Friday, February 3, 2017

When You’re Told to Shut Up, You Must be Doing Something Right, Part II:  A Lesson I Learned in Houston 

And that’s where the letter you see here comes in:  As Anna Werner, the award-winning investigative journalist who uncovered the Firestone tire hazard, took our findings seriously, her national reputation could give these academic studies a wide audience and considerable credibility.  Thus, I personally had to be discredited.  The district’s press secretary (HISD’s Sean Spicer!) took the time to write a 4-page letter advising Channel 11 reporters not to listen to me because I had “an ax to grind,”  was “a paid critic of the Texas accountability system” who “frequently attacks the Texas accountability system and HISD.” 

Yes, I gave testimony as an expert witness in a discrimination lawsuit on behalf of Hispanic and African American students who had fulfilled all graduation requirements but been denied a diploma because they did not pass the state test.  My research was independent, conducted prior to the lawsuit. I was paid for my time in depositions and at trial, a standard practice (I had planned to donate my time but was advised by other women scholars that if a woman expert witness is not paid, the court or opposing counsel often discounts her expertise).

The Ch. 11 reporters did not silence me or my data, nor that of other researchers, nor did they discredit the experiences of the students and their parents who came to them for help.  They did the ethical thing of providing me with the school district's letter, thus notifying me of the attempt to prevent my findings from being made public.

Principals also received a “don’t talk with Linda McNeil and don’t answer questions from reporters about the testing system” email, which several showed to me, grateful for my concern for the ethical dilemmas they faced every day in the conflict between producing test scores (thus keeping their jobs) or taking the risks needed to educate kids well.   My colleagues and I in the Rice University Center for Education had since 1988 been working closely with Houston public schools in our innovative teacher development programs to enhance the teaching of science, writing, early childhood, and such specialized areas as Asian studies. Our grant-funded programs created opportunities for teachers to update their knowledge of their subjects, of children’s learning and of the cultures of the children and their families. Our credibility was hard-earned over decades.  When principals told us they knew the kids they were holding back would likely dropout, they trusted us to make public through our research the perverse incentives the accountability system placed on them.

Central office had no such desire for the public to know what tricks lay behind the production of rising test scores.  The HISD press secretary’s letter challenges a story Anna Werner and her Ch. 11 investigators were about to run:  “We urge KHOU to produce a fair and balanced story on this issue rather than simply allowing disgruntled employees such as Bob Kimball (featured on Bill Moyers NOW as a whistle-blower) and apologists for the failed education policies of the past such as Linda McNeil to say whatever they want without challenge.”  [Note, scholarly findings are challenged through rigorous peer review.]

The press secretary’s admonition went on:  "We also urge that if KHOU airs an interview with Linda McNeil that you also report that Texas officials say that McNeil and others oppose the Texas accountability system because 'they have an ax to grind, because they were paid witnesses against the state in a Hispanic civil rights group’s failed lawsuit alleging school bias.' (The district judge who found the testing system to be discriminatory but not to a ‘constitutional level,’ would soon be appointed by Bush to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.) 

Especially grating to HISD was my comment to the Washington Post that “It [the testing system] is all phony; it’s just like Enron. Enron was concerned about appearances, not real economic results.  That pretty much describes what we have been doing to our children in Houston.”  The HISD letter to the reporters noted graduation rates for several of the district’s high schools as rising (citing percentages that did not match actual grade-level enrollments) and argued that not holding kids back would deprive them of an extra chance to learn, though many who were held back had already passed all but one class in that grade and had earned sufficient credits to be promoted to their correct grade.  Details few policymakers would pay attention to so long as test scores appeared to be rising.

So HISD and the State of Texas continued to produce and publicize “alternative facts,” hyping test scores and hiding dropout rates.  Bush got Democrats in Congress to go along with NCLB on the Texas claims of closing racial achievement gaps, Paige got to be Secretary of Education, the testing companies and their lobbyists kept raking in the big bucks, and Obama and Duncan compounded the assault on our teachers and kids with Race to the Top, shifts of tax dollars to charter chains, and other misguided deeds.

I take no pleasure in knowing our research findings were right: the standardized accountability system was harmful to the children and their teachers then, it has been used since as an excuse to further under-fund and even close schools with low test scores, and it has enriched privatizers at the expense of the public’s schools. Its greater legacy may be in the legitimation of false numbers and phony indicators as a proxy for the public’s right to know what is happening to our children.

Thomas Jefferson was speaking not as an idealist but as a harsh realist when he said that an educated citizenry is essential to the health of a democracy. An informed populace is the only effective protection against a demagogue.  Misinformation can be dangerous.

If you’re a researcher or teacher, take heart from my “silencing” experience to stay in touch with reporters and reliable social media:  make sure they have all the information they need to keep the public informed. Stay in touch with your school board and legislators and members of Congress, making sure they hear more than the official claims.  Use clear language – call charters for what they are: outsourcing companies, corporate chains, not “public” schools.  Don't let test scores displace meaningful, authentic, robust assessments of children's learning.  Don't let corporate charter chains call themselves "public" just because they capture our tax dollars.  Don't let a nice-sounding word like "choice" give a pass to people who want to dismantle the public's schools, making democracy all that much more fragile.

Today’s silencing seems more draconian, the fake claims more obvious and outrageous in their audacity – but even the smallest silencing shifts our common culture away from the truths we need to counter tyrannies and protect the public good.  Speak up, speak out.

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