The EQAO and Re-education of David Cooke.
David Cooke is the new head of the EQAO, the Education Quality and Accountability Office in Ontario. Much like the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 the name belies its primary function as the reactionary home of standardized testing in the province, an important institution if one’s aim is to maintain or exacerbate the ‘achievement gap’ between the middle and upper classes on one hand and the working and poorer class on the other.
Cooke is a former NDP MPP from Windsor Riverside. He reached the Apex of his career as an Education Minister in the ill fated bumbling government of Bob Rae. Cooke is strongly associated with the Royal Commission on Learning, the corporate friendly report that led to our God awful EQAO testing regime and such other gems as the College of Teachers. He also supported the NDP suicide pact AKA the Social Contract. Later leaders like Howard Hampton have spoken publicly of the Social Contract as an Epic Fail.
One might wonder why David Cooke might want to associate himself, let alone lead an organization with such obvious ties to the far right neo-liberal (AKA neo-conservative) philosophy of George Bush’s No Child Left Behind and how far does one want to go back, what began with the Eugenics movement of the early 19thC or the Taylorism of Scientific Management? This long deeply reactionary stream of thought is expected from Republicans and Conservatives but how does it find an audience in Bob Rae’s NDP, Tony Blair’s Labour Party and Barak Obama’s liberal Democratic Party? Sheer rank political opportunism or the presence of an internal ‘stupid faction’.
Sadly, there is a populist, poorly thought out, reactionary, educational tendency to be found WITHIN social-democracy. The failure to recognize standardized testing and the tandem policy of educational privatization as the hammer and saw of the right wing tool kit in education is to display such painful naiveté as to leave real progressives slack-jawed.
The disjointed logic of these right wing social-democrats runs something like this:
#1 – There is a serious educational achievement gap between the working class and the poor on one hand and the middle class and the rich on the other. Cooke would have picked up on this in his previous work as a social worker.
#2 – This gap is the fault of an unaccountable education system which, from the 1960’s to the mid 1990s ran amok with a Deweyist, project, group oriented education system led by union-backed teachers who had low expectations for poor and working class kids, especially when same were racialized minorities. This constructivist curriculum and ‘do your own thing’ pedagogy blindsided the poor and since it was not congruent to the parents school experience in Ontario or as immigrants, caused huge numbers of poorer kids to become confused, demoralized and ultimately they dropped out without fulfilling their full potential. This Hall-Dennis period abolished Departmental Exams, and allowed for far more choice.”
Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that there was no previous ‘Golden Age’ of high achievement by the poor and that the 1960s-70s were the period of the greatest expansion in post secondary admission in Canadian history with its cheap student loans and the explosion of Bill Davis’ CAAT college system. This was not just greater numbers of students but an amazing downward extension of post secondary education to the poorer classes.
The problem with the analysis of this reactionary faction within social-democracy is that #1 is painfully obvious to anyone who pays the slightest attention to educational research and that #2 is reactionary populist claptrap with nothing whatsoever to support it. It is so incorrect that it divides progressives when they need to be united against a massive, relentless ideological privatization movement. When progressives endorse testing or charter schools, they endorse the core values of the neo-liberal assault on education. One wonders how they forgot the strap, the dunce cap, and desks screwed to the floor in straight rows.
Cooke is not the first social-democrat to support the EQAO and, although they are rare, he is unlikely to be the last. Even People for Education, (P4E) a centre left moderately progressive outfit under Annie Kidder has been defanged by promises to keep EQAO testing but ‘broaden’ the scope of the profiles of schools to more than reading and math scores. On the other hand, People for Education has come out against 'Applied Level' steaming in high school especially in grade 9. This would be a major improvement and P4E should be commended for this position. Nevertheless, we need to eliminate the Applied Level in grade 10 as well and allow only one level in grade 11-12. Streaming and testing are twin re-enforcing policies which limit the futures of marginal students.
In the Adult education movement in which I was once heavily involved, it was broadly understood that “Illiteracy does not cause poverty- poverty causes illiteracy.”
There are those in the Cooke camp that decry this logic as a form of ‘blame the victim’ analysis similar to the 1970s ‘culture of poverty’ thesis which held correctly that capitalism caused poverty but laterally that the habits of the poor such as single parent families crippled the ability of the poor to move themselves forward.
Culture of poverty link
The culture of poverty thesis denies the history of resistance and the long struggle by labour and civil rights groups to improve the lot of the poor. In fact there is a world of difference between ‘blaming poverty’ and ‘blaming the poor’ for their situation both socio-economically and educationally. Poverty is the fault and by- product of capitalism. The more rapacious and unchecked the national form of capitalism, the worse the levels of poverty and voila - the worse the educational results will be.
Poverty internationally is measured in relative terms and usually by the percentage of the population that earns less than half of the median wage. Clearly, well off nations like Finland, Canada and the USA have wildly different levels of child poverty (Finland 5%, Canada 12% USA 20%) based totally on internal policy structures involving minimum wages, unionization, transfer payments and the social wage of advanced social programs. These three social-economic deviations yield three totally different educational results with Finland a world leader, Canada close behind and USA lagging far behind.
The question still remains, how exactly does poverty exacerbate the achievement gap? Here the work of David Berliner emeritus of University of Arizona is perhaps the single most complete source. Berliner has isolated the factors. Low birth weight is a powerful predictor of future educational difficulties and is many times more common amongst the poor. Good nutrition is expensive and far more difficult for poor families to afford. In the USA especially, ready access to good dental, vision and pharmaceutical services is obvious. Failure to provide timely access to dental and vision care has profound implications for education. Lost school days due to illness, accumulates and throws young students off course in ways that make it difficult to recover. Berliner actually identifies ‘stress’ caused by food insecurity, income insecurity, crime, housing and transportation issues, wasted summers and vacations, all of these and more contribute sub-lethal, educational toxins that can be overcome with grit and determination until they aggregate at such levels that the possibilities for educational success becomes less and less likely.
Do some poor students overcome these obstacles? Of course they do, just as some smokers live long lives but the educational lives of the poor are seriously degraded nevertheless.
Back as far as the Coleman Report from U Chicago, social science researchers in education have assigned at least 60% and often as much as 80% of the Achievement Gap to ‘factors outside the school setting’ generally meaning social-economic (SES) or as I prefer class issues.
This does not render the school and school system blameless. There are school based organizational problems. We know exactly what they are but because they are also political and economic issues there are powerful forces arrayed against progressive solutions. The public school system is actually rigged against the poor in ways that it confers advantages on the middle class and disadvantages on the poorer classes.
George Radwanski, in his report to the Peterson government called the streaming system “a theoretical error, a practical failure and a social injustice.” The streaming system (placing students of the same age at different academic levels of programming) is probably the single greatest barrier to the mitigation of the achievement gap that is clearly school based. Giving some students clear educational advantages especially within a public education system is both repugnant and deeply counter- productive. The ‘Applied’ level in secondary schools should be phased out ASAP but that would be only step one. The abuse of French Immersion as an ability stream instead of a language stream needs to end. The use of programs like IB or the skewing of gifted programs to the affluent and LD programs to the poor needs to end. The reality of using Special Ed as an on-going bottom stream in both elementary and secondary school must be wound down. Those who are not prepared to do this are simply not serious about the achievement gap. The variable, especially in high schools should be time not academic level. In other words, only the Academic (9 10) and a single University-College (11-12) bound stream should exist but there should be no limits on the number of years some students might need to complete it.
The Perry Study from Ypsilanti Michigan and follow up work by Mustard-McCain and Pascal demonstrates that the downward extension of the school system is a critical reform for the poor. We support the position of Maria Montessori that children should be in ‘school’ as soon as they are toilet trained, average age 2 years. FDK is a great first step but only a start. New projects should go first to the poor, not the middle class.
The evidence is pouring in that standardized testing, especially high stakes testing (EQAO 9-10 is high stakes) is a disaster for the poor and severely damages poor kid’s educational futures.
“How can this be, exclaim the testers?” “The testing system was established to REDUCE the achievement gap!!!” Well, IMHO there are three kinds of testers. At the very top, and I mean the Pearson, Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates level they are ideologically driven or greed driven privatizers who want testing to prove the hopelessness of public systems to set them up for privatization. There is probably nobody within the EQAO, MOE establishment that is party to the sinister plots that swirl far above their heads. They are often simply the second type, ‘careerists dupes’ in the worst sense of the word or the third type, the naïve do-gooders who have all the good intentions to help the poor. Well the road to hell, for Ontario’s poor students, is paved with the good intentions of those who believe in streaming and testing. They are dead wrong and they can be proven to be wrong.
How Does Standardized Testing Hurt Poor Kids?
The evidence is accumulating rapidly and becoming overwhelming that the very act of testing and reporting the results to poor kids and their families, hurts poor kids. It is not the reporting by the Fraser Institute, not the rankings, although they DO polarize schools, housing values, and increase immizeration.
No - it is the act of testing and reporting the failure to the students themselves that so demoralizes the marginal students that it increases the dropout rate.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin studied Latino boys and found that the radical introduction of the Texas testing regime dramatically increased the dropout rate of Latino boys. This ‘Texas Miracle’ which transitioned into No Child Left Behind was actually an attack on the educational futures of these poorer kids.
The boys were sent a clear message from the state. You are not going anywhere Buster. This is not one mean teacher failing you, this is the state. The boys learned from the testing that they were wasting their time in school. It is time to drop out ASAP and work in the fields, do domestic gardening, or other forms of unskilled labour. This avoids the daily humiliation of being the lesser, the outsiders who do not belong.
This is not a message that the middle class professionals involved in the testing regime understand. They would like failing students to react like “the little engine that could”. Sadly, this shows a profound misunderstanding of reality.
Mexican peasants know better. They demonstrate in Mexico City against testing because they understand that it is an educational death sentence on their children. Increasingly, all across the USA an ‘opt out’ movement is gaining incredible momentum. The EQAO, the MOE and the government either cannot understand this or they don’t care.
British researchers Harlen and Deakin-Crick at Bristol University headed a team that found the same ‘de-motivation’ and internalization of failure for marginal students as U Texas, as a direct result of testing.
Diamond and Spillane at Northwestern University found that testing widens achievement gaps.
Reardon and Galindo at Penn State found that grade 8 testing increased the dropout rate before grade 10.
Amrein and Berliner at Arizona University found that testing increases dropout rates.
The test apologists lament “but we must test in order to understand where the system needs help so that we know where and how to intervene?
Vito Perrone is emeritus Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard. He nut shelled the response by saying “standardized testing does not tell us anything that we didn’t already know.”
This is my favourite pathetic rational: “We must examine the highly successful schools of the poor in order to help other poor schools.” In the first instance, there are almost no ‘highly successful schools for the poor’. In the TDSB we would periodically notice that schools full of Chinese and other Asians sometimes out-performed their SES level but this was simply a case of an entrepreneurial and professional immigrant group, temporarily working at lower incomes to re-establish themselves. If one looks at grade 10 literacy scores in the TDSB high schools and the Learning Opportunities (SES) list they are practically identical. In short, listing schools by income and by EQAO scores produces the same list. The point is to actually DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Testing itself is counter-productive.
Testing at its very best is a useless waste of scarce educational resources. At its worst it is a major obstacle to the advancement of poor and working class students.
There is a straight line between testing and the vicious streaming-tracking system that condemns millions of poor kids to dead-ended programs (Applied) leaving them unqualified to pursue post secondary education.
Those we used to call ‘late bloomers’, the kids that finally catch fire in grades 11-12 when they can concentrate on the subjects they love and show greater aptitude for, are cut off by the accumulated EQAO scores from grades 3,6,9,10 that have already banished them to applied 9-10 workplace 11-12 programs.
David Cooke is not only dead wrong about testing. He is dead wrong about pedagogy as well and how working class kids deal with progressive programs with group learning, project orientation, authentic assessment, and so on.
David Cooke, by assuming your position at the EQAO and endorsing standardized testing at the same time and further associating the NDP with the EQAO you are doing serious damage to the future of poor and working class students in Windsor with which you are very familiar, and their counterparts across Ontario.
Examine the research I have provided. You have no way forward but to resign from the EQAO, renounce and denounce the organization and attempt to rehabilitate your reputation.
There is no way to reform the EQAO or testing across Canada unless your goal is to damage fewer kids. If you don’t want dirty hands it is only the complete and total abolition of the EQAO testing regime and similar tests across the country that can accomplish this. No half measures please. Half measures simply mean doing less damage. We need to do zero damage. The education of poor kids is hard enough without the EQAO regime exacerbating the difficulty.