A Progressive Education
Here is the so-called progressive approach to NCLB.
The country’s main education law, No Child Left Behind, is under attack from a number of sources. These range from legislators who don’t want to deal with the achievement gap to groups demanding full funding of the law. No surprise, the law’s defenders have appeared over the past few weeks on the opinion pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. What is surprising is the writers' assumption that progressives should be full-fledged advocates for NCLB. Recently, the Post's editors confessed to being mystified by the criticism of NCLB:
Why Democrats, advocates for the poor, teachers unions and others, haven't yet realized the extraordinarily progressive, not to say redistributive, possibilities of this law remains a mystery.
Brent Staples, writing in the Times, goes further and suggests that the civil rights establishment has been bought off by the Democratic Party and is not fighting for the interests of African-American children.
Over the last two decades, in fact, the old-line civil rights groups have evolved into wholly owned subsidiaries of the Democratic Party…The same civil rights groups that sing hosannas to Brown have been curiously muted—and occasionally even hostile—to No Child Left Behind.
Like all of the writers, I believe that the central vision of the law—making sure every child receives a quality education—is crucial. But I reject the notion that the law’s good intentions should some how protect it from constructive criticism.
There are a number of reasons for progressives to be concerned about the Bush administration’s implementation of the law. First, with NCLB, the administration has tried to create the impression that the federal government has done all it should do to educate our children. Accepting or promoting this notion, Staples facetiously asks civil rights activists, “How much money is ‘enough’” for them to endorse NCLB? I think $27 billion is a good figure to begin with; it’s the amount by which President Bush has shortchanged NCLB since the law was enacted. This money could have gone to providing millions of students with after-school programs, literacy assistance and smaller schools.
But even if Bush fulfilled his promise and fully funded NCLB tomorrow, he still wouldn’t deserve the self-appointed title of “education president.” Regardless of NCLB, Bush continues to refuse to provide quality pre-school, in the form of Head Start, to 40 percent of eligible children, and has failed to keep financial aid on pace with rising tuition. And not only is the president breaking his promises on funding, but Bush is also proposing half a billion dollars in cuts to education in his 2006 budget, while offering billions of dollars in tax breaks to the wealthy. The money to help our children succeed is available—it’s just being given to millionaires.
To be outraged and organize around the president’s priorities is not supporting the status quo or selling out brown students—it’s fighting for the lives of children whose only hope for success is a quality education. If progressives keep quiet about funding and simply accept NCLB as is—as the cure for helping all children succeed—we’d be little more than puppets dancing to the administration’s tunes.
Just as important as demanding full funding of NCLB is challenging the testing system that Bush has put into place, which allows the president to talk tough about holding schools accountable, while doing very little to actually help schools. Testing, of course, is an important way of measuring how students are doing. Similarly, disaggregating test results is a key means of determining where disadvantaged students are not getting the education they need and deserve. There is no room for discussion on breaking down test results by race and other demographic groups, but that doesn’t mean progressives should keep our mouths shut about the current state of NCLB testing.
In annual report cards, states are required to describe schools as “in need of improvement,” if a certain percentage of students fail to meet academic standards. But highlighting schools that need assistance—without providing them with the resources needed to improve—is setting up a game that schools can’t win. It’s this Republican version of NCLB accountability that many groups should and do oppose. Withholding the funding to help struggling students, while threatening teachers and administrators with being fired, leads to a focus on testing—not learning. In a best-case scenario, this means a shrinking of the curriculum toward tested subjects. At their worst, these pressures can lead to teachers cheating to improve test scores—as seen in Texas, the birthplace of NCLB.
These are some of the legitimate concerns that parents and educators raise about the current state of NCLB testing. But the Times, like the Bush administration, choose to slam critics of testing. Writing in the Times, Staples suggests that opponents are mostly upper-class minorities consumed with a “testing is biased” argument. Alternatively, the Times editors just point to malicious intent by writing “the NEA has misrepresented the law to the public from the start, and the primary aim of its suit is to throw out the baby with the bath water. The union doesn't want a better No Child Left Behind Act; it wants to make the law disappear entirely.”
The Times ignores the possibility that it makes sense to listen to the concerns of those implementing the law in the classroom. It ignores the possibility that teachers may dislike teaching to a test for the same reasons as parents and are not just acting out of a fear of accountability.
Instead of throwing barbs at teachers and unions, the Times should challenge the nation and the president to take on the difficulties facing teachers in disadvantaged communities. The Times--and other opinion leaders--should call for universal pre-school programs so poor children enter school on level ground with their more advantaged counterparts. They should call for universal quality health care and after-school programs so all children start the school day ready to learn. The Times and the Post should both do all of this, while putting on a spirited defense of NCLB. It’s important to protect the core mission of NCLB, but doing so at all costs is as dangerous to children as accepting Bush at his word.
Earl Hadley is education coordinator for the Campaign for America's Future.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES