By John Thompson
No Child Left Behind, like the War in Iraq and "Voo Doo" economics is a part of the American tradition of "the Power of Positive Thinking." If teachers really believed that "every child can learn," said the law's authors, revitalized schools would undo the legacies of Jim Crow and poverty. It is thus fitting that we celebrate NCLB's tenth anniversary with the words of Adlai Stevenson, "I find Saint Paul appealing and Saint Peale appalling."
Educationally, NCLB was a faith-based law that attributed schools' problems to "the benign bigotry of low expectations." It proclaimed that "No Excuses!," "High Expectations!," and an attitude of "Whatever It Takes!" could undo concentrations of poverty. An unholy coalition (or should I say an overly holy coalition?) of the left and the right agreed that the horrific conditions of the educational "status quo" were "no accident." Schools were failing in precisely the way they were designed to fail. Unions, because they defended teachers with the wrong mindset, were "courthouse sitters," standing in the way of the civil rights movement of the 21th century.
Politically, NCLB was presented with a bipartisan happy face. It did not need huge investments, such as the costs of refighting the War on Poverty in order to get kids ready and able to learn. NCLB was essentially based on the hypothesis that the way to make a hog bigger is to repeatedly weigh it. Economist Eric Hanushek, for instance, has estimated that great gains could be achieved by tests that cost as little as $50 per child, per year. And Hanushek subsequently estimated that testing's minor investments, that were only modestly sucessful, data-driven accountability produced gains worth $14 trillion.
Hanushek acknowledged that we do not know how to systemically overcome the educational legacy of generational poverty. The economist supported NCLB, however, because it created, "a new attitude along the lines of 'we might not know what to do, but we've got to do something.'"
As educators predicted, however, some experiments worked while others resulted in the narrowing of the curriculum, rote instruction, nonstop test prep, fabricating test score gains, and pushing out difficult-to-educate students. Those unintended consequences, said liberal NCLB supporter Dianne Piche, should not be blamed on NCLB because, "The law is not a person ... it's a piece of paper."
And that led to another paradox. Education bureaucrats who designed NCLB worked with pieces of paper. Because of their disconnect with actual schools, they can claim innocence. But, a decade ago, educators predicted precisely how and why NCLB would backfire. Actual practitioners should have explained that the phenomenon that Piche et. el calls "student performance" is not necessarily something real. It is just bits of electrical bursts in computer systems. That data may or may not reflect actual learning. What gets measured, however, gets done, meaning that, predictably, teaching and learning took a back seat to gaming the numbers.
On the other hand, a retrospective by the economist Mark Schneider, claimed that NCLB actually worked, even though improvements on the most reliable assessment, the federal NAEP, slowed after its enactment. Schneider postulated the force known as the era of "consequential accountability." So, he argued the 2002 law deserves credit for performance gains in 1998!?!?
But now, Schneider has agreed that, "overall gains in performance during the NCLB era are not large." Schneider has thus reclaimed his inner materialist, and has distanced himself from the idealistic roots of NCLB. which said that all it takes to transform schools is to really believe. He has now spilled the beans on what other "reformers" really believe is the key to improving schools. "We had the screws on the states," he said, but politics interfered.
So, retrospectives on NCLB bring to mind other idealists like Billy Sunday, who served a loving God who sometimes was very, very ANGRY. To improve schools, we must first proclaim, "something good is going to happen to you TODAY!" But more vengeful "reformers" know that faith alone has not been transformational. Perhaps they should have reminded their allies that it is not enough to proclaim, "Heal!" Hands also need to be placed on the radio, before we can expect the faith healer to do his work.
Consequently, retrospectives defending give a glimpse of the two sides of the contemporary "reform" movement, that embraces both the liberating power of choice, but also command and control micromanaging of school systems. Some "reformers" are the good cops who love poor kids, and their paradigm is, "I think uplifting thoughts, therefore an educational reformer I am." The bad cops are the social engineers who impose data-driven dictates and litmus tests on educators. Their NCLB was a crusade to wipe out "the status quo."
These postmortems also recall the theories of Thomas Berkeley and Samuel Johnson's counter-argument. Berkeley's positivism denied the existence of material reality. Johnson replied by striking a table ad proclaiming, "I refute it thus!"
For the last decade, teachers have demonstrated Johnson's realism and passed on actual examples of how the spirit of NCLB has backfired. I was one of the naive educators who hoped that our stories might convince the true believers that reality is more than the old paradigm. I never recognized the power of the simpler explanation. Teachers' experiences might be the result of a mass hallucination, so it is understandable that they have not dampened "reformers" faith in data and NCLB.
Dr. John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighborhood. He blogs at thisweekineducation.com, and huffingtonpost.com, and is writing a book on 18 years of idealistic politics in the classroom and realistic politics outside.