The late conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was famous for declaring “there is no alternative” as she executed her laissez-faire economic policies of austerity and privatization, redistributing wealth and helping to concentrate power into the hands of that nation’s rich and powerful. The notion that current ideas and policies are inescapable, that there can be no feasible or desirable alternatives, became a staple of apologies for the status quo long before Thatcher’s declaration. Unfortunately, it has also become a common trope in discussions of U.S. education policy in the wake of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.
A few weeks ago, noted education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond and AFT President Randi Weingarten[i] appeared in the pages of the Huffington Post with an essay declaring that the current accountability regime in American education was badly broken, and that there was indeed an alternative, a system of real accountability, that should be adopted in its stead. What is needed, they reasoned, is nothing less than a paradigm shift from the current fixation on “test and punish” to a “support and improve” model.
Darling-Hammond and Weingarten argued that, after more than a decade of proliferating standardized exams, our curricula had narrowed and too many of our schools had been transformed into ‘test prep’ factories. The linking of these tests to high-stakes decisions about the future of students, educators and schools has created a culture of fear and anxiety that saps student and teacher morale, drains the joy out of teaching and learning and diminishes the quality of education. The mass closure of schools has negatively impacted communities that can least afford to lose their very few public institutions, without meaningfully improving the education of students living in poverty, students of color and immigrant students.