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NCLB Outrages

So Are Progressives SpendingToo Much Time Sniping at Bill Gates? Two Views

Leo Casey posted this provocative essay and then Prof. Jill Mora responded. Her essay follows Casey's.

Bill Gates Is Not the Issue: Our Silences and Failures Are

by Leo Casey, Special Representative for High Schools. United Federation of Teachers

Bill Gates is not the issue. What should concern those of us on the American left is not that Gates has made some negative comments about American high schools, but that in so doing, he has outflanked "the left," especially the "educational left," from the left.

The reality, as Gary Orfield and his colleagues in the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University have carefully documented, is that 1 in every 2 students of color in the United States do not graduate high school on time, and that most of these young people do not graduate high school at all.

Meanwhile, 3 in every 4 white students graduate high school on time -- nothing to cheer about, but a whole lot better than the graduation rate of students of color.




That graduation rate for students of color is a national scandal, pure and simple. And the achievement gap which underlies that differentiation in graduation rates is a national scandal, pure and simple.

And yet an American left which once championed the cause of ending racial segregation in American public schools, of doing away with separate and unequal schools, is largely silent and inactive on these issues. Instead, it is Bill Gates who is speaking out, and who is giving his philanthropic money to efforts to remake and reform American high schools. So we attack Bill Gates? Denounce him as the "hit man" on public high schools?

Yes, we should be shouting "shame," but on ourselves, not on him. The world's richest man is more of an advocate for educational equity than we are, and that is our problem, not his.

If we had been addressing this issue properly, we would be in the position to note that notwithstanding his powerful call for equity in education, Bill Gates' analysis of what is wrong in public education is inadequate and incomplete. A far deeper and richer understanding of the achievement gap is required. We need to recognize that this gap begins to take shape long before students pass through the doors of a school for a first time, as a result of a wide array of developmental differentials that result from the conditions of growing up in poverty, and dramatically accelerates in the middle school years. High schools make their own contribution to the problem to be sure, but they are hardly the sole source of the problem.

Consequently, a solution must include a range of social programs that ameliorate the effects of poverty on a child's development, from proper pre-natal and infant health care to a balanced, nutritious diet and lead abatement in low income housing, and must focus on the problematic middle school years. But high schools also need to be reformed, and we should be intervening in this debate with reasoned voices about what types of reforms make sense, not proclaiming "that God's in his heaven and all's well with the world." There is a place for many of the reforms Gates advocates and supports, such as the creation of small learning communities in which teachers and students have many opportunities to know each other well, in a public education system with delivers a quality education to all.

Yet on many of the listservs of the "educational left" to which I subscribe, volumes have been dedicated to excoriating Gates and other centrist advocates of educational equity, such as Kati Haycock and the Education Trust, who support the No Child Left Behind legislation. At the same time, I have seen welcomed a report of the far right, libertarian Cato Institute, the voice of Social Darwinism in American policy debates, because it condemned NCLB from the viewpoint of an anti-federal government perspective.

"Those who try to frame the NCLB debate in simple left-vs-right terms," we were told with reference to the Cato Institute, "are ignoring a broad range of potential allies." States rights arguments, echoing the rhetoric of those who opposed the civil rights movement in the Deep South, are embraced, so long as they are used against NCLB and a federal government role in education. [A little reading of educational history would quickly lead one to recognize that since the end of WW II, it has been the federal government that has been behind progressive policy after progressive policy in education, from the GI Bill and Brown v. Board of Education to Head Start, Title One, and protections for the rights of English Language Learners and students with special needs.] The efforts of the Utah State Legislature to exempt their state from NCLB are promoted, with no mention made of the fact that among their main complaints is the fact that NCLB requires the disaggregation of performance data by sex, race and ethnicity, making it quite clear when a school district and a state such as Utah are ill serving their students of color.

I do not want to be misunderstood here: there are very serious problems with NCLB. But there are also parts of the legislation, such as the disaggregation of performance data, which were long overdue and need to be embraced. A more nuanced and careful critique, one which does not run to join hands with the far right when they attack NLCB for all of the wrong reasons, needs to be articulated. There are reasons why the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which has brought the successful class action law suit against the underfunding of urban, especially New York City, public schools in New York State, affirms NCLB and the regimen of standardized state tests aligned with it -- they have been crucial in making the case that students in inner city schools were being denied the "sound, basic education" required by the New York State Constitution. These are the very same reasons that have led many national civil rights organizations to support NCLB. Why do we not hear their voices in our circles?

Standardized testing in American public schools is out of control, and NCLB has contributed mightily to that problem. But it is not the only -- not even the most important -- problem we face. With all due respect, the continuing issue of equity -- the growing resegregation of American public schools, the numbers of failing inner city schools and the achievement gap -- is far more important. Ask any inner city parent. The mounting efforts to privatize public education, now using our failures to provide equity in education as an argument for vouchers, tuition tax credits and the like, are far more important. Only from the vantage point of well-to-do suburbs, which provide quality public schools to all who live there, does standardized testing become the primary issue. And only when standardized testing and NCLB is seen as the primary issue does one rush to ally with the Cato Institute, the advocates of states rights and the Utah State Legislature.

Will the epitaph of the American "educational left" be that we saw the world through the eyes of the well-to-do suburbs?

The Trojan Horse called No Child Left Behind: A response to Dr. Leo Casey
by Jill Kerper Mora, Ed.D.

In his letter to EDDRA of March 9, Dr. Leo Casey suggests that the "educational left" errors in attacking "centrist advocates of educational equity." There is much with which I agree in Dr. Casey's cautionary message, especially about the lack of a thorough examination of the causes of unequal education in the United States. However, Dr. Casey cries "shame" on the educational left for failing to embrace NCLB's stance in favor of educational equity, such as the disaggregation of standardized test data into sub-groups to identify groups of children who suffer from the "achievement gap."

The legend of the Trojan War provides us with an analogy. The Trojan Horse, with its belly full of Greek soldiers ready to capture Troy once inside its gates, was offered as a gift, a gesture of peace and good will. Since the wooden horse was too large to enter through the main gate of the city, the Trojans tore down a part of the wall to drag the horse inside, and then celebrated their apparent victory. Once the city slept, the soldiers emerged, opened the gates and signaled the Greek army to enter and destroy the city.

We must ask ourselves if we truly believe that NCLB represents a renewed and deeper commitment to educational equity in our public schools. Dr. Casey mentions the positive role of the federal government in such advances in educational equity as Brown v. Board of Education, programs for limited English proficient students, and Head Start. Yet we must recognize that these federal actions came about due to a profound change in the way Americans think about the morality and justice of denying children opportunities in our public schools based solely on their race or national origin. These laws, policies and programs were seen as means of carrying out the principles of equal protection under the law.

How very different is the moral, social and political climate of today's education reforms and the political strategizing that spawned NCLB. Many of us question whether or not NCLB does embody the same spirit and adhere to the same principles of social justice and equality that led us to uphold Brown v. Board of Education through the intervention of the National Guard at the doors of our public schools. If in fact, NCLB is a commitment to educational equity, then the fears and concerns we on the left express about the law's provisions that undermine the achievement of the very lofty goals should be shared by those on the right. The issue is not a call for "states' rights" to ignore the underachievement of their minority populations or the left's alleged alignment with the "well-to-do suburbs." The issue is instead: What is the proper role of the federal government in bringing about greater levels of educational equity and social justice for underserved minority students?

Do we really trust the federal government, especially this federal government, to come to the education community and to minority communities served by our public schools bearing the "gift" of educational equity? Is the political philosophy of the Bush administration consistent with the principles of equal protection under the law for individuals who utilize the services of under-funded public institutions? Do the officials in the Bush administration support and defend the individual rights that allow minorities and persons who hold minority views to fulfill their full human potential?

Even more relevant to the NCLB law, do its provisions support the achievement of educational equity? We on the "educational left" say that they do not. We are concerned that the system of sanctions and punishments imposed when schools fail to reach the unrealistic and arbitrary goals of Adequate Yearly Progress only make matters worse for struggling schools. We decry the labeling of schools as "low performing" and "failing" when their students who, through no fault of their own, cannot score well on standardized tests. We protest the message to teachers that they are "highly qualified" if they can pass a test on their subject matter while disregarding their abilities to deliver quality instruction through appropriate and effective pedagogical tools and inspire and motivate their young charges through positive and life-enhancing interactions. We deplore the loss of "local control" over the curriculum and instruction because of the excessive focus on testing and the heavy-handed and arbitrary regulation of methods of teaching based on so-called "scientific evidence." We abhor the obscene profits that now go into the coffers of a select few publishing companies and private-sector providers of tutoring and other education services who contribute heavily to the political campaigns of the "educational right."

Most of all, we on the "educational left" are concerned that No Child Left Behind has silenced the fundamental debate about the role and purpose of public education in American society. We fear that the voters in the "well-to-do suburbs" are content to delude themselves that the public schools are both the source of, and the cure for, the chronic social ills resulting for racism, discrimination and greed that is manifest in the "achievement gap." In NCLB, America has been offered a balm for its guilty conscience over the lack of concern for our minority children and their families and communities and the unwillingness to the resources and political will needed to bring about true educational equity. America must not be fooled by the Trojan Horse named No Child Left Behind. We must form whatever alliances are necessary to keep this false gift from entering our gates.

Jill Kerper Mora, Ed.D.
Associate Professor of Teacher Education San Diego State University Resident Director CSU International Program Mexico

— Leo Casey and Jill Kerper Mora



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