A Bet on No Child Left Behind
would be denied lessons in social studies, the sciences, the arts and music, even
recess and exercise, so that every available minute of the school day could be
devoted to drill for tests of basic skills in math and reading;
discovery and instead required to follow pre-set instructional scripts aligned with
school but instead anticipated another day of rote exercises and practice testing
designed to increase scores by a point or two.
Diane morosely predicted that, despite this evident disaster, NCLB would certainly
be reauthorized with its destructive testing and accountability provisions intact.
After all, she moaned, it had the support of elites from both parties, the
Washington think tanks, the big foundations, and the editorial boards of The New
York Times, The Washington Post, and other influential media outlets. No serious
opposition was visible. How could the law not be continued? Indeed, she worried, its
supporters were so removed from the reality of classrooms, so impervious to
evidence, they could well decide to intensify requirements that schools chase phony
test score gains to the exclusion of all else.
I smugly responded, "not a chance." The NCLB accountability system is so
self-evidently calamitous that its principles will never survive congressional
reauthorization. Don't pay attention to elite opinion, I said. The internal
contradictions of a law that orders all children nationwide to perform above-average
are so explosive that any attempts to "fix" them (as policymakers were then vowing
to do) would never be able to claim a congressional majority, no matter how
obstinate NCLB's supporters might be.
For example, I said to Diane, consider the law's absurd demand to prohibit the
normal variability of human ability so that all children, from the unusually gifted
to the mentally retarded, must achieve above the same "challenging" level of
proficiency by 2014. The only way states could fulfill this requirement would be to
define "challenging proficiency" at such a low level that even the least talented of
students could meet it. NCLB enthusiasts would then cry "foul" and insist that a
reauthorized law allow Congress to dictate a national proficiency standard.
But this, in turn, would make the law unacceptable to supporters who had gone along
in 2002 only because they felt assured that federal intrusion into state control of
education would be limited. Or if, instead, NCLB proponents attempted to mollify
critics by giving schools more flexibility -- for example, by permitting them to
escape condemnation for not meeting impossible academic benchmarks by citing other
measures, like attendance rates or parent satisfaction -- the NCLB enthusiasts would
balk at this backdoor way of "leaving children behind."
There is no way out of this impasse, I assured Diane. NCLB will limp along past its
2007 expiration date, with no possible map for reauthorization, with temporary
annual continuing resolutions while proponents fruitlessly attempt to conceive of
ways to climb out of the holes into which they had dug themselves.
Eventually, I told Diane, by 2016, we'll still be requiring all children to be
proficient by 2014, and declaring virtually every school in the country to be
failing. At some point, I predicted, some secretary of education would have no
choice but to issue waivers from the law's requirements to every state in the
country while the law itself remained on the books, an embarrassing monument to
Everything I predicted has now come to pass, and I should be able to call Diane's
hand and collect my dinner at the River CafÃƒÂ©. But I'm afraid I must concede. I won
the bet on technical points, but Diane won on the merits. The glass really is
half-empty, maybe more so.
What I had not anticipated was that a secretary of education (Arne Duncan, it turned
out to be) would use his authority to grant waivers to states (now all of them)
unable to meet NCLB's requirements, conditioning the waivers on states' agreements
to adopt accountability conditions that are even more absurd, more unworkable, more
fanciful than those in the law itself. Mr. DuncanÃ¢€™s philosophy has been revealed: if
a policy fails, the solution should be to do more of it.
So the secretary is now kicking the ball down the road. States will be excused from
making all children proficient by 2014 if they agree instead to make all children
"college-ready" by 2020. If NCLB's testing obsession didn't suffice to distinguish
good schools from failing ones, states can be excused from loss of funds if they
instead use student test scores to distinguish good teachers from bad ones. Without
any reauthorization of NCLB, Mr. Duncan will now use his waiver authority to demand,
in effect, even more test-prep, more drill, more unbalanced curricula, more
misidentification of success and failure, more demoralization of good teachers, and
more needless stress for young children.
The Obama administration is presenting its waiver proposal as the grant of new
"flexibility" to states. Yes, perhaps. If states agree to implement Mr. DuncanÃ¢€™s
favored reforms of evaluating teachers by student test scores and expanding charter
schools, and if states promise to meet even more impossible "college ready"
standards established by the federal government, the secretary will let them figure
out on their own how to do it.
Some Republicans have complained. The secretary, they say, cannot do an end run
around Congress by implementing his own more extreme version of No Child Left
Behind, when he has been unsuccessful in getting Congress to enact these very same
proposals into the law itself.
But these critics, most of whom supported NCLB in 2002, have only themselves to
blame. They initially wrote into the law the right of a secretary to issue waivers
based only on his or her own personal fantasies about what constitutes a state
pledge to increase (sic) the quality of instruction and improve academic achievement
Ã¢€“ to be precise, in NCLBÃ¢€™s Title IX, Part D, Sections 9401(b)(1)(i) and (ii).
And Arne Duncan has gotten away with this before. Here, Democrats should be ashamed.
In February 2009, when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the ARRA, or
"stimulus" bill) was enacted, Republicans charged that the law had little to do with
job creation or economic growth, but was only a subterfuge for the Obama
administration to make social policy without congressional debate.
Mostly, the Republican charge had no merit but in the case of education policy, it
hits the mark. The secretary has been distributing more than $4 billion in ARRA
grants only to states that entered and won his Race to the Top competition by
promising to raise standards even higher than those unachievable under NCLB.
These so-called stimulus funds are not distributed to states with the highest
unemployment rates but to those that outbid others by promising to establish data
systems to evaluate teachers based on studentsÃ¢€™ math and reading scores, be most
ruthless in firing teachers and principals in schools with low scores, and replace
them with the most rapid expansion of charter schools.
The Duncan policies, like NCLB, will eventually implode. But the damage being done
to American public education has now gone on for so long that it will have enduring
effects. Schools will not soon be able to implement a holistic education to
disadvantaged children. Disillusioned and demoralized teachers who have abandoned
the profession or have retired are now being rapidly replaced by a new generation of
drill sergeants, well-trained in the techniques of "data-driven instruction." This
cannot easily be undone.
Some state education officials have murmured intents to refuse the Duncan waiver
conditions, and dare him then to withhold federal education dollars. But there is
little indication that these officials will follow through, or that others will join
the resistance. Most states will meekly apply for the Duncan waivers. Courage is in
short supply among education and policy leaders.
So Diane, start perusing the menu. My victory on points is to no avail. I owe you
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