of the economically oppressed to demand change in public policy that supposedly benefits the rich, the campaign further disguises itself as progressive by appropriating the language of abortion rights activists, labeling the issue as a right to choose.

This campaign strategy fails to emphasize that a primary result of a voucher program would be subsidizing religious schools and ultimately home schools, while depriving public, secular schools of the guarantee of funds they would need to continue. In areas dominated by Christian groups, if most parents elect to use vouchers to fund private, religious institutions, then parents who wish for a public education will be confronted with the fact that, lacking a critical mass of funding, the local public school will have been shut down.

Megan Shaw lives and writes in San Francisco. Her website is

Copyright © 1996 by Megan Shaw. All rights reserved.