Skip to main content

Janresseger: Who Redefined Teaching as the Production of High Test Scores and Who Taught Us to Believe in the Myth of the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations?

The history that happens in our lifetimes is sometimes the most obscure.  We live it without thinking about it, and it hasn’t yet been recorded or analyzed by historians who help us sift out the important details and trace what has happened.  Fortunately today, public policy experts have been exploring parts of the last half century’s history of public education to help us see what we may have missed while living through these years.

Last April, James Harvey took us back 40 years to 1983, when Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education released A Nation at Risk, which blamed American public schools for our nation’s declining economic competitiveness. According to the commission’s report, “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”

Secretary of Education Terrell Bell appointed James Harvey, who was chief of staff to the National Institute of Education, the Department’s research arm, to help choose the members of the Commission. Harvey writes that as senior staff to the Commission, he, “developed two successive white papers reflecting on what we had heard from experts on the complexities of the school ‘system’ in the United States. The essence of the two lengthy papers was that American schools had accomplished great things for the United States and were now faced with the joint challenges of (1) successfully educating a more diverse and lower-income population through high school, and (2) improving standards or we risked becoming mired in mediocrity.”  However, “(v)irtually every reference to the accomplishments of American schools and the challenges of diversity and poverty disappeared from the succeeding drafts.”

Harvey describes one member of the Commission who presented a new draft document blaming public schools for the nation’s economic problems. Harvey reports that the commission rewrote the report to prove that thesis: “There were at least three problems with what the commission finally produced. First, it settled on its conclusions and then selected evidence to support them. Second, its argument was based on shockingly shoddy logic. And third, it proposed a curricular response that ignored the complexity of American life and the economic and racial divisions within the United States…

As a result, reports Harvey, we became an achievement-test-obsessed society in order to demand that our schools be held accountable.  What followed was the Clinton era’s Goals 2000, Bush’s No Child Left Behind, Obama’s Race to the Top and all the punitive policies that constitute what remains our test-and-punish education culture.

Richard Rothstein is another expert who has helped us become more aware of the public education history many of us have lived through in the past half century. Rothstein wrote The Color of Law, the definitive history of how public policy contributed to the racial segregation of housing across the United States and how housing segregation turned into school segregation. Two weeks ago for the Economic Policy Institute’s Working Economics Blog, Rothstein examined how a 1968 book, Robert Rosenthal’s Pygmalion in the Classroom, has shaped what has come to be a key premise of the common knowledge about public schools to this day.

Rosenthal and a school principal, Lenore Jacobson, conducted an experiment they described as concluding that teachers’ expectations for each student shaped and predicted which students would be successful, independent of what was recorded as their IQ. “Some psychologists were skeptical, believing that the experimental design was not sufficiently rigorous to support such a revolutionary conclusion.” Rosenthal and Jacobson’s experiment was conducted on first and second grade students, but Rothstein reports, “Even the reported results were ambiguous. Teacher expectations had no similar impact on children in grades three through six.  Similar experiments elsewhere did not confirm the results even for first and second graders. Nevertheless, the book was very influential.”

Rothstein summarizes the impact of the book on public policy: “(I)gnoring how scanty the evidence was, education policymakers concluded from their research that the Black-white gap in test scores at all grade levels resulted from teachers of Black children not expecting their pupils to do well. And that, they reasoned, should be an easy problem to solve—holding teachers accountable for results would force them to abandon the racial stereotypes that were keeping children behind… The accountability movement grew in intensity during the Bill Clinton administration… In 2000, Bush was elected president; his campaign promised to demolish teachers’ ‘soft bigotry of low expectations.'” What followed was No Child Left Behind and a regime of testing every child every year from third through eighth grade and punishing schools whose scores did not quickly rise.

Rothstein remembers his conversation with a Congressional staffer at the time: “She predicted that within two years, the publication of test scores would so embarrass teachers that they would work harder, with the result that racial differences in academic achievement would evaporate entirely. Nothing of that sort has happened… Enthusiasm for charter schools escalated from a belief that operators could choose teachers with higher expectations, yet charter schools have not done any better (and in many cases worse) in closing the gap, once the sector’s ability to select students less likely to fail (and expel students who do) is taken into account.”

“Certainly,” Rothstein explains, “there are teachers with low expectations and harmful racial stereotypes, and it would be beneficial if those who can’t be trained to improve were removed from the profession.”  He adds: “Concentrating disadvantaged pupils in poorly resourced schools in poorly resourced and segregated neighborhoods (can) overwhelm instructional and support staffs.” As he looks back, however, Rothstein considers the impact of Pygmalion in the Classroom: “No book in the second half of the 20th century did more, unintentionally perhaps, to undermine support for public education and thus diminish educational opportunities for so many children, especially Black and Hispanic children, to this day. The book and its aftermath put the onus solely on teacher performance when it came to student achievement, disregarding so many critically important socioeconomic factors—at the top of the list, residential segregation.”

Academic research over the more than two decades since Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act has confirmed Rothstein’s conclusion. Here is Daniel Koretz, the Harvard University expert on the appropriate use of standardized tests: “Used properly… tests are very useful for describing what students know. On their own, however, tests simply aren’t sufficient to explain why they know it…. Of course the actions of educators do affect scores, but so do many of the other factors both inside and outside of school, such as their parents’ education.  This has been well documented at least since the publication more than fifty years ago of the ‘Coleman Report,’… which found that student background and parental education had a bigger impact than schooling on student achievement.” (The Testing Charade, pp, 148-149)

Koretz explains further: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Just last year, in The Education Myth, John Shelton, a professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, reached the same conclusion about the essential flaw in No Child Left Behind: “At root, the very premise of the bill—that punishing schools for the scores of their students would improve the school’s performance—was simply flawed, particularly when school districts did not have the ability to raise students out of poverty or alleviate the trauma of racism.”  (The Education Myth, pp. 173)

It is important to consider the various ideas that have converged to shape today’s public policy. We can now see more clearly how No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on school accountability blocked our society’s addressing systemic racism and child poverty as primary barriers for too many American children.  We can also see that these are the same obstacles many state legislatures continue to ignore when they underfund the school districts serving concentrations of our society’s poorest children.

There remains, however, another serious consequence stemming from the school accountability movement and from Pygmalion in the Classroom and the idea of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” as it was institutionalized in No Child Left Behind.  Our society has learned from the politicians who launched these reforms to put the children and their experience of schooling aside when we think about education.  Instead we have complacently allowed No Child Left Behind to redefine schoolteachers’ primary job as the production of high test scores.

As a result, many people and many of the state legislators who allocate dollars for public education too easily blame and scapegoat the schoolteachers and the schools and school districts unable to raise test scores upon command.  We continue to watch school districts themselves ignore poverty and systemic racism as they close or punish the schools in the poorest neighborhoods, and we continue to watch state legislatures take over “failing” schools or school districts and install so-called turnaround experts. The polls show that most parents are grateful to their child’s own teacher, someone they know personally, but when people think about teachers in general, too many have learned from several generations of school reform to blame the teachers and look down on the so-called “failing” schools that can’t seem to produce high test scores.


This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Chris...