Americans Go To War for Their Schools

Despite media smear campaigns against them, Middle American parents are waging a valiant political battle against left-wing elites and their bizarre ideological indoctrination programs in the public schools.

By Robert Holland
Middle American News, September, 1997

One of the first symptoms of the contagion spreading through American education in the late stages of the 20th Century is the brain-numbing, often invasive probing of students' attitudes through new forms of testing. One name for this replacement for objective tests is "performance-based assessment," a technique popular with multinational corporations because it supposedly assesses how well a youngster will perform as a docile worker in a demographically diverse workgroup.

This form of assessment -- common in Goals 2000 plans being funded by the federal government this year in all 50 states to the tune of $450 million -- drives the dumbed-down curriculum that is replacing all remnants of academic rigor. Some questions call on students to respond not as individuals but as members of a collaborative group, as though in a Total Quality Management setting in industry or government. And such questions typically have no absolutely right or wrong answers. (See the examples from Kansas and Kentucky at the bottom of this piece.)

Good News

The good news is that there are courageous Middle Americans who refuse to accept meekly this radical transformation of their local schools. Parents and other concerned citizens are informing themselves, speaking up, and working for changes in school policy-making bodies -- at the risk of being smeared as "extremists" by establishment elites seeking to preserve their monopoly of power. And these everyday citizens are making a difference across the United States -- although the larger war they are engaged in is far from being won.

Consider what's been happening in that heartland state -- Kansas-- and in particular with regard to its 10-member elected State Board of Education, which exercises much power over education independently of the governor. On a 5-5 vote, the board recently refused to renew Kansas' infamous performance-based assessments. The system comes up for annual renewal and a tie vote is enough to block it.

As recently as four years ago, that result would not have been possible. All 10 members of Kansas' board supported the Quality Performance Accreditation assessments that were at the heart of the state's shift to attitude-prescribing Outcome-Based Education. But grassroots activists got busy in encouraging candidacies, informing the public, and getting the vote out.

In 1994, those efforts paid off when the first two education "conservatives" -- Kevin Gilmore and Dr. Steve Abrams -- won election. In the 1996 elections, the pro-academics, anti-OBE side scored a real break-through when its ranks increased to five (half of the 10 seats are up for reelection every two years.) In 1998, the "conservatives" or traditionalists have a strong chance of gaining a working majority because only one member of their block of five -- Kevin Gilmore, who is now the chairman -- will be up for re-election.

One of the busiest and most effective grassroots activists is Cindy Duckett, president of the pro-academics Project Educate. Ms. Duckett, a Wichita homemaker who daily uses the Internet to network nationally on education issues, has showed that citizens can be effective by carefully documenting their case and calmly presenting it. Her group has invited some of the nation's most eminent education researchers to analyze the state's OBE-style standards. This is part of what Sandra Stotsky, of Harvard and Boston University, wrote about the English (or "language arts") standards:

The document is "written almost completely in unintelligible educationese...the language in this document often reads like an unintentional satire of politically correct pedagogy...Standards for demonstrating knowledge and skills are regularly mixed with standards that deal with behaviors, values, and attitudes...Incomprehensibly, students are expected to demonstrate 'respect for differences in attitude, behavior, values and beliefs within formal and informal groups' without any consideration of what and when the attitudes, behaviors, values, and beliefs of others may not be worthy of respect."

Ms. Duckett distributed a news release, widely reported by Kansas media, in which she made the point that Ms. Stotsky's evaluation justifies the move by five State Board members to abolish performance-based assessment. "If the standards are bad, the tests will be flawed, too," she said.

Struggle in Kentucky

Performance-based assessment also is taking its lumps in the first state to implement it comprehensively -- Kentucky.

Under the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), the Bluegrass State instituted such assessment to measure students' "thinking skills" as opposed to their grasp of verifiable knowledge. The Kentucky Instructional Results Information System (KIRIS), hearalded by U.S. Department of Education bigwigs as a model for the nation, called on students to perform test-day "performance events," and also judged portfolios of student projects. Despite independent studies showing KIRIS' unreliability as an indicator of student achievement Kentucky used it as a high-stakes test, with schools getting rewards or penalties according to their students' scores.

For seven years, Kentucky's people have struggled against great odds to roll back this plan put in place by government, big business, and foundation swells -- with limited success. But this summer they had the pleasure of seeing the whole rotten system begin to self-destruct. On June 25, education commissioner Wilmer S. Cody announced that Kentucky was terminating its contract wit the KIRIS creator -- Advanced Systems in Measurement and Evaluation of Dover, New Hampshire -- because of errors grossly affecting the scores of most of the state's elementary and middle schools last year.

Incongruously, Cody said the company has "helped Kentucky raise standards and achievement," and in the next breath said, "but we cannot live with errors that have profound effects on the lives and careers of people in our schools." Given the millions that have been wasted on KIRIS, the state's legislative watchdog commission is not sure the ed-agency is blameless, either. Its own performance will be audited.

"It has been a hard seven years," observed Donna Shedd, one of the Louisville area anti-OBE activists. "The successes have been elusive. But so much sweeter the taste of it now." She believes the activism has had an impact in educating the public about KERA/KIRIS so the groundwork has been laid for more decisive action now that the system is crumbling. Prospects are much improves for "reforming the reform" when the legislature convenes in January.

Another major success recently has come in Tennessee, where grassroots activists and Senator David Fowler fought a rear-guard action to force hearing and an investigation of the School-to-Work system before the Volunter State spends any money on it.

Middle Americans fighting OBE, Goals 2000, School-to-Work, school-based clinics, whole language, the new-New Math, or other dumbed-down school programs find themselves branded by elites and the corporate media as "radical right" or "religious right" extremists, regardless of their true faith or political leanings. But that charge is hard to make stick against one of the most effective grassroots groups in the country, Mathematically Correct, which was formed in the San Diego area and has had an impact across the country in promoting rigorous standards for math.

The founders of MC are prominent scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who are appalled at "whole math," which encourages pupils to construct their own mathematics rather than learning the basics. The group's members, said Mike McKeown, a molecular biologist, are concerned that children will not acquire the foundation in math that is necessary for the kind of real "problem-solving" the scientists do in their jobs.

Three of the four founders of Mathematically Correct are liberal Democrats.

(Robert Holland is a writer and editor based in Richmond, VA.)

The 1994 Kansas "math assessments" asked 4th grade students to solve the following:

You and three friends go to a fast-food restaurant that has the following menu items:

When ordering, the following happens.

  1. Each person ordered three different items.
  2. One item ordered by each person was the same item.
  3. No two people can end up with exactly the same meal.

(A) List one possible set of meals for you and your friends that meets the three conditions above. Tell what each person ordered.

(B) Show what you would expect to pay for each of the five items on the menu.

(C) Using your estimated cost for each item, what is the total cost of the meal ordered by each person?

The "Teachers' Scoring Guide" told teachers to score students as follows:

(A) There are several different combinations of meals that satisfy the conditions listed. Check each response listing against the three conditions.

  1. Each person ordered three different items.
  2. One item ordered by each person was the same item.
  3. No two people end up with exactly the same meal.

As one example the following would be an acceptable response.

You: Hamburger, Fries, Ice Cream
Friend 1: Hamburger, Fries, Soft Drink
Friend 2: Hamburger, Fries, Ham & Cheese (Editors Note: This is acceptable even though Ham & Cheese did not appear on the menu?)
Friend 3: Hamburger, Ice Cream, Soft Drink

(B) Count any reasonable estimate correct. Lower the rating only for obvious unrealistic estimates that would indicate the student has no reality-based number sense where the cost of these fast food items are concerned. Suggested ranges for acceptable responses are listed below. Any value outside a range should be judged as unacceptable except when local community conditions provide circumstances where the student's local cost experiences would make their cost estimates reasonable. (Editor's note: Estimates, and widely divergent ones, are sought instead of mathematical accuracy.)

Estimated cost:
Regular Hamburger: $.25 to $3.50
Ham & Cheese Sandwich: $.75 to $4.00
Small Soft Drink: $.40 to $1.25
Small French Fries: $.50 to $1.50
Small Ice Cream: $.40 to $1.50

(C) When evaluating the correctness of the total cost of each person's meal, use the estimated cost values for each item given by the student. Whether the student's previous responses were judged acceptable or not should make no difference in your evaluation of Part (C). Use those items listed (Part A) and the student's estimated costs for evaluating the Part (C) cost totals.

From the 1992 KIRIS (Kentucky Instructional Results Information System)

Scoring Worksheet Grade 4 -- Social Studies Question 1

1. Suppose you were a Native American living in Kentucky at the time the first pioneers reached Kentucky. Tell how you would have felt when you saw the pioneers cutting down trees and clearing land for farming. Explain why you would have felt that way.

Student responses judged to be of highest quality:

"Day by day they keep cutting down Kentucky. We must fight for our land if we have to. They kill our game and we natives might not survive winter. I feel sad because my elders from way back have lived here for many centuries and now it's all coming to a {sic} end right now {sic} we might not survive. We natives are coming to a {sic} end all at once."

"I would feel mad and sad. I would feel that way because a Native American felt that the area where trees are there {sic} homes. It was also probably hunting ground where they got there {sic} food. I can understand that. Native Americans probably thought they had no right to do this. Or at least that is what I would have felt."

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