In 1974, the R&B group Earth, Wind & Fire released the song “Devotion” from their Open Our Eyes album. The key refrain in “Devotion” has always held meaning for me. Probably because most lyrics Philip Bailey and the late Maurice White have put to voice and music have moved me. It goes like this:
Make a better way/You need devotion
Bless the children/Deliverance from the fruits of evil
What the words do not convey is Philip Bailey’s high-pitched “eeeoooowww! ooo-hoo!” after he and White sing “deliverance.” Or Bailey repeating the words in between each line. Or how Bailey and White musically twist “from the fruits of evil” into “fruits of ev-al.”
With the continuing push for more and better testing and evaluation of students, teachers, and systems at the expense of actual learning, I have another reason to ponder Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Devotion.” Last month, I attended part of an Educational Testing Service (ETS) and National Academies-led two-day conference in Washington, DC. The conference theme was “A Focus on Educational Assessment: Advancing African-American Educational Excellence.” That theme and its contradictory social media message of #achievementgap was already headache-inducing. Most of the sessions at the two-day conference focused not on Black educational excellence or even remedies to address the racial achievement gap in K-12 education. They were instead focused on “Inventing Better Assessments,” “Charting New Directions in Federal and State Policies on K-12 Large-scale Assessments,” and “Broadening the Types and the Scope of Assessments for College Admissions.”
Given the National Academies’ and especially ETS’ involvement — the latter a juggernaut of educational testing and evaluation since the first days of the SAT in the 1940s — I was hardly surprised. Still, I could not sit through hours of the same tired and boring approaches to education research and public education reform that I have been a part of for nearly a quarter-century. Especially since better testing and evaluation tools will not lead to better students with higher aspirations for higher education.
The best question asked at this conference — really, the only relevant question — was, “Why should Black students trust us?” The expert panelists tried to provide supportive and positive answers to this profound question. My own answer, though, is that Black students should not trust ETS, the National Academies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, or any other foundation or government agency involved in K-12 education to “make a better way” through assessment tools. The game of high-stakes testing as a means to evaluate whether teachers are doing a good job educating students or to determine if Black students are catching up to White students is not devotion. It is a large-scale experiment involving dollars and expertise better used in replacing Flint, Michigan’s eroded lead pipes than in public education. For many students of color, K-12 education, whether public or charter (and to a lesser extent, private or parochial), has been an experiment in psychological torture for decades.
America’s educational leadership is obsessed with testing, evaluation, and the fruits of evaluation. They cannot see that this process actually perpetuates the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap. For all the technocratic focus on datasets, rubrics, and proficiency, there has been no devotion to the human problems of American education. Few experts discuss the overall lack of financial investment in public education, but want more money in the area of testing and evaluation. All while parents in major cities see more and more of their tax dollars going to support smaller and more selective public charter school systems, many with mediocre graduation and college enrollment rates. All while policy makers across the country continue to make decisions in favor of testing children as young as four years old. And all as poor parents and parents of color, as well as teachers and other practitioners find themselves shut out of the decision-making process that has led to a curriculum more focused on science and math, assessment and evaluation than ever before. All to the detriment of efforts to nurture critical thinking, creativity, writing, physical exercise, and a diversity of aspirations among millions of students.
Technocrats, you need devotion. Or at least, your policy recommendations and visions for K-12 education should center around the idea of devotion, and not merely of evaluation. Encouraging parents to fully engage — or even challenge — new ideas for “fixing” public education would be a far more significant change than the most perfect assessment. Taking seriously the input of both teachers and teachers unions would do more to close the achievement gap than a thousand “A Focus on Educational Assessment” conferences. Pressuring politicians to develop policies in which public schools work in concert with youth development institutions, public health departments, and social service agencies to provide holistic interventions for poor families and their children would also go further than any high-stakes test.
Bailey and White’s words after devotion are “bless the children.” Even the most well-meaning of technocratic educational administrators lose sight of this fundamental ideal of American public education. To leave children and teenagers better off by the time they make it through elementary, middle, and high school than they were when they began kindergarten. More focus on educational assessments will not advance Black education excellence. Once again, America’s Black students, students of color, poor and low-income students, and really, all students, need deliverance from the seeds and fruits of evaluation, and need it yesterday.