Environmental Protection Agency scientists are told not to release data on climate change; the Acting Attorney General is fired for saying a presidential order must comply with the law; the press is told by the White House staff to “shut up!” Then there is the matter of requiring the National Parks Service to come up with a higher count of attendees at the president’s inaugural or to quit making their count public.
We’re not surprised when we hear that the truth that threatens power may be suppressed: the tobacco industry for years fought off lung cancer claims by denying its own internal findings that proved nicotine is addictive and carcinogenic. We now know the sugar industry decades ago paid scientists to “prove” that sugar isn’t harmful to human health. And the oil and mining corporations, including Exxon whose CEO may become the next US Secretary of State, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in false science and huge PR campaigns (to say nothing of buying representation in Congress) to keep the public “confused” about the “unsettled” science of global climate change caused in large part by the burning of fossil fuels, their products and the bases of their profits. In a democracy, we would expect our government to be working against corporate suppression of the truth, not adopting their playbook.
I don’t claim to be the peer of our famous climate scientists or lung cancer specialists, but I do know what it feels like to be silenced – silenced by public officials for doing the research that shows the errors in their policies and the falseness of their claims. I can tell you it feels strangely threatening – after all, your work and your reputation as a scholar are at stake. And it also feels unexpectedly gratifying when you know your analysis must be accurate if it is causing those officials to attack you, the messenger, because they are unable to refute your findings. And, with the curiosity of a researcher, you take some brief pleasure in being able to see inside the mechanisms of secrecy – you get to see what they’ll do to keep the public from knowing the truth.
The superintendent of Houston Independent School District tried to silence my findings on the harmful effects of the standardized-test-based accountability system. I’m in Houston where the system that became No Child Left Behind was first initiated. George W. Bush was Governor and Rod Paige was the superintendent of schools. My research on the curriculum in urban schools happened to coincide with the beginnings of the testing system, and so I saw first-hand how the pressure to produce scores on multiple choice, computer-scored tests reduced the tested subjects to oversimplified, meaningless content in test-prep booklets and pushed out subjects like the arts and social studies that were not being tested.
The governor, his business backers (including testing company lobbyists), and Rod Paige were all claiming the testing system was raising student achievement and “closing the racial achievement gap.” “A test score is the new civil right!” We did see scores going up, but the quality of instruction was going down. We also saw dropout rates going up. My research, and soon that of others, began to show a connection between schools’ rising scores and the rising dropout numbers (not the districts’ official dropout numbers, but the actual numbers of youth leaving before graduating – the fact that many high schools with 1000 9th graders ended up with only 350 – 500 of that group graduating). Our research revealed that many of the high schools were using a legal “waiver” to change the rules about grade promotion, holding back weak students who they knew would likely then drop out and thus never take – and fail – the test, never be a liability to the schools’ average score.
As parents began contacting local news media to get reporters to investigate why their kids were being pushed out of school, those reporters called researchers to find out how school ratings could be going up if so many kids were dropping out, sometimes advised to leave. We told them. We showed them the real numbers. The testing system was far from the “Texas Miracle” being claimed. The system was not only not improving kids’ education, it was degrading learning as millions of dollars poured into the testing companies, not into our classrooms.
But the pressure was on to discredit our findings: if the Texas accountability system were not working miracles – “even equity, and in Texas!” – how could Bush take it to Washington? How could the testing companies expand their markets nationwide? The negative findings in Texas had to stay in Texas.
See Part II to see what Lessons I Learned in Houston about the silencing of facts by a government official.
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