High Stakes Testing for High Stakes Economy

Governor Scott Walker stirred up the hornets this winter when he not only proposed cutting $300 million from the University of Wisconsin's budget, but simultaneously tried to change the vaunted mission of that institution from seeking truth and serving society to “meeting the needs of the workforce.”

Walker’s effort to edit UW’s Progressive Era principles angered educators and students and led party predictable pundits to cry out about the presumed presidential contender’s Tea Party plans for education. What’s been missed in all this is that while Walker may be their pal, putting schools to work for business is hardly a Tea Party innovation.

Businesses have always looked to classrooms to serve up pliant workers. One hundred years ago, Wisconsin’s Idea was notable precisely because in the age of the industrialization, the pressure was on for schools to produce workers fit for factories. Craftsmen had a nasty habit of walking off the production line at the degradation of their labor by automation. The 1917 Smith Hughes Act funded two tracks of manual education: the vocational and the general to more smoothly ease blue and white-collar workers into their places.

Vocational ed. endured until such time as US manufacturers fancied shedding their US workers, when, in the 1980s and 90s, government started pushing college degrees for all, no matter how unpredictable and how costly.

Today’s high stakes economy favors high stakes testing. All those tests are a nifty profit center themselves (which is why so many profit-driven folks are lobbying mightily for them) but polarizing testing also serves the needs of a polarized economy.

Multiple (which is to say actually, minimal) choice testing doesn’t produce the kind of creative thinking we need to solve today’s pressing problems (which may be why the rich don’t force their kids to do it), but tests reinforce the myth of meritocracy and with it the idea that those at the top are deserving.

When we interviewed people for Own the Change, about starting worker owned-cooperative businesses, the single biggest challenge they named was a lack of training in cooperation.

Walker blamed his editing plan on an underling’s error and backed away from it, but education-for-the-workforce isn’t going away. It’s enshrined in today’s Common Core curriculum as school reformer Jesse Hagopian reports in his inspiring book on the uprising taking place in education. The question for those who seek structural change now, is if a polarizing education meets the needs of a polarizing workforce, what sort of education befits an economy that puts people first, and the needs of profit behind community and the planet?