The One about Peter Cunningham, Education Post and Spin...

John Oliver's recent takedown of standardized testing has met with near-universal praise, and deservedly so. It was a brilliant, thoughtful and bitingly funny analysis of the fatal flaws in the testing business, and was clearly based on extensive research and investigation. There has, however, been one lonely outpost of denial with respect to Mr. Oliver's piece: the intrepid externs at Education Post, and their fearless leader, Peter Cunningham.

Mr. Cunningham is from the long lineage of education leaders who have no degrees in education, have never taught and have zero experience in education outside of decision making and check cashing. By last count, about $12 million of that, as he points out in a recent EduShyster interview:

Cunningham: We hire bloggers and we subsidize bloggers who are already out there and who we want to support or give more lift. I think it’s fine. As you know, I have all this money. I have to spend it.

Mr. Cunningham, using generous donations from the Broad and Walton foundations, among others, has attempted to carve himself a niche as a "reasonable reformer," advocating for a more civil dialogue around the issues he believes are at the core of the reform debate. His agenda is based on 3 "Issues" that form the core of his beliefs about education reform:

1. High Standards for All Students: Is my child learning what is needed to be successful?

Even if our kids are coming home with straight “A”s, how do we really know if they’re learning what they need to succeed in college, in career, and in life?  One teacher’s “A” could be another teacher’s “C”.

We need to have clear and consistent standards for what our kids should be learning.

That is the thinking behind the Common Core — a common set of high learning standards for kids.

As you can see, Mr. Cunningham is a big Common Core booster. He also seems to believe that standardized tests are the only way we will "know if they’re learning what they need to succeed in college, in career, and in life"--which makes sense if you remember that he never taught, so he must not be aware of portfolios, formative assessments, playing checks, demonstrations, essays, poems, term papers, quizzes, drawings, dances, improvisations, compositions, science experiments, interviews, observations, and hundreds of other assessment tools that tell us what students know and can do in rich, meaningful ways.

His essay flagellating Mr. Oliver also uses florid imagery (Oliver throws poor kids under the bus) to defend the Common Core and standardized tests under a cloak of faux-racist indignation, as though more and harder tests will provide the magic solution to lifting poor kids out of poverty. Mr. Cunningham also makes outlandish accusations that exaggerate his importance in the grand scheme of American education:

We know these things because we force the educational bureaucracy to test kids, publish results and take action. Until we demanded real accountability, many states, with a few exceptions, simply ignored these kids.

For a person who has never taught, and holds no elected office, that's a pretty gaudy resume. Mr. Cunningham seems to believe he has the power to "force" schools to test students according to his demands, and to enforce accountability on the unruly masses. To listen to Mr. Cunningham, before he came to the rescue no one in education ever thought to assess students' learning--and in fact, we were simply warehousing children with no thought of their futures. This is beyond arrogant--its delusional; and the fact that wealthy benefactors are subsidizing these beliefs should give us all pause.

The facts are that teachers know how to assess their students, and have been doing so very well for a long time. This recent obsession with standardized tests adds nothing to our arsenal of measurement tools that will help achieve the primary goal of any form of meaningful assessment: to improve instruction. Standardized test results present only a gross measurement of student progress, and usually are returned to teachers far too late to be of any real assistance in adjusting lesson plans or assignments. Those that depend on tests as a useful tool are placing all of their eggs in a torn and broken basket.

2. Taking Responsibility: We have a responsibility to set a high bar for every child, regardless of the challenges the child may face, and provide the teaching and support each child needs to meet those expectations. That’s the promise of public education and the right of every child.

We have a responsibility to set a high bar for every teacher. The teacher has the most direct impact on a child’s success in the classroom.

Accountability means holding everyone with responsibilities to high standards of districts and states, principals, teachers and parents.
We need tests. They are one way to answer the question: Is my child learning?

We do have a responsibility to every child, but it is not to set an arbitrary "high bar"--its to use authentic, teacher-designed assessment to determine where kids are developmentally, and design a course of study to move them further along in the learning process. Our standards don't need to be the same for every child--in fact, they shouldn't be. Each child is different, with different needs, desires and strengths. Pretending they are all the same is not only naive, but dangerous. If we think it makes sense to differentiate instruction, then why is it smart to standardize assessment?

Mr. Cunningham then goes on to repeat another tired saw of the reformer play book--that teachers are the most important factors with respect in-school learning. What he conveniently leaves out of his rhetoric is that teachers impact only between 1-14% of the differences in student learning--the rest is dependent on out-of-school factors, mostly having to do with SES. Ignoring this fact brings Mr. Cunningham into lock-step with the rest of the "No Excuses" crowd, like Michelle Rhee and Wendy Kopp--hardly "reasonable reformers."

Mr. Cunningham then returns to his favorite talking point: WE NEED TESTS! Try as I might, I could find no mention of any other form of assessment on the Ed Post web site--so while Mr. Cunningham proclaims that he "gets it" about multiple forms of assessment, you'd be hard pressed to find evidence of that anywhere on the site.

3. High-Quality Charter Schools: Public-school choice is an essential part of unlocking that door. Education is not one size fits all; children have different learning styles, and we need to provide all of our families with a range of high-quality public schools and empower them to find the right fit for their child.

High-quality charter schools help empower families.

Across the country, there are thousands of charter schools that are changing the lives of children, particularly in communities that have for decades suffered from a lack of high-quality educational opportunities.

For a "new reformer," Mr. Cunningham's talking points sound awfully familiar: charter schools are the answer! Except when they're not. The research on the success of charter schools is far from conclusive, and most of the evidence points to regular public schools doing a better job in terms of performance, access, and working with kids with special needs. Clearly, charter schools are not "the answer," yet it is all Mr. Cunningham seems able to muster as a solution. Interestingly, Mr. Cunningham never uses the term "charter schools" without tagging on "high quality"--which usually means highly selective (i.e., lottery based admission) and leads to problems with expulsion of special learners (see: Heritage Academies).

School choice is an experiment that we have seen fail time and time again (Milwaukee, New Orleans, Michigan), and yet the reformers continue beating the same old drum. Charters will never serve more than a small, selective fragment of the school population, even as they siphon billions from public school coffers and exacerbate the impact of income inequality on America's youth.

A far better solution is to call a halt to the charter expansion explosion and refocus our energies and attention on supporting and maintaining our system of regular public schools, making sure that all children have access to a great school in their own community. As comedian D. L. Hughly pointed out to neocon Dan Señor on Real Time recently,

Why do I have to leave where I came from to go to a school that is not in my neighborhood?

It says everything about where I am from is horrible.

Why is everything better where I am not?

"School choice" is a false choice. No parent should have to move their child to a "safe" school, or feel that they have to play the lottery to get their son or daughter a quality education. Mr. Cunningham's policies are making it harder for regular public schools to offer quality programs in safe, well-maintained facilities as increasing levels of resources are diverted to charter and private schools under the twin guises of "school choice" and "accountability."

Let's be clear: there is nothing "reasonable" about Mr. Cunningham's agenda of more tests, more accountability for teachers and schools, and more charter schools. Its the same old reformers' mantra, repackaged with a nicer smile, and tepid requests for civility. But the end game is the same: punish students and teachers, use data inappropriately, and turn the public schools into private profit centers.

And Mr. Cunningham has 12 million reasons to be "reasonable."