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There was always something slightly insane about No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the ambitious education law often described as the Bush Administration's signature domestic achievement.

   That is the opening sentence of a piece in the current issue of Time.   Written by Claudia Wallis, the piece is entitled as it this diary, and it is very much worth your going to this link and taking the time to read it.  It is especially interesting as we now have on record a key insider in the Bush Department of Education acknowledging the arguments of critics that for some in the Department

No Child Left Behind was nothing more than a cynical plan to destroy American faith in public education and open the way to vouchers and school choice.

It is a piece that has been widely discussed on some of the educational lists in which I participate, and I thought it might be worthwhile for me to examine it and  offer some commentary here.  

Critics have from the start pointed out some of the serious weaknesses of NCLB.  For one thing, no one ever believed that the goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 was achievable.   When this was combined with the administration's failure to fully fund the additional costs imposed by the law, it indicated to many that the law might be serving to undercut the very goal espoused in its title.  And for many of us, the idea of children moving in lockstep in advancing up through 8th grade merely compounded one of the worst aspects of the current design of American schooling.

Susan Neuman of U. of Michigan, who served as Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education during the 1st term of the current president, still believes in the stated purposes of the law, and says the same is true of former SecEd Rod Paige and of the President.

But there were others in the department, according to Neuman, who saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda — a way to expose the failure of public education and "blow it up a bit," she says. "There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization."

  This is one reason her time at Education felt like being in a pressure cooker, leading to her departure in 2003.  The administration also was very rigid, in part because they felt their predecessors were too willing to grant flexibility to states, and they did not want to appear similarly "weak" (and if this sounds familiar, it should - it fits the pattern of so much in this administration that whatever the Clinton administration did the Bush administration would act in a manner of polar differences, either unwilling or unable to acknowledge the correctness in anything Bill Clinton ever did).    Neuman acknowledges that the Department should have been willing to move sooner to individual growth models as a measure of progress instead of the collective comparison of cohorts.

Let me digress from the article for a moment.  As I have noted before, while in theory the use of individual growth models - how much the individual student has learned over the course of the year - is a far better indicator than is comparing this year's 4th graders to last year's collectively, it is not a panacea.  The body of research is absolutely clear that if you measure a student June to June that measurement is effected by what happens over the summer.  For students of at least middle class economic status, there is little summer learning loss, and in many cases there is increased learning through various enrichment opportunities not available to those of lesser economic means, those found not only in minority inner cities but also among many rural white communities.   In theory this could be addressed by measuring September to June, which would give a far more accurate (albeit still not completely so) measurement of school and teacher effectiveness, but that would require still more testing, something to which most educators and many school boards remain opposed, both because of cost and also because of the loss of still more instructional time.   And there is nothing to stop people under pressure from "gaming" this approach.  It is worth noting that there was in the original White House proposal for NCLB a provision for a 1% bonus of Title I funds to those schools and systems who provided 'value-added" (a form of growth measurement) scores of the child's teachers to the parents, but this did not make it into the final legislation.

To return to the article, which is relatively brief, Neuman acknowledges that the use of labels of failing was counter-productive:

"Vilifying teachers and saying we are going to shame them was not the right approach."

 As I have often written, here and elsewhere, that approach was of the mindset that the beatings will continue until morale improves.  

Unlike top insiders at higher levels of the Government, Neuman has not written a tell-all book.  But she has moved to where she believes that schools cannot be held solely accountable for the learning or lack thereof of our students.  And the occasion of this time piece is because of a report being issued today.  Let me quote again from the article:

Along with 59 other top educators, policymakers and health officials, she's put her name to a nonpartisan document to be released on Tuesday by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. Titled "A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education," it lays out an expansive vision for leveling the playing field for low-income kids, one that looks toward new policies on child health and support for parents and communities. Neuman says that money she's seen wasted on current programs should be reallocated accordingly. "Pinning all our hopes on schools will never change the odds for kids."

It is interesting that when many of us criticized the original proposal of NCLB on the grounds that much of what tests measured was impacted by things beyond the reach of schools, including nutrition and health, for example, we were attacked as being unwilling to be held accountable.  Our response that we already held ourselves accountable for the factors within our control and that policy makers needed a similar degree of accountability was not given the same publicity as were the criticisms of educators.  

Schools are, and always have been, a reflection of the attitudes of the larger society in which they are placed.  Crumbling buildings, lack of enrichment activities, narrowing of curricula, rigid approaches to pedagogy and discipline - these all serve as the unintended or hidden curricula that our students all learn:  that for all our bloviations about our not wanting to leave children behind we really don't believe it and are too easily satisfied as a society to be seeming to be concerned about our schools, but unwilling to make the major commitments necessary to really equalize opportunity for all children.  

And let's be honest.   There are subtantial numbers of people who quite happy to keep things as they are.  Perhaps it is how they hope to ensure a steady flow of people going into the military for misadventures like Iraq - after all, we have seen administration figures and people like John McCain oppose Jim Webb's new GI Bill proposal on the grounds that it might interfere with retention of people in the military after their initial enlistments.  It is also because there are those who wish to preserve advantages for their own children, and are unwilling to support the taxes necessary to equalize things for children who through no fault of their own do not have access to similar resources - in their homes and families, their neighborhoods, or their schools.  

With my own school year coming to an end, I will have more time to examine aspects of educational policy more closely. In coming weeks I will review several books, here and elsewhere.  I will give my reaction to the Performance Exhibition of the Coalition of Essential Schools I recently attended in Providence.   I will offer a piece introducing many to a different statewide model in MN that allows for broad public school choice.   And I will take the time to read and respond to the report being issued today.

I had not planned to write about education or politics today.  I will this morning officially end my school year, and I wanted a day where I could simply wind down.   Yet even as school years around the country are coming to a close, we cannot stop thinking about educational policy. No Child Left Behind will probably not be fully addressed until after the next president takes office, with a somewhat different Congress, which will then attempt to address the educational needs of the nation as they perceive it.   Still, we should not wait until then to analyze and discuss what has happened since Bush took office. No Child Left Behind has been very destructive to many of Americaa's public schools.  And to have someone as connected as was Susan Neuman acknowledge that for some supposedly dedicated to the well-being of our schools and students it was instead serving as a vehicle to attempt destroy the public schools (and thus a chance at a meaningfully improved economic future for many of our young people) strictly on ideological grounds is something about which everyone should be aware.

Peace.

Originally posted to teacherken on Tue Jun 10, 2008 at 04:10 AM PDT.

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