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

Monday, October 27, 2008

Special Comment: Margaret Spellings

Margaret Lamontagne Spellings has come a long way from her humble beginnings as a legislative activist paid to hector public education supporters in the Texas Legislature. With a bachelor's degree in poli-sci and a teaching resume that is limited to a single stint as tutor on education issues to a distinctively non-curious George the Governor of Texas, she has risen to represent the neocon ruling model that insists upon political fealty above competence, ruthlessness over morality, ideology above truth, private aggrandizement over the public good.

With her fellow NCLB designer Sandy Kress working under the watchful eye of Karl Rove, who previously hired her to tutor the Governor, these core miseducators put together the infrastructure for an education bill aimed to achieve the conservative goals of education privatization, even without the school vouchers that unsuspecting Democrats strutted about getting stripped from the NCLB Act.

As Elizabeth Debray has documented, Spellings and the inner circle knew that the impossible 100 percent proficiency targets would accomplish over time what conservatives would have preferred to get done with the imposition of vouchers on the front end of the Bush reign. Rather than immediate conservative gratification, the Spellings testing requirements offered the kind of torturous schooling, a pedagogical variety of slow-motion waterboarding, that would eventually break down the will of teachers and public school supporters, thus opening up the market for the tutoring corporations, the charter profiteers, and the non-profit corporate brainwashing outfits like KIPP.

Now at the end of the Spellings reign of terror and half-way to the 2014 Judgment Day, 4 out of 10 public schools in America are on her NCLB failure list. Special ed children and English language learners who can't read the test questions are tested right along with the rest, including millions of children disabled by poverty. The poorest neighborhoods, in fact, are commanded to perform at the same level as the schools in the leafy suburbs. No excuses. And no extra resources, either.

Since NCLB became law in 2002, Bush budgets have underfunded NCLB by nearly $90 billion dollars (pdf). Head Start has been cut back by 11 percent. Career education programs, educational technology, and other programs like Reading is Fundamental have been zeroed out in Bush budgets. While cynically demanding that special ed students perform at the same levels as other students, $30 billion has been cut from the authorized amount in the 2004 IDEA Improvement Act. In short, the poor, the disabled, and the immigrant children have been sacrificed to make an ideological case against public schools and for vouchers and charters (even as research shows they are no better at producing test scores than the schools they would replace.

Recently when fielding a question concerning the burgeoning number of schools not making the AYP (Adequate Yearly Progres) cut, Mrs. Spellings limply responded with "pretty much every organization needs improvement." Yes, you are correct, Mrs. Spellings, and "pretty much every organization" accepts this fact, except yours, it seems. Pretty much every other organization does not face closure or reconstitution or some other form of demolition if the organization does not reach a level of improvement that is impossible to attain.

As a result of your manipulation, Mrs. Spellings, it is now the public school organization that has lost its most ethical and imaginative professionals on the road to "improvement." It is now only the public school organization that, in seeking the impossible, has had its purposes hijacked so that relevance, caring, and humane values have been extinguished along the way to the unreachable. It is now only the public school organization, Mrs. Spellings, that has so focused on unattainable improvements that children have become alienated prisoners in an institution that blames them for the failure that you, Mrs. Spellings, have created. It is only the public school organization whose resources have been reduced while your scheduled impossible demands have been racheted up (even though there is no level of funding that would make the 100% proficiency goal achievable). It is only the public school organization, Mrs. Spellings, whose most vulnerable and needy member units have been cynically sacrificed on the ideological altar of privatization, even as the empty rhetoric of rescue has been unceasing from your lips.

So yes, Margaret, if I may call you Margaret, we are in agreement: "pretty much every organization needs improvement," including, I will add in caps, YOUR OWN. I would argue, in fact, that your organization "pretty much" needs an entire makeover. The good news is that your imminent departure, along with your reluctant former pupil, will make that improvement possible. Perhaps, then, we can get on the road to the real work of public school improvement, rather than the ceaseless undercutting of "pretty much" the entire system. I am sure that the competent and hard working civil servants at the Department of Education will be glad to see you off.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:57 PM

    Thank you Jim/Schools Matter,
    I am a teacher/casualty of NCLB who promoted and taught in premier language programs for both second language learners and mainstream children who were learning in a two way immersion setting, just the kind of pedagogy for a world class education. NCLB has led to devastation of scientifically researched programs for second language learners and for all children whose parents strive to promote bilingualism in their children. Overzealous administrators have thwarted and dismantled excellent bilingual programs in the name of NCLB. How sad for us as a country and how long will it take for us to get back on track? Your astute observations about the state of education today are right on.