Boycott the MEAP, part two
by Rich Gibson

The is the second in a four part series about the Michigan Educational Assessment Program. In the first article, we described what the MEAP is, a high-stakes standardized test that divides students and parents along lines of income and race. In this part of the series we will address why the MEAP came to be and the impact on education-and our communities. In a concluding article, we will deal with what people might do about the exam, while simultaneously creating learning environments and vibrant communities. 

The MEAP, which represents both the standardization of the curriculum and the high-stakes tests, is a systematic effort to seize control of what people know and how people come to know it. It is a maneuver on the part of elites to separate people, to replace singular teachers in a classroom who meet unique children with state-regulated standards and Big Tests-formulated to obscure inequality and injustice. For example, every prominent person who has written the standards openly admits that they believe teachers cannot be trusted to teach what elites want taught. 

The exams are partisan political efforts to highlight certain forms of knowledge and hide others. For example, the social studies standards and exams pretend that the central issue children need to understand in economics is the relationship of "scarcity and choice," how kids must compete for scarce goods. But scarcity has not been an issue in the world for 100 years-unless one accepts inequality uncritically. In fact, the central issue of economics is how people relate to each other in production, on the job. But there is virtually nothing on the MEAP about work or labor.

To the contrary, what is on the MEAP is a terrific emphasis on obeying the law. The people who wrote the MEAP decided that there are 18 Core Democratic Values in American history. Obedience to the law is repeated throughout the core values. However, in a society that began in revolution, there is not even a mention of civil disobedience or the critique of tyranny. Nor do the writers point out that their values do not apply at all in the work place or in school. There is no mention of racism on the MEAP, perhaps because all of the people who wrote the initial standards were white and middle/upper class. 

Another key value the MEAP authors want to propagandize is patriotism. But this is not the patriotism of Martin Luther King, who understood that patriots are also critical, but the witless kind of patriotism that would lead a young man or woman to eagerly join the military and fight and die defending the interests of Standard Oil in the Middle East. In a society that is ever more inequitable every day, it makes no sense to uncritically believe the notion that we are all in this together-although that is exactly what the MEAP hopes to pound into the minds of teachers and kids. 

The MEAP arrived in Michigan at the same time many other key states (Florida, California, Massachusetts, Virginia, etc.) initiated similar standards and exams. These states inaugurated their regulations in response to demands from elites, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a group called ACHIEVE led by Michigan Governor Engler, smaller organizations of big cheeses like Michigan's Mackinaw Center, and, sad-to-say, the teacher's unions and professional organizations, like the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Council for the Social Studies. 

The demands from the these elites, which seek to seize control of activity in schools, come in a time of rising inequality which is directly linked to rising authoritarianism. Those who hold power in an inequitable society do not want the roots of inequality or racism examined-or even noticed. They want their use of power to be seen, if seen at all, as the natural order of things. This is what the MEAP and the other exams attempt to accomplish. 

Let us look at the use of the MEAP in Detroit. For 30 years, Detroit has suffered frm a severe economic collapse, deeper than any city in the U.S. The moat at Eight Mile Road, a racial barrier that gives real meaning to the term ghetto, is a clear dividing line of race and class. Kids in poorer sections of Detroit live fundamentally different lives than kids in Grosse Point or Birmingham.

Now, elites are trying to take Detroit back. They are not concerned with rebuilding the industrial base of the city, the auto plants which provided tens of thousands of Detroiters of all races with jobs and homes in years past. Instead, elites represented by groups like New Detroit are recapturing the city and replacing industry with spectacles, like casinos and sports stadiums. This is a very fragile basis for an economic recovery, and it has implications for the way the city and its schools will work. It is surely the impetus for the seizure of the Detroit Public Schools. 

For example, industrialists need skilled engineers, draftspersons, etc., as well as a diminishing number of laborers, and they want the schools to provide workers prepared for that kind of work. Owners of casinos and sports stadiums, and low-wage employers like those who own the small plants on the southwest side want obedient employees who will show up to work and not make trouble-and who are susceptible to gambling away their homes. 

Now let us look at the impact of the MEAP in schools. In Birmingham and Grosse Pointe, there is simply no pressure on anyone to take or pass the MEAP. Last year, at one high school in Birmingham, only four people took the social studies exam. The test is designed to measure the background and experience of the children who live there, and has little meaning for them because they already hold privileged positions by birthright. But in Detroit, the MEAP drives everything in the schools. Principals whose job-futures are fixed by MEAP scores, threaten teachers whose jobs and future wages are also linked to the results on the MEAP. More than 40% of teacher time in Detroit is spent teaching to the test.

Why? Because Detroit's is a tinderbox. On the one hand, many people despise and distrust the police-the key cause to urban rebellions in the last 30 years. In addition, Detroit's citizens have suffered massive unemployment and underemployment-yet another indicator. Every factor that the Kerner Commission, which analyzed the Detroit uprising of 1967, identified as a reason for the rebellion, is in place today. The key factor is hopelessness and the schools are the major producers of hope in our society.

Elites, especially elites who are counting on casinos to lead the way in their recapturing of the city, must dangle hope in front of the citizenry-real hope or false hope makes little difference. So, for many reasons they need to control the schools, directly through the school board, indirectly through controlling curriculum and instruction. They need to turn educators into clerks for their empire. 

The MEAP is part of this effort. The high-stakes standardized exams are now attached to a bribe, $2500 promised to students who pass it. It is worthwhile to note that not a single person has ever actually received the money, and to reiterate that all of the promises of the MEAP have been unmet. However, if this bribe is paid to students, the impact will be to deepen the educational inequality that already exists: since the exam measures parental income, students in richer suburbs will get it. Since economic success for teachers will be tied to the test, many teachers already are leaving poor districts for rich ones. In short, in every imaginable area. the MEAP serves to segment people, to split them apart, to pit them one against another--which is precisely what it is designed to do. 

Next week we will address what it is we can do about the MEAP.

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