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

Saturday, October 13, 2007

After Six Years, Conservatives Discover What They Always Knew

Bush's original version of NCLB that he presented to Congress early in 2001 mandated school vouchers for students in schools failing to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) for three years running. So from the day that Bush's brain trust came up with his test and punish plan, there was a perverse built-in need to demonstrate public school failure in order to achieve the conservative agenda of using tax dollars to fund private and religious schools.

NCLB would provide the leverage, then, to bring about school privatization, without anyone being asked to vote on the matter. All the folks at the sludge tanks knew this, including Finn, Ravitch, Jay Greene, Hess, et al. After all, school privatization had been the conservative centerpiece for their education policy agenda since Ronald Reagan, and in 2001, it looked to insiders as if the replacement of the "public school monopoly" was about to become reality.

Bush's voucher component, however, did not survive negotiations when Congress took up the bill in the Spring of 2001, and even though Repubicans in the House introduced voucher amendments two more times that Spring prior to House and Senate approval of their respective versions, both times vouchers were voted down. Privatizers did win, however, the private tutoring provision, which was promoted among angry and disappointed conservatives as "the foot in the door" for vouchers.

By the time Congress reconvened after the 2001 Summer recess, Spellings (LaMontagne), Kress, and and handful of sludge tank insiders had become advisors to the joint conference committee, which was working to neutralize differences between the Senate and House versions. In the meantime, statisticians had run the numbers on what would happen as a result of the demand in the legislation for 100% proficiency in math and reading by 2014. As Patrick McGuinn drily notes:
It had also become clear that the "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) language contained in the bill approved by the House set unobtainable expectations for improving student test scores. Research by committee staffers had indicatied that no state in the country would be able to meet the standard as it was written at that point. The accountability language in the Senate bill, meanwhile, was regarded as too complex to be workable (McGuinn, 2006, p. 176)
It was at this critical juncture, when the underlying premise of NCLB's guaranteed failure had just been exposed, that we came to September 11, 2001. The reaction by the Congress following the terrorist attack, which would prove to be a truly bipartisan capitulation of responsibility for the future health of America's schoolchildren, was to choose the impossible over the unworkable. Both chambers would come together to approve some kind of domestic legislation before the onset of war, even though all the insiders knew the NCLB legislation was based on unachievable goals. And thus we came to inherit federal legislation that preserved the conservative cause of school privatization as an alternative to the soon-to-fail public system, even if charter schools would come to stand in for the more obvious, and odious, voucher solution.

So it is with some wee bit of consternation that I now see Finn's and Hess's Fordham Institute revisionist version of the facts surrounding NCLB's passage. Hess and Finn now pretend that the 100% guaranteed failure proficiency target was the result of naïve liberals blinded by their civil rights do-gooderism. They go so far as to proclaim that "today's NCLB amounts to a civil rights manifesto dressed up as an accountability system." In fact, the opposite is true: what NCLB has always represented is a phony accountability system dressed up as a civil rights manifesto, one originally proposed by the Party that regularly garners less than 10% of the African-American vote in national elections. Hmm.

Why am I not surprised to see Checker and Rick get it exactly backwards? And why am I not at all surprised to see Finn and Hess now feverishly working to disspell the melting myth of 100% proficency that they worked so assiduously to put in place just 6 years ago?

From Checker's and Rick's Desks:

Leave no (none, zero, nada) child behind?

Passed by Congress in late 2001 and signed by President George W. Bush one year after his inauguration, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is the most ambitious federal education statute ever.

After five years of experience with a statute that aims to produce "universal proficiency" (in math and reading, mainly in grades 3-8) by 2014, and with reauthorization looming, it's time to draw some conclusions about how NCLB has unfolded on the ground--and how it ought to be changed.

Much has been written about NCLB's particular testing regimen. Far less has been written about the law's remedies, whereby a Title I school that fails to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) is subject to a parade of stiffening interventions designed to change it and give new options to its students.

. . . . But as Congress sets about reauthorizing the law, diving into its innards to tweak this and that, it will pay insufficient heed to NCLB's main problem, which is not concerned with tests or remedies but with philosophy.

The law began with the noble yet naïve promise that every U.S. schoolchild will attain "proficiency" in reading and math by 2014. While there is no doubt that the number of "proficient" students can and should increase dramatically from today's 30-ish percent (using the National Assessment definition of proficiency), and while the achievement of children below the proficient level also can and should rise closer to proficiency, no educator in America believes that universal proficiency will, in fact, be attained by 2014, not, at least, by any reasonabled definition of proficiency. Only politicians promise such things. The inevitable result is cynicism and frustration among educators and a "compliance" mentality among state and local officials. . . .

At its heart, today's NCLB amounts to a civil rights manifesto dressed up as an accountability system. This provides an untenable basis for serious reform, as if Congress declared that every last molecule of water or air pollution would vanish by 2014, or that all American cities would be crime-free by that date.

There is evidence from states such as Florida and California that the act is causing them to restructure reasonably good schools, to confound their own pre-existing (and sometimes superior) accountability regimens, and to fracture coherent school improvement strategies. NCLB is also pushing states to move aggressively in too many schools at once, ensuring that capacity won't be up to the challenges at hand.

Whatever the political value of promising to "leave no child behind," the results thus far threaten to undermine two decades of hard-won gains on educational accountability. NCLB's dogmatic aspirations and cobbled-together design are producing a compliance-driven regimen that recreates the very pathologies it was intended to solve.

It's time to relearn the lessons of the Great Society, when ambitious programs designed to promote justice and opportunity were undone by utopian formulations, unworkable implementation structures, and a stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge the limits of federal action in the American system. In the end, Washington is not well-positioned to effect radical change in a sphere that depends primarily on state and local action, or successfully to require states and districts to adopt measures whose efficacy hinges on gusto and creativity rather than compliance.

No matter how finely the legislative craftsmen tune NCLB 2.0, powerful cultural and political forces will continue to impede school improvement. A sense of urgency and outsized aspirations is commendable, but there's a world of difference between determination and delusion. We have spent forty years since the LBJ era learning how hard school reform actually is. Yet too many otherwise serious people, such as the members of the Aspen-based NCLB Commission, sustain that pretense, indeed worsen it by suggesting that sixty-plus technocratic changes and considerably more federal control will cure what ails the law. . . .

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