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The 2010 state elections in South Carolina struck a disturbing blow against progressive and critical supporters of public education with the election of a governor, Nikki Haley, who strongly supports school choice, and a superintendent of education, Mick Zais, without experience in public education and who endorses vouchers, expanding charter schools, teacher accountability linked to merit pay and student test scores, and reducing government spending as a matter of policy.

Yet, Zais has pursued two policies I strongly support—cutting funding for a self-defeating pursuit of raising both SAT participation and scores and rejecting the allure of funding promised in the Obama administration's Race to the Top—and seems poised to embrace a third—opting out of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—that could prove to be one of the most important moments in public education in the state and the nation.

NCLB, it seems, proves Shakespeare right once again: "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows."

NCLB as powerful but misguided federal policy superimposed on the traditional responsibility of the states in public education has created misery for progressive and critical educators who reject bureaucratic and corporate templates for public education as well as libertarian-leaning conservatives who seek to reduce federal government as a de facto Big Brother menace in all public and private matters.

Few aspects of the education discourse and policy coming from the Obama administration and personified by Secretary Duncan have given advocates for genuine public education reform hope, but the recent opening to opt out of NCLB is an important moment for making a transition away from a corrosive and failed accountability era begun in 1983 with A Nation at Risk and accelerated in 2001 with NCLB—although the strange bedfellows this has spawned requires that all actions and stances include intent as well.

So should progressive and critical educators support education policies also endorsed by advocates with whom we disagree? In short, should progressive and critical educators encourage their states to opt out of NCLB (or reject the funding offered under Race to the Top [RttT]) even if the political machine in that state has motives unlike our own?

First, the short answer is yes.

Over the past three decades, the high-stakes accountability and testing movement has produced the exact same discourse politicians have been shouting for over 150 years—education is in crisis and we must reform our schools.

But the ever-increasing faith in tests, standards, and accountability has ironically produced a growing body of research that proves these policies are failures. [1]

Next, however, progressive and critical challenges to the accountability movement must build on the weight of evidence by unmasking the corporate intent of partisan politics—which aren't evidence of inherent flaws in government or social policies.

The Obama administration is continuing what was misguided in the education policies under George W. Bush—using federal policies and funding to coerce states into implementing corporate policy. As Adam Bessie has warned about NCLB wavers: “NCLB has not been revamped, but rather, rebranded.” For example, RttT is political blackmail just as the Reading First scandal [2] was eventually exposed to be.

Yes, NCLB should be dismantled and the role of the federal government in public education must be reconsidered, but not for the reasons many libertarians/conservatives claim.

While we have been forced into what appears to be an allegiance with strange bedfellows, we must reject NCLB, RttT, and other failed bureaucratic approaches to education reform while also clarifying why; for example, holding up to reformers all along the political spectrum more evidence from a favorite of politicians and the media, Finland.

LynNell Hancock has recently asked "Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?" and Anthony Rebora has outlined Hancock's conclusions at an EdWeek blog:

• There is very little emphasis in Finland on standardized tests or data-based comparisons of any sort. ("Americans like all these bars and colored graphs," one Finnish educator says bemusedly.)

• Finnish teachers, who are selected from the top 10 percent of the nation's college graduates, command a level of professional respect comparable to that of doctors and lawyers. (And the required master's degree in theory and practice is fully subsidized by the government.)

• All public schools in Finland follow a national curriculum that has been boiled down to "broad guidelines." ("The national math goals for grades one through nine," the author notes, have been "reduced to a neat ten pages.")

• Mixed-ability student groupings are the norm (indeed, apparently required), with special educators playing a large and valued role in helping struggling students stay on pace.

• There is a major emphasis, including among differing political parties, on equality of resources and access across schools.

The successful policies of schools in Finland refute every aspect of the accountability movement currently being expanded in the U.S.

But this is not the full picture, since even this evidence evades once again a powerful fact distinguishing Finland and the U.S., childhood poverty rates (3-4% in Finland, over 20% in the U.S.). [3]

In the each state in the U.S. and in every nation of the world, educational outcomes are reflections of social realities and not proof that schools alone can produce a new social order.

Progressive and critical educators who seek the promise of universal public education that we have never fulfilled are standing at a pivotal point in the history of school reform, faced with outcome allegiances with strange bedfellows and a complex challenge to communicate the intent of those allegiances to a public misled by the political elite and the careless media daily.

As Stedman (2011) concludes in his examination of the failures of the standards movement:

"Educators who seek fundamental reform, therefore, should dedicate themselves to critical-historical analysis and comprehensive social change. To succeed, we will have to join forces with those seeking social justice, democratic voice, and new forms of community, institutional, and economic life. As Counts (1932) expressed it so well so long ago, it is finally time we dared to build a new social order."


[1] Amrein, A.L., & Berliner, D.C. (2002, March 28). High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(18). Retrieved 1 November 2009 from

Hout, M., & Elliott, S. W. (2011). Incentives and test-based accountability in education. Washington DC: The National Academies Press. Retrieved 23 June 2011 from

Kincheloe, J. L, & Weil, D. (2001). Standards and schooling in the United States, vols. 1-3. Denver, CO: ABC-CLIO.

Stedman, L. C. (2010). How well does the standards movement measure up? An
analysis of achievement trends and student learning, changes in curriculum and school culture,
and the impact of No Child Left Behind. Critical Education, 1(10). Retrieved 2 October 2011 from

Stedman, L. C. (2011). Why the standards movement failed. An educational and
political diagnosis of its failure and the implications for school reform. Critical Education, 2(1).
Retrieved 2 October 2011 from

[2] U. S. Department of Education. (2006, September). The Reading First Program’s grant application process: Final inspection report. Washington, D. C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Inspector General.

[3] Adamson, P. (2005). Child poverty in rich countries 2005. Innocenti Report Card (6). United Nations Children’s Fund Innocenti Research Centre. Florence, Italy. Retrieved 17 August 2011 from

Adamson, P. (2007). Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries. Innocenti Report Card (7). United Nations Children's Fund Innocenti Research Centre. Florence, Italy. Retrieved 17 August 2011 from

Originally posted to plthomasEdD on Sun Oct 02, 2011 at 07:09 AM PDT.

Also republished by Education Alternatives.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I Find More Libertarian Republicans... (0+ / 0-)

    generally more open to my own ideas for moving away from the top-down control model for education, though they generally don't buy the idea of the teachers (or the teachers and the students) running the schools.

    Classic liberals seem to either get caught up in the whole standardization thing or protecting teachers as "laborers" (not professionals) in an ongoing "labor vs management" battle which puts the teachers at the center of things instead of the people trying to learn.

    Cooper Zale Los Angeles

    by leftyparent on Tue Oct 04, 2011 at 07:53:34 AM PDT

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