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NCLB Outrages

Class Struggle

Ohanian Comment: The people at Mother Jones have gone off the deep end, letting this guy continue to write the education blog for their publication. That Mother Jones would publish a blogger who can do no better than spout the party line of so-called progressive Democrats is a disappointment and a disgrace.

You can sign up and comment on his post:

Here's a blog by Jerry Pricher:

Having been a teacher for twenty-seven years I have some serious misgivings with the content of Mr. Plumer's entry. I believe his heart may be in the right place, but I think his opinions are based on myths and misinformation. It is not true, for instance, that American schools are failing. It is not true American students are not competitive with students elsewhere. I would point to the excellent work and publications of Gerald Bracey, who puts the many myths and misconceptions in proper perspective. Much of what the public takes to be true depends on what results are made public, how they are presented, and how much other information is revealed. Just as an example, to compare SAT scores from a state where seventy-five percent of the students take the test to scores from a state where only the most elite students take it would be unfair and misleading. It's been done of course.

Educating a child is a very complex process and is best accomplished, in my opinion, by those closest to the child. It would be nice I suppose if we could simplify it to make it more like the manufacturing model so many folks think it is, but that simply is not the case. I have no difficulty in recognizing and honoring national standards, especially when they're high ones, but I am opposed to high stakes testing for several reasons. I would point to the excellent work being done by Susan Ohanian in this regard.

NCLB, in my opinion, was really designed so that schools would fail. There are folks who believe that our students would be better educated if we left it up to the private sector. After Enron, Worldcom, etc., do we really feel this is a good idea? I do not have any trouble accepting accountability either. Believe me, I am accountable each and every day to each and every one of my students and to their parents. Even though I am employed by the district school board, I have always considered my real contract to be with them. So far I've been judged an excellent teacher by all measures. Do I think I should receive more compensation for my efforts? Yes. Do I think I should be given more compensation than my fellow teachers? No. If every teacher was just like me the system would fail miserably, even though I'm an excellent instructor. Real teaching is about making a connection with the learner. Many of my colleagues, who may not seem as impressive, may be able to make a better connection with certain students than I will. We are all important!

Class Struggle

Robert Gordon's cover story in this week's New Republic, about No Child Left Behind, really sums up nicely a lot of things we've been saying for awhile. Yes, yes, the act's far from perfect, and it is true that it needs better funding. But the overall goals of the act—-from nationwide standards to accountability to an increased focus on minority students—-are extremely laudable, and liberals too often lose sight of that when lambasting the Bush administration on education. The anti-NCLB trend that Gordon notices is nothing short of disturbing:

Resistance to federal power is now a progressive rallying cry in education. Democrats at the National Conference of State Legislatures recently helped draft a bipartisan report charging that NCLB infringes upon states' Tenth Amendment rights. Most Utah Democrats supported a new state law jeopardizing $76 million in aid to poor students on the grounds that the state's own assessment system should have priority over NCLB. But that state system does not even exist today; the real question, as the law's lead sponsor asked, was, "At what price is our sovereignty for sale?" The National Education Association (NEA) is now suing Washington for forcing states to spend more money on education. Connecticut's Democratic attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, has praised the suit and threatened to bring one of his own….

Thanks to NCLB, many schools are now offering those students help they desperately need. If the NEA's suit prevails in court, it won't even yield more money; it will just yield precedents limiting federal power and enable states to ignore the law's demands. That would be sad: One of the NEA's plaintiffs told The New York Times that NCLB had forced her district to offer longer school days and Saturday classes for low-achieving students. Progressives should celebrate that fact, not complain about it.

Other proposals from the left would dash inner-city hopes to placate suburban anxieties. Many parents at better schools now worry that rote "teaching to the test" has crowded out better teaching. Much of that problem could be addressed by spending more on complex assessments worth teaching to. That would preserve the accountability so critical in the worst schools, which, at least now, are teaching to something. Yet many progressives, including state legislators and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, would allow student performance to be counterbalanced by academic indicators of states' choosing. In some iterations, these measures could include parental satisfaction or student attendance. This regime would replace the clear demand for student achievement with a malleable nonstandard. It would be fine for most students in Greenwich, but a step backward for Bridgeport and New Haven.

This sort of thing really needs to stop—and indeed, one perverse effect here is that much of the carping is undermining parent and teacher support for NCLB, which only increases the chance of failure. As Gordon notes, the answer to too much "teaching to the test" isn't to end all accountability, and shrink back into our decentralized school-control shells, but to create better tests. Today's New York Times has a good bit of reporting on how standards and accountability have reaped positive gains in New York City. That's the sort of thing that should always be embraced, period.

Meanwhile, Gordon suggests that liberals ought to focus more on improving teacher quality. Agreed. I was always rather surprised that John Kerry never made more hay over his excellent plan to institute pay-for-performance standards for teachers in underserved areas. It's a genuinely good idea, and as Gordon notes, many of the worries about "arbitrary merit bonuses" on this issue are a bit overblown—teachers would be evaluated just like employees at many other companies, all across the nation, are evaluated. That's no terrible thing, especially if it comes with an overall hike in pay and assurances that the most talented teachers will get ahead. Fortunately, some liberal think tanks, like the Center for American Progress, are starting to hop on this bandwagon—let's just hope they stay with it rather than succumbing to NCLB-bashing all for the sake of scoring points against the White House. There are a million of other Bush initiatives to roast alive; this one should be treated with more caution.

UPDATE: Of course, no one wants to go too far in the other direction. Teach and Learn worries that Democratic education reformers concerned with performance could grow too intolerant of teacher's unions. Good cautionary note.

— Bradford Plumer
Mother Jones Blog


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