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NCLB Outrages

Smelling the Coffee at the Century Foundation

Comments by Jim Horn

Until very recently, the Century Foundation's impressive collection of
liberal educators steadfastly maintained a dopey idealized notion of what
NCLB was all about, determined it seemed to divert the neo-con blitzkreig
against public education with a kind sappy rhetorical appeasement. It was
as if they hoped to wish NCLB into something that it has never been and
will never be under the current regime of corporate socialist crooks. Here
is a sampling of their idealizations from a 2002 document, Divided We Fall

THE ACCOUNTABILITY DEBATE. The strong accountability movement in
education has the potential to promote integrated schools. The
recently passed No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires, for the
first time that, after twelve years, states bring both poor and rich
children to a level of educational proficiency.

It will be virtually
impossible to make the enormous strides required for low-income
students unless states do something very dramatic to address school
segregation. In Wake County, North Carolina, for example, an ambitious
achievement goal set by the district provided the imperative for
sustaining an integration plan. More immediately, new federal
education legislation providing a right for children to transfer out
of public schools that are deemed failing for two consecutive years
may prove a boon for integration if properly implemented because it
divorces residence and school assignment. As we noted earlier, poorly
implemented accountability plans have the potential to increase
segregation to the extent that test scores become the determining
factor by which middle-class parents choose school districts; but if
policymakers react appropriately, the accountability movement just as
well could serve as a positive spark to promote integration.

Please! Did these guys ever really believe that there was anything at all
in the Bush plan that would encourage integration? Not a whit. In fact,
Wake County has achieved what they have despite of, not because of, the
racist school privatization juggernaut of NCLB.

Perhaps it is not too late for the Century Foundation scholars. I am glad
to see this (NCLB's Poison Pill) on their site today by Greg Anrig, vice
president for programs. It is proof that the the message has finally
broken through. Now will they join the national effort to inform the
American public about what is going on? Or will they take the Hillary
route or the Kerry route into a neutral corner, hoping to avoid any of the
potential bruises or knockdowns that may be inflicted in a real fight?

Ohanian Comment: Hillary in a neutral corner? She was a chief negoiator on America 2000 and Goals 2000, precursors to NCLB. Remember, her husband wanted a national test. Nor is Kerry neutral. He's a corporate politico all the way. His education platform was to dump more money into NCLB and have more testing. The Century Foundation can change its name (from the Twenty-First Century Fund) but it doesn't change its neo-liberal, corporate-allied stripes.

Board of Trustees Century Foundation
Chairman Alan Brinkley
Vice Chairman James A. Leach
Treasurer Lewis B. Kaden Secretary Peter A. A. Berle
Clerk Alicia H. Munnell President Richard C. Leone

H. Brandt Ayers • Peter A. A. Berle • Alan Brinkley • Joseph A. Califano, Jr. • Alexander Morgan Capron • Hodding Carter III • Edward E. David, Jr. • Brewster C. Denny • Christopher Edley, Jr. • Charles V. Hamilton • Matina S. Horner • Lewis B. Kaden • James A. Leach • Richard C. Leone • Jessica Tuchman Mathews • Alicia H. Munnell • P. Michael Pitfield • John Podesta • Richard Ravitch • Alan Sagner • Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. • Harvey I. Sloane, M.D. • Theodore C. Sorensen • Kathleen M. Sullivan • Shirley Williams • William Julius Wilson

NCLB's Poison Pill
by Greg Anrig, Jr., The Century Foundation

This week marked the fourth anniversary of the No Child Left Behind
Act, which was enacted with broad bipartisan support even though
neither attentive conservatives nor liberals liked it very much at the
time. Discussion this week over NCLB's impact has proceeded along
predictable lines, with evidence remaining far from conclusive about
the usual measures of overall student performance and so forth. It's
only been four years. But nonetheless I'm going to declare one clear
victor: the conservative movement.

The reason is that NCLB set in place an accountability regime that, in
essence, requires states to tell their citizens that much of the
public school system is failing—and almost inexorably getting worse by
the year. That's a gift beyond the wildest dreams of even Milton
Friedman and other libertarian voucher supporters.

The word "failing" does not appear in the Act itself, but journalists
invariably invoke it for schools that the law deems to "need
improvement." That transposition seems reasonable since NCLB
encourages parents to take their kids out of such schools. The "need
improvement"/"failing" judgments apply to any school in which even one
subgroup of students—low income, English-language learners, the
disabled, etc.—fail to meet uniform, state-determined benchmarks for
proficiency and adequate-yearly progress required of NCLB. For the
2005–6 school year, according to this report from the National
Education Association (trash them if you like, but they are just
reporting numbers that don't make their membership look particularly
good) 25.8 percent of all schools "failed." The number of schools that
failed for two or more years has doubled since 2003–4.

One of the main sources of the problem with NCLB is that schools
aren't necessarily rewarded if their students make progress from one
year to the next. Rather, they are judged by benchmarks unrelated to
their own past performance. This Times story from last week
demonstrates the injustice of that approach from the standpoint of a
school principal, notwithstanding Eduwonk's somewhat overheated
response to coverage of what is clearly a fundamental flaw in the law.

NCLB requires states to ratchet up their testing benchmarks so that by
2014, they meet a 100 percent proficiency level—across all schools and
for every group within each school. If that ever were to happen,
almost regardless of what standards states used, the depiction of the
public school system as a near uniform failure from coast to coast
would be a direct outgrowth of federal law. Not because the system is,
or would be, a failure. But because the accountability regime was
rigged to set the schools up as having failed.

Look, some state-level innovations with testing and standards seem to
have born fruit, according to studies by liberal researchers like
Martin Carnoy. Inducing schools, mainly with sticks, to demonstrate
that their students are performing better over time on tests is a
strategy that seems to have a positive impact (though by no means a
panacea). But NCLB's overly rigid, ham-handed approach creates all
kinds of perverse incentives for states and schools to water-down
their curriculums (and tests) and shed children who struggle on exams,
as Virginia law professor James Ryan has argued, while further
discouraging good teachers from working in schools with low-income

But the only unequivocal bottom line of NCLB so far is that by
characterizing such a large—and inexorably growing—segment of the
public school system as a failure, the support that has sustained it
throughout the nation's history is in danger.

— Greg Anrig, Jr.
TPM Cafe


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