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NCLB Outrages

Unfinished Business

The Boston Globe ran a section called Unfinished Business. Here it is. A teacher offers an important afterward, (not in the paper, of course, but on the CARE list), printed below the two views.

from The Globe
Nearly everyone today agrees that the failure to provide poor, mostly minority students a decent education is ''the civil rights issue of our generation,'' as Governor Mitt Romney put it last month. But as the reactions to last week's Hancock decision and the ongoing debate over the No Child Left Behind Act make all too clear, that fine phrase is where the agreement ends. Here and across the country, the question of how to address the problem is as complex and contentious as they come.

In the end, the debate over education reform is about money: how much is enough, how it should be spent, who should control it. Nowhere is the debate as charged as it is among liberals. So we asked two of the state's most prominent liberal thinkers on education policy what they believe a progressive vision for education reform should look like.

Real choice

By Theodore R. Sizer

THE OFFICIAL Desktop Reference to the 600-plus-page No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 tells us that the Act ''represents a sweeping overhaul of federal efforts to support elementary and secondary education in the United States'' and asserts that the Act's provisions represent ''a landmark in education reform designed to improve student achievement and change the culture of America's schools.''

The target of the federal government's concern is proper. There is truth in the charge that public education is ineffective as currently pursued. Too many of our schools, stuck in practices going back almost one hundred years, have failed all too many children, especially those of the poor. We ''deliver'' our programs; if the kids do not learn, it must be their fault. Not surprisingly, students in wealthier districts ultimately perform better than their urban and rural counterparts: Their schools are better financed; the youngsters get much of their education beyond their school buildings; and, given their wealth, families can move into districts that have richer programs, smaller classes, and staff and community stability.

While NCLB aims to better the opportunities for the children of needy Americans, its provisions remain extensions of the existing bureaucratic system. Along with the compensatory money, it adds to the burdens on schools and families. Worst of all, it is astonishingly unimaginative. There is no hint that there may be a better, more interesting way to school our young citizens within a community's public schools. Inconveniently, no two children and no two schools are ever quite alike. There is no obvious quick fix. A mix of state, school-level, and strong parental influence needs to be braided together.

No Child Left Behind is the most recent reauthorization of The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), which was passed by the 89th Congress to channel moneys into districts serving poor children, thereby narrowing the financial gap between districts serving the poor and their wealthier, usually suburban cousins. That Congress was highly sensitive to the expectation of local control of public schools; the federal moneys disbursed would not carry with them substantial federal requirements for any particular educational plan.

NCLB retains the 1965 focus on schools serving low-income populations, but for the first time it mandates the scope and ''standards'' of the schooling it supports (or affects policy by means of the lure of grants in specified areas). It focuses on a few critical areas (reading, writing, civic education for example), demands that the states set standards that meet federal expectations, and requires regular mass testing and reporting of progress toward these standards. NCLB advocates parental choice among schools (implying differences among them) but, paradoxically, it trusts that the states will insist on common, state assigned and federally approved curricula and assessments for the students' work (which implies consistency).

Few Americans can responsibly disagree with the ends. The rub is in the means, especially for middle and high schools. How can Americans assure all families that their children have access to effective public schools? And just how do we measure whether a school is succeeding?

NCLB and many of its state counterparts, like Massachusetts' own Education Reform Act of 1993, answer these questions primarily with increased top-down regulation that leads to standardized practices imposed on populations that are not themselves standardized; and with assessments that sharply narrow the goal of a serious education to the ability to pass common standardized tests at a prescribed level. Not surprisingly, there has been a howl of legitimate protest-and a dramatic private-sector increase of test-prep activity.

The system is stuck. If poor children are to benefit from public schooling, something has to give. However, it does not necessarily follow that higher government has to take an ever-increasing role. On the contrary, more power at the lowest level-that of families and individual schools-might break the logjam.

What if government were to give warrants-- commonly called tuition vouchers--to families, each scaled to the financial needs of the family, to cash in at a public school of their choice? If a family lived in a thinly populated area served by a single public school, that school would receive this added money. In any and all cases, the receiving school would decide how that money will be deployed.

''Privatization!'' many critics cry. ''The end of public education! This cannot be a progressive idea!'' Ironically, in fact, it is just that.

There is a clear precedent here: the so-called GI Bill of Rights program created after the Second World War to assist men and women leaving active military duty to pay for their college or technical training. It continues to this day. The money, in the form of a warrant, goes to the veteran. He or she takes it to the publicly accredited institution of his or her choice. It is used to cover all or much of the tuition cost charged by that institution. Everyone wins, including the American people: Its educated workforce expands.

Paradoxically, many progressives (as well as the guardians of the bureaucracies) have been hostile to the idea of applying this logic to the primary and secondary education system since it was first introduced nationally in the late 1960s as a ''Poor Children's Bill of Rights'' (a recommendation of a task force on cities appointed by President Johnson, of which I was a member and for which I shaped the education policy).

''Poor parents don't know what their kids need,'' the critics within the system say. ''Poor parents do not have the time to make sound decisions. We know best. If there is to be more money coming into public education, we must control it.'' What's more, they curiously argue that the analogy to the GI Bill is faulty: Choices by the twentysomethings leaving the military and choosing colleges and trade schools, they claim, are more likely to be sounder than those made by twentysomething parents on behalf of their children, especially those who happen to be poor and who may not speak much English.

But the idea of a Poor Children's Bill of Rights is that choice among public schools could create an incentive for each school to be sensitive to the needs and expectations of its constituency. Americans have seen the good effect of this policy in big cities among enterprises such as the Pilot schools within the Boston School Committee's and Boston Teachers Union's contract and in the now citywide small-school choice programs in New York that had their origins in East Harlem during the 1980s.

Of course, government could allow for school choice and still control some of the crucial aspects of schooling by means of curriculum frameworks and high-stakes assessments-as has happened in many states. True ''choice,'' however, implies responsible variety. And yet most systems continue the well-intentioned but indefensible practice (as a matter of serious research) of ranking students, schools, and states on the basis of student scores on a few highly circumscribed standardized tests. States generally demand strict adherence to the familiar school routines of age grading (which defy common sense as any parent of two or more offspring knows), of sharp distinctions between and among subject matters (which fail to reflect the way that most citizens actually think in the real world), and of overloading the schools with so many duties beyond academic learning (from counseling to recreation to arrangements for students with special needs) that they must struggle to do any one of them well.

All that granted, if the federal government gave its sanction and some financial support to the primary consumers of free schooling-the affected families-it would give leverage to a more democratic, more progressive, system of public schools than that reflected by the status quo.

A truly public-sector Poor Children's Bill of Rights, given supportive conditions, would be an expression of democracy: It would push authority down the political hierarchy. It would authorize to the greatest possible extent legitimate choices among reasonably varied public schools. It could help to attract professionals who want to shape their work places, to have authority, and it could hold these precious folk within the system. It would allow room for schools to progress, to change, to alter their routines as times and communities change. (Some voucher proposals, however, set the cash levels so low that they provide no incentive whatever save, ultimately, for certain non-public schools, thereby becoming a means for funneling moneys primarily into the private religious and for-profit sectors.)

I know from long experience that this idea provokes instant and furious opposition from almost every quarter. I also have learned to be warmed by all that heat: It suggests that the idea hits vulnerable nerves. It is a shame that NCLB is the extension, indeed the expansion, of the existing bureaucratic system, now stiffened with imposed rewards and punishments. Americans deserve better.

Theodore R. Sizer is founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools and teaches at Harvard and Brandeis Universities. His latest book is ''The Red Pencil: Convictions from Experience in Education'' (Yale).

Real reform

By Mark Roosevelt

IMAGINE THIS: A progressive Democrat is elected president. In his early days in office he articulates his belief that America owes all of its citizens a quality education, and that long after Brown v. Board of Education this promise is still denied to far too many poor children, particularly children of color. He declares this ''achievement gap'' to be a national disgrace, saying that it is unacceptable that the average African-American and Latino child is doing in 12th grade what the average white child is doing in 8th grade.

The new president, with the active support of Senator Ted Kennedy, passes a law that puts the power of the federal government behind his vision for our schools, dramatically expanding its reach into public education. The law requires that all states adopt standards for what children need to know and assessments to determine whether all children, in all demographic groups, are meeting these standards, with real consequences for schools that fail to make adequate progress toward closing the achievement gap. Under the new law, states are required to allow parents with children in failing schools to transfer their child to a higher performing traditional public school or public charter school.

For progressives this should be seen as a dream scenario, a declaration that closing the achievement gap is the great civil rights enterprise of our time. Of course, you could be sure that conservatives would rage against this radical intrusion by the federal government into territory long reserved for state and local authorities. But you could also be sure that liberal activists and their allies in public education would staunchly defend the legislation's ambitious, egalitarian goals.

In fact, just such a momentous law has been passed and is now being implemented. But as painful as it is for me, a progressive Democrat, to acknowledge, it was a conservative Republican president who passed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), and it is traditionally Democratic education groups and activists who decry the law as intrusive federal meddling. And true to the confusing and peculiar politics of education reform, instead of embracing the laudable goals of NCLB-and joining in a bipartisan effort to repair its flaws-the institutional players in education and their allies have put their energy into fighting it.

To veterans of the education wars at the state level, this peculiar political situation comes as no surprise. In state battles over reforming schools, liberal and conservative labels have lost their meaning. Instead, the battle lines are drawn between those who are willing to take on powerful institutional interests and contemplate systemic change and those who are not.

In Massachusetts we have seen this peculiar political situation play out in the contentious battles around implementing our own version of ''standards-based reform,'' the Education Reform Act of 1993 (which I coauthored). Passed in response to a crisis in public education, the theory behind Massachusetts' law is that if you give school districts a more equitable funding base, establish state standards for student achievement, monitor districts' progress through student testing, and empower school leaders by enacting significant management reforms-such as removing principals from collective bargaining-districts will figure out how to improve.

Many liberals and education associations bitterly fought the management reforms as well as the essential testing component of this strategy, MCAS, in both the state house and in federal and state courtrooms. Many continue the fight to this day, despite the fact that 10 years of standard-based reform has produced considerable progress. Massachusetts schools are now at the top in national comparisons, and despite dire predictions of mass failure 96 percent of seniors passed the high school MCAS requirement and now graduate with a high school diploma that actually means something.

Last week, in its decision in the Hancock case, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected the plaintiffs' request-supported by the teachers' unions and other institutional groups representing various educational interests-that the court order the state to send more money to underperforming districts. Other groups, such as the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (which I manage), are proposing a more comprehensive strategy which includes raising our expectations for student performance through a statewide ''campaign for proficiency,'' additional management reforms, and targeted new expenditures for expanding state assistance to school districts, early childhood education, and extended time on learning through a longer school day. Still arguing that money is all that is needed, and lacking any systemic reform agenda of their own, the institutional interests will continue to oppose changes in the system that will empower school leaders to tackle the many dysfunctions of underperforming schools.

For those of us who see ourselves as progressives, the debate about failing urban schools was far more comfortable when it was all about funding-and the liberal and conservative battle lines were drawn in a traditional manner. Fueled by Jonathan Kozol's scathing indictments of spending inequities in his 1991 book ''Savage Inequalities,'' progressives fought in legislatures and courtrooms for state funding formulas that would put schools in poor cities and towns on an equal footing with those in more affluent ones.

And in Massachusetts, one of the five highest-spending states in the country, we have been successful. In terms of equity, studies such as one by the Education Trust show that after 10 years of the 1993 Act's new funding formula, Massachusetts now spends slightly more to educate the average poor child than the more advantaged one, making it difficult to argue that the troubles of our lowest performing districts are primarily about funding. For example, over the last decade, Brockton's per pupil expenditure has increased 111 percent, from approximately $4,000 to over $8,500 per pupil, with only modest gains in student achievement. So do we really believe that an additional, let's say, $1,000 per pupil is likely to result in significant improvement?

Yes, money matters, and the spending inequities of the past were a disgrace. But once a certain level of spending has been reached, school improvement is far more about how money is spent.

Still, after 10 years of increased spending and reform, and despite real progress, the achievement gap in Massachusetts remains very large. Urban schools in particular are failing too many of their students, and while Massachusetts schools do very well compared to other states, they are not meeting international standards, particularly in math and science.

More reforms and higher state standards are necessary because school systems have shown that, like most large institutions, they have little ability to change on their own. (As Dick Elmore of the Harvard Graduate School of Education puts it, ''Watching schools change is not like watching grass grow; it is like watching Astroturf grow.'') This is so despite the fact that educators at all levels-superintendents, principals, and teachers-express enormous frustration with how their jobs are structured and with the barriers to effective practice created by outdated management policies and inflexible collective bargaining agreements.

It is time to examine the reform model that we have pursued in Massachusetts for what works and what doesn't. One significant problem is that there are no consequences for schools or districts that fail to make sufficient progress, despite having received significant new funding.

NCLB attempts to solve this problem by allowing students in failing schools to choose another public school, charter or traditional. But this approach will only work if there are schools within a reasonable distance that offer a better alternative. NCLB anticipates that many of these alternative schools will be public charter schools. But in Massachusetts, despite the fact that many urban charter schools have significantly improved student achievement and have over 14,000 students on their wait lists, we have caps on charter schools, especially in large urban communities. These caps should be lifted: They function like protective tariffs and are only in place because of the aggressive advocacy of the institutional groups and their allies. And unlike traditional public schools, charters do get shut down for poor performance. Indeed, charters that are not making the grade should be shut down even faster than they are now.

Improving schools is hard work. Educating all our students to a reasonable standard is a monumental undertaking. Our current system has not shown that it is up to the task. Since we have rightly decided that this is essential work, we must be willing to look creatively for different ways of organizing both schools and school districts.

Robert Reich has noted that today's young people are the first generation in 100 years not to witness the power and passion of American liberalism. To rekindle that passion, progressives must be willing to take on established interest groups and offer solutions that challenge the status quo, extend opportunity, and embrace change and reform.

NCLB sets the right goals for America's schools. Instead of fighting it, Massachusetts progressives and education leaders should work to show that we have the ingenuity and determination to be the first state to close the achievement gap. For we should all be able to agree that educating every child to a reasonable standard is indeed the great civil rights enterprise of our time.

Mark Roosevelt is the managing director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. He served in the Massachusetts Legislature from 1986-94 and was coauthor of the Education Reform Act of 1993.

James Doyle Responds:

Alarm bells should go off when a debate on a contentious issue like education reform claims that "nearly everyone agrees" on anything ("Unfinished Business," Ideas, Feb. 20). After reading the introduction to the debate between "progressive" thinkers Mark Roosevelt and Ted Sizer, it was sad but not surprising to see how narrow the range of ideas turned out to be. If President Bush's rigid, one-size-fits-all No Child Left Behind model and the favorite conservative nostrum of vouchers represents the range of "progressive" ideas on improving public education, we are in trouble.

Luckily, this is not true. Globe readers might be interested in the ideas of Richard Rothstein, for example, who asserts that the needs of poor children cannot be met by simply reforming what goes on in the classroom. Reformers must also address gaps in nutrition, health care, housing and wages, all of which affect children's ability to learn. How about a real debate? Open your forum to voices of dedicated teachers, parents and students who believe public schools deserve to be freed from the bureaucratic straightjacket Sizer describes and allowed the flexibility to serve the full range of students who come through their doors with creativity, care and attention to their individual needs.

James Doyle

— Theodore Sizer and Mark Roosevelt
Boston Globe


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