My oldest daughter is attending one of our local Christian schools, and my wife and I have been very pleased with the education she has received there. This in itself is no strange thing, except for the fact that we are both teachers in local public schools.
I travel to three small, rural elementary schools in the course of my day and I am continually amazed at the collection of wonderful teachers I find in each. I am fortunate and proud to work with them, and I felt the same about the staff I left behind after working for 12 years at the high school level. I know my wife feels that same way about the people she works with. We would entrust our children to them without a qualm.
So why don't we? Why have we opted to forgo the free public education offered to our daughters, complete with transportation, a wide variety of extracurricular activities, excellent facilities, and wonderful teachers in favor of paying tuition, arranging our own transportation, and having to seek out athletic and cultural opportunities outside of our local schools?
Well, in two words: The MEAP.
I've been watching the MEAP program from inside the system for some time now, and have decided this thing has run its course. It's dead on its feet, and just needs to be buried. At the same time, I've also been around the education bureaucracy long enough to know not to expect common sense and a shovel come from federal or state officials. There are simply too many people making too much money off MEAP testing and preparation, too many new administrative positions created, too much press given to test scores and Merit Scholarships for this thing to limp off to the quiet death it so richly deserves.
MEAP scores are, and have always been, rendered invalid from the start by the fact that they compare this year's fifth graders, for instance, to last year's fifth graders. You can't compare two groups of subjects that can vary so much and come up with any meaningful data. In layman's terms, we're comparing apples to oranges. In small school, differences in abilities between just a few students will cause scores to swing even more wildly from class to class and year to year, and it becomes a case of comparing apples to elephants.
The test itself is technically reliable and valid - to itself. It measures what it claims to measure, that is the amount of success teachers have in imparting the state's curriculum to our children. And here lies my greatest concern: The MEAP is not about "improving student learning" but about improving student learning of the state's one-size-fits-all curriculum.
When a magician performs an illusion, generally one hand will be waving a handkerchief, or a wand, or likewise creating a focus for the audience's gaze. The trick will actually be going on in the other hand. Pickpockets and shoplifters often rely on the same tactic. The seemingly constant flap concerning MEAP testing and the Merit Awards is just such a distraction from the real purpose of the MEAP - conformity.
About ten years ago, the State Department of Education proposed a mandated core curriculum that would dictate what would be taught at each grade level throughout every publicly funded school in the state. This movement was stymied by the outcries of parents and legislators who questioned the wisdom and desirability of a one-size-fits-all education. The state eventually backed down, and instead began to refer to their curriculum as "suggested" (it later morphed into a "model" core curriculum of frameworks/benchmarks/standards, and most recently gradel-level-content-expectations). This, however, did not mean the state had given up its desire to enforce a mandatory curriculum. Instead, it had to rely on some bureaucratic sleight of hand to make it happen.
The state requires all publicly funded schools to be accredited. To receive accreditation, the school must administer the MEAP to 95% of its student body, and show continual improvement on it. Not surprisingly, the MEAP test itself is modeled on the "model" core curriculum. Schools that do not show improvement are threatened with a variety of big sticks. State monies might be withheld, or the building/district taken over by the state and the administration and faculty replaced. This is compounded by the furor created when scores are printed in the paper (with little explanation as to what they really mean) and schools find themselves praised or damned accordingly. Faced with this amount of coercion, local districts feel obligated to align their curriculum with the state model.
Voila! A mandatory suggested government curriculum for all. Not even the charter schools, for all they claim, can escape it. They too face the same pressure to perform to the government mandated standard - to jump through the MEAP hoop - and corrupt what were often well-intentioned and unique educational opportunities. It was an admirable bit of political smoke-and-mirrors. While proclaiming plans to introduce school "choice" the state, at the same time, acted to make any choice moot. Think of it this way: If the only product offered is skim milk, does having a choice of stores from which to obtain it really matter?
We almost escaped the MEAP net. Parents and students quickly realized there was no benefit in subjecting themselves to the test, and many parents had their children exempted from it. Schools also actively worked to exempt students who might lower test results. Had enough students walked away from the test, the MEAP might have sunk back into the bureaucratic lagoon that spawned it. The state, however, employed its usual response to such situations and brought forth the sticks and carrots. The 95% rule was introduced to bully districts into persuading/coercing/deceiving more students into taking the test. And knowing better than to try and bully parents, the state came out with a big carrot for them in the form of the Merit Awards. With $2500 dangling in front of them, most parents and students were more than happy to take a shot at passing the MEAP.
Central control of curriculum has been the Holy Grail of social engineers since Plato's time. Whoever controls curriculum determines not only what young people learn, but also what they will not learn. By filling a curriculum with trivialities and focusing on process over product, practice in critical thinking about big ideas is crowded out, as are spontaneity and creativity. The clever thing about the MEAP is not just the way it enforces a cookie cutter curriculum, but also how at the same time it provides a diversion to conceal its real purpose. The way to hide an entire forest in plain sight is to focus everyone's attention on counting the leaves. Make sure to develop a complex process for it, and collect lots of data to wave about as a further distraction.
Consider this simple formula: Standardized curriculum + standardized tests = standardized people. Wouldn't it be much easier to govern a population that thinks alike, to predict its behavior, to manipulate its moods, to sell it products, to goad it into war? It's so much simpler to manage a sheep-like populace whose obedience is automatic, whose ability to question dulled, and whose attention is easily drawn to toys, noise, celebrity, drugs, violence, and the other shiny objects waved in its face in order to blind it to the deception taking place in the shadows. This aim of schooling is meant for the poor and middle-class of course; the wealthy send their kids to Choate or Exeter.
The thing that protected students in the United States from the abuses of government schooling as practiced throughout history in Sparta, Prussia, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and communist China was the local control exercised by elected school boards. Community members had the opportunity to participate in developing a curriculum custom tailored to the needs of students, their families, the community, and society as a whole.
But in Michigan we gave that control away in 1994 with the passage of Proposal A, which shifted funding for education from local property taxes to the state sales tax. This provided the state the opportunity call the tune, since, in its eyes, it was paying the piper.
Left unchecked, things are going to get worse, not better. No Child Left Behind, coupled with School-To-Work and Goals 2000, is paving the way for a national curriculum, which will be "suggested" or "voluntary" in the same way our present state curriculum is voluntary.
It is well past time to call an end to this enormous boondoggle. If no lawmaker has the backbone to make this happen, then it's going to be up to us as parents to exempt our children from the MEAP, or move them to schools that value the many facets of humanity over "the one-right-way" being prescribed by government. If enough of us take this step, the MEAP will die a swift death, and not a moment too soon.