On the Sidelines of the Most Important Civil Rights Battle Since 'Brown'
Ohanian Comment: The author of gung-ho New York Times editorials praising NCLB finally signs a piece. . . and continues to reveal that, for him, conservative ideology trumps reality. Brent Staples has no notion of education reality, which means he doesn't see how NCLB harms the very students he claims to care about.
Staples calls them "simple achievement tests." I wonder how astute he is in deciphering Roger Asham's prose, a requirement on a recent NY Regents exam.
The civil rights establishment was once a fiercely independent force that bedeviled politicians on both sides of the aisle and evaluated policies based on whether those policies harmed or helped the poor. This tradition of independence has disappeared. Over the last two decades, in fact, the old-line civil rights groups have evolved into wholly owned subsidiaries of the Democratic Party. The groups are disinclined to turn on their friends - or to openly embrace even beneficial policies that happen to have a Republican face.
This posture has been painfully evident in the debate surrounding the No Child Left Behind education law, a signature Bush administration reform that also happens to be the best hope for guaranteeing black and Latino children a chance at equal education. The law is not perfect and will need adjustments. But its core requirement that the states educate minority children to the same standards as white children breaks with a century-old tradition of educational unfairness. The new law could potentially surpass Brown v. Board of Education in terms of widening access to high-quality public education.
The same civil rights groups that sing hosannas to Brown have been curiously muted - and occasionally even hostile - to No Child Left Behind. But the groups have mainly been missing from the debate, according to Dr. James Comer, the educational reformer and Yale University psychiatrist. "They have been absent," Dr. Comer told me last week. "They need to pay attention to what works. They need to be in the middle of the fight because these are our kids."
Why are civil rights groups standing on the sidelines instead of fighting to ensure that this law succeeds? The reasons are numerous and complex. One of the most obvious is that civil rights officials and some black lawmakers are wary of embracing a law associated with a conservative Republican president.
Like many other Americans, people in the civil rights establishment typically argue that it is unfair to enforce No Child Left Behind - and to require higher achievement from minority children and better performance from their teachers - until the government provides enough money to do the job. There is no question that the law is underfinanced. But how much money is "enough" to proceed? What if the ideal dollar amount takes 25 years to materialize and what if it never arrives at all? In this context, waiting for "enough money" becomes an argument for maintaining the disastrous status quo and sacrificing yet another generation of minority students.
Next up is the antitesting argument. Civil rights activists commonly embrace the popular but erroneous view that the reading and math tests associated with No Child Left Behind are culturally biased or unfair to minority children. Paradoxically, those who hold this view are often middle- and upper-class African-Americans who have law degrees and Ph.D.'s, which require rigorous tests and high achievement.
The simple achievement tests required under the law are essential to the objective of closing the education gap. By arguing that these tests are inappropriate and culturally biased, these members of the liberal black elite have unwittingly embraced the worst stereotypes about the poor. They have also given cover to politicians who believe that the achievement gap can never be closed and that minority children can never reach the levels attained by their white, affluent counterparts.
The most complex and deep-seated objections to No Child Left Behind are clearly emanating from teachers and school administrators, who have come under increasing pressure to improve student performance. They have always wielded an outsized influence in the black community, especially in the days of segregation, when they made up that community's largest, most visible and most respected professional group. Members of the teacher corps have historically played powerful roles in civic organizations, including churches, while forming the backbone of civil rights groups like the N.A.A.C.P.
Thanks in part to the civil rights movement, which expanded job opportunities, the teacher corps in the black community is not what it used to be. Many black children now attend school in educational dead zones, where teachers are two or three times more likely to be uncredentialed or unqualified than in the suburbs. It should come as no surprise that minority children lag behind.
The educational dead zones have become part of a vicious cycle. As experienced teachers retire, they are replaced by people who were themselves educated in dismal public schools and sent on to teachers' colleges that are often little more than diploma mills. The federal government tried to fix this problem in the late 1990's when it encouraged teachers' colleges to beef up curriculum and student performance in exchange for the federal dollars they get in subsidies and student loans. This effort failed, but it spawned No Child Left Behind, which requires the states to place highly qualified teachers in every classroom.
This is a difficult moment for the civil rights movement, which is understandably fearful of taking positions that would discomfit the teachers among its supporters. But standing silently on the sidelines of the debate about teacher preparedness and No Child Left Behind is hardly the answer. Unless the civil rights establishment adopts a stronger and more public position, it will inevitably be viewed as having missed the most important civil rights battle of the last half-century.
New York Times
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES