"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Smelling the Coffee at the Century Foundation

Until very recently, the Century Foundation's impressive collection of liberal educators steadfastly maintained a dopey idealized notion of what NCLB was all about, determined it seemed to divert the neo-con blitzkreig against public education with a kind sappy rhetorical appeasement. It was as if they hoped to wish NCLB into something that it has never been and will never be under the current regime of corporate socialist crooks. Here is a sampling of their idealizations from a 2002 document, Divided We Fall . . .:
THE ACCOUNTABILITY DEBATE. The strong accountability movement in education has the potential to promote integrated schools. The recently passed No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires, for the first time that, after twelve years, states bring both poor and rich children to a level of educational proficiency. It will be virtually impossible to make the enormous strides required for low-income students unless states do something very dramatic to address school segregation. In Wake County, North Carolina, for example, an ambitious achievement goal set by the district provided the imperative for sustaining an integration plan. More immediately, new federal education legislation providing a right for children to transfer out of public schools that are deemed failing for two consecutive years may prove a boon for integration if properly implemented because it divorces residence and school assignment. As we noted earlier, poorly implemented accountability plans have the potential to increase segregation to the extent that test scores become the determining factor by which middle-class parents choose school districts; but if policymakers react appropriately, the accountability movement just as well could serve as a positive spark to promote integration.
Please! Did these guys ever really believe that there was anything at all in the Bush plan that would encourage integration? Not a whit. In fact, Wake County has achieved what they have despite of, not because of, the racist school privatization juggernaut of NCLB.

Perhaps it is not too late for the Century Foundation scholars. I am glad to see this (NCLB's Poison Pill) on their site today by Greg Anrig, vice president for programs. It is proof that the the message has finally broken through. Now will they join the national effort to inform the American public about what is going on? Or will they take the Hillary route or the Kerry route into a neutral corner, hoping to avoid any of the potential bruises or knockdowns that may be inflicted in a real fight?

Greg Anrig, Jr., The Century Foundation, 1/15/2006
This week marked the fourth anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act, which was enacted with broad bipartisan support even though neither attentive conservatives nor liberals liked it very much at the time. Discussion this week over NCLB's impact has proceeded along predictable lines, with evidence remaining far from conclusive about the usual measures of overall student performance and so forth. It's only been four years. But nonetheless I'm going to declare one clear victor: the conservative movement.

The reason is that NCLB set in place an accountability regime that, in essence, requires states to tell their citizens that much of the public school system is failing—and almost inexorably getting worse by the year. That's a gift beyond the wildest dreams of even Milton Friedman and other libertarian voucher supporters.

The word "failing" does not appear in the Act itself, but journalists invariably invoke it for schools that the law deems to "need improvement." That transposition seems reasonable since NCLB encourages parents to take their kids out of such schools. The "need improvement"/"failing" judgments apply to any school in which even one subgroup of students—low income, English-language learners, the disabled, etc.—fail to meet uniform, state-determined benchmarks for proficiency and adequate-yearly progress required of NCLB. For the 2005–6 school year, according to this report from the National Education Association (trash them if you like, but they are just reporting numbers that don't make their membership look particularly good) 25.8 percent of all schools "failed." The number of schools that failed for two or more years has doubled since 2003–4.

One of the main sources of the problem with NCLB is that schools aren't necessarily rewarded if their students make progress from one year to the next. Rather, they are judged by benchmarks unrelated to their own past performance. This Times story from last week demonstrates the injustice of that approach from the standpoint of a school principal, notwithstanding Eduwonk's somewhat overheated response to coverage of what is clearly a fundamental flaw in the law.

NCLB requires states to ratchet up their testing benchmarks so that by 2014, they meet a 100 percent proficiency level—across all schools and for every group within each school. If that ever were to happen, almost regardless of what standards states used, the depiction of the public school system as a near uniform failure from coast to coast would be a direct outgrowth of federal law. Not because the system is, or would be, a failure. But because the accountability regime was rigged to set the schools up as having failed.

Look, some state-level innovations with testing and standards seem to have born fruit, according to studies by liberal researchers like Martin Carnoy. Inducing schools, mainly with sticks, to demonstrate that their students are performing better over time on tests is a strategy that seems to have a positive impact (though by no means a panacea). But NCLB's overly rigid, ham-handed approach creates all kinds of perverse incentives for states and schools to water-down their curriculums (and tests) and shed children who struggle on exams, as Virginia law professor James Ryan has argued, while further discouraging good teachers from working in schools with low-income students.

But the only unequivocal bottom line of NCLB so far is that by characterizing such a large—and inexorably growing—segment of the public school system as a failure, the support that has sustained it throughout the nation's history is in danger.

Greg Anrig, Jr., is vice president for programs at The Century Foundation. This article originally appeared on TPM Cafe on January 13, 2006.

Welcome to the real world!


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