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Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow

Alfie Kohn
Phi Delta Kappan
April 2004
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...The point is that the mantle of school reform has been appropriated by those who oppose the whole idea of public schooling. Their aim is to paint themselves as bold challengers to the current system and to claim that defenders of public education lack the vision or courage to endorse meaningful change. This rhetorical assault seemed to come out of nowhere, as though a memo had been circulated one day among those on the right: “Attention. Effective immediately, all of our efforts to privatize the schools will be known as ‘reform,’ and any opposition to those efforts will be known as ‘anti-reform.’ That is all.”

...People with an animus against public schooling typically set the stage for their demolition plans by proclaiming that there isn’t much there worth saving. Meanwhile, those who object are portrayed as apologists for every policy in every school. It’s a very clever gambit, you have to admit. Either you’re in favor of privatization or else you are inexplicably satisfied with mediocrity.

I try to imagine myself as a privatizer. How would I proceed? If my objective were to dismantle public schools, I would begin by trying to discredit them. I would probably refer to them as “government” schools, hoping to tap into a vein of libertarian resentment. I would never miss an opportunity to sneer at researchers and teacher educators as out-of-touch “educationists.” Recognizing that it’s politically unwise to attack teachers, I would do so obliquely, bashing the unions to which most of them belong. Most important, if I had the power, I would ratchet up the number and difficulty of standardized tests that students had to take, in order that I could then point to the predictably pitiful results. I would then defy my opponents to defend the schools that had produced students who did so poorly.

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