One of our school board candidates, Janet Godwin, happens to be the chief operating officer of ACT, Inc., the big standardized testing company that has its headquarters in Iowa City. A number of people have raised concerns about the conflicts that might create.
I’m not so worried about the direct legal conflicts; I assume that if Godwin is elected, she’ll have to recuse herself from any votes involving contracts with ACT. But I do worry about a broader kind of conflict. Many of the trends that have been spreading through education for the past twenty years are inextricably linked to an elevation of the role of standardized testing. In my view, that has led to a kind of reductive thinking about education and a de-emphasis of subjects (e.g., art, music) and qualities (e.g., intellectual curiosity, intrinsic motivation, critical inquiry about received ideas) that either aren’t or can’t be measured by a standardized test. How likely is it that the Chief Operating Officer of ACT could act to help reduce the role of standardized testing in educational policy?
A more concrete example: Last year, Godwin informed roughly sixty ACT employees that their positions were being eliminated because ACT was trying to shift away from paper-and-pencil testing to digital testing (which, in general, sells at a higher price). This trend toward digital coincides with the district’s own movement toward digital, as this year it starts the major ongoing investment of providing Chromebooks to every secondary student. Whatever you might think about the district’s decision, it would be useful to at least consider whether that trend in education is driven in some part by the money that can be made by private companies as a result. Godwin is not in the best position to raise that kind of question.
I’m also concerned about further immersing the school district in a corporate-style culture. I wrote here about why I think a public governmental entity is fundamentally different from a corporation in important ways. I’m afraid that our district has lost sight of that distinction, and that Godwin would be unlikely to reverse that trend. (At one point, during the candidate forums, Godwin even accidentally referred to the district as “this company.”) Our current board chair, Chris Lynch, also comes from a corporate operations culture; I don’t see much to distinguish Godwin’s approach to school governance from Lynch’s. As someone who would like to see a shift toward more democratically-informed governance, I will be looking to other candidates.