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NCLB Outrages

IRA Hall of Fame Speech

NCLB is the meeting place for several of America’s most cherished biases. Perhaps, this is why so many find fault with the particulars of the law and its delivery but stop at some point during their criticism to affirm its rhetorical goals. We accept at face value NCLB’s commitment that all children can learn, that what we teach them is necessary for their futures in an increasingly uncertain world, and that schools should be institutions that render predictable results to enable equal opportunities within our democracy. Personal learning with social consequences for our economy and democracy seem to be worthy goals, and we appear to validate them, even when we argue that NCLB could be more effective and efficient in addressing them. But schools and America have never offered equal opportunities to all students and citizens. In the time allotted to me, I’ll argue that Americans do not act as if they value equal opportunity and that schools are designed to provide scientific evidence that inequalities in America are legitimate, justified, and natural. NCLB is not the problem – rather it is but one iteration of that design which frames the project of American inequality in the language of equal opportunity.

In the August 2005 issue of the Teachers College Record, David Berliner surveys the impact of economic inequality in America upon school achievement. He begins with the fact that Americans accept the highest level of child poverty of any industrialized country in the world. Scandinavian countries have 2 or 3 percent, Germany 10; but in the United States, nearly 22 percent of children live in poverty. Over 1 in 5 children lives in a family below the poverty line. Let me remind you that the poverty line for a family of four is $19,000. Living below the poverty lines means that these children have inadequate housing, lack nutritional meals, and receive spotty health care. Berliner links each of these factors with lower achievement in schools. Tired, hungry and ill students don’t score as high on standardized tests as their rested, regularly fed, and healthy peers regardless of what the school programs might include. Well before the advent of NCLB we accepted these scores as indicative of what children have learned and what they are capable of learning in the future. We reward the students who score higher with more opportunities, and we repeat the past opportunities until the lower scoring students jump over the proficiency bar. We call this closing the achievement gap and rest on the premise that we are making decisions according to merit.

But as Lani Guinier argues in her new book, Meritocracy Inc., these scores have less to do with merit and more to do with social class status. Here’s Guinier:

I am arguing that many of the criteria we associate with individual talent and effort do not measure the individual in isolation but rather parallel the phenomena associated with aristocracy; what we’re calling individual talent is actually a function of that individual’s social position or opportunities gained by virtue of family and ancestry. So although the system we call meritocracy is presumed to be more democratic and egalitarian than aristocracy, it is in fact reproducing that which it was intended to dislodge. Dollars and Sense 2006 Feb. 3.

Over half a century ago, the Supreme Court ruled that Southern schools’ segregation was unconstitutional and “inherently unequal”. During the last two decades, resegregation has been occurring across America despite an increase in diversity within the student population. Over the last 30 years, the Black student population has increased by nearly six million, the Latino population has increased by four million and three million for Asian students. Six million fewer white students attend public schools. In his 2001 report Schools More Separate, Gary Orfield states that racially resegregated schools offer vastly unequal educational opportunities and that gaps in achievement and graduation rates began to expand in concert with growing segregation of schools. These gaps had been closing substantially between the 1960s and the mid 1980s. Those who remain unconvinced about the effects of resegregated schools might consult Jonathan Kozol’s 2005 The Shame of A Nation. Both Orfield and Kozol argue that the resegregation of schools results directly from a continued segregation of housing in an America. in which racial minorities in the North and Midwest are steered toward inner city neighborhoods and rings of older suburbs and white families in the South and West isolate themselves behind gates and in exburbs.

Continued and growing poverty and segregation make a mockery of the NCLB commitment that all children can learn. Of course they can and do learn daily, but what are poor and minority children learning when American adults stand by silently in the face of these inequalities? Despite the hard work of some researchers and teachers who struggle diligently to lessen the blows of poverty and segregation, the lesson is clear. In America, equal opportunity means that middle and upper class white students are born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple. That is, the American education system continues the advantages that these students enjoy outside of school by writing and performing school standards, curriculum and tests that do little more than confirm these existing social advantages. This is not pessimistic talk or the subtle bias of low expectations. Rather my analysis is based on 100 years of test results that offer zip code as the best predictor of achievement or intelligence test scores and the continued misguided reform practices of seeking the proper science in order to discover the one best system that will teach all students to read, calculate and think efficiently. The intellectual and academic consequences of poverty and segregation are not problems for science to solve through experimentation and technology that isolate the individual as the unit of learning. Rather, these consequences are political issues to be decided by moral commitment to a democracy based on social, economic and political equalities.

What would be a commitment to real equal opportunity among all American students? While more and better teachers, useful curricula, and better facilities are important to be sure, they do not and cannot overcome the effects of systematically enforced poverty and segregation. They are not and cannot be sufficient to provide equal opportunity among American students. Berliner advocates that as we call for better teachers, curricula and facilities, we must also work for universal medical insurance, an increase in the minimum wage, and more jobs in inner cities and rural areas. Children who come from homes with employed adults, health care, and realistic hope for their future score higher on tests. Berliner estimates that raising a poor family’s income by $13,000 improves children’s IQ significantly and reduces bad behavior. Such a program implemented nationally would be much cheaper than Head Start, learning disabilities programs or prison. Stop the American wars of aggression overseas and fund it today. In order to increase equal opportunities, Guinier suggests the elimination of standardized testing as a measure of merit and more direct attention to social programs like affirmative action that add to democratic practices and outcomes. Orfield recommends that we explore federal housing policies to promote desegregation of existing housing patterns and to develop new policies in order to prevent further resegregation of inner suburbs. Berliner, Guinier, and Orfield are not wild-eyed radicals spouting utopian dreams. Rather, they are tenured professors, who seek to invigorate American democracy through social programs that acknowledge seriously the complex social contribution to learning.

Why don’t we follow their suggestions? My fear is that too many Americans equate democracy with capitalism – that we fear equality or even equal opportunity because we seek every advantage in the race to sustain ourselves and prosper in an environment of savage competition. Outside our families, we understand others through relations of exchange – the money nexus if you will – and we know that their gain can only mean our lost. Daily announcements of job layoffs and outsourcing evince this fear. Read Louis Uchitelle’s The Disposable American for a new account of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling. Americans look out for number one and cling to the myth that we are self taught and responsible for all the good or bad fortune that comes our way. With our standards, curricula, and tests, we’ve built over time and continue to maintain the educational structures that make the myth appear to be reality. We foster competition at every turn. We open every aspect of life to the market and believe that these markets are free despite every indication that participating businesses and entrepreneurs seek protection from competition in each. Think oil, sugar and steel. We swallow the rhetoric of tax relief as if taxes weren’t what make any cooperative venture for mutual benefit possible. Think Medicaid, social security, and public schools. Simply, we turn our backs on ways to create equal opportunities for the poor and minorities because it is not in our best interests to do so. NCLB is not the problem because it is nothing but a rhetorical gloss to cover over American inequalities, while offering the illusion that the federal government is doing all it can to further economic opportunity and political power for every citizen.

What do we lose by continuing to participate in NCLB and by our silences perpetuating poverty and segregation in America? John Dewey answered this question more than a century ago.when he wrote about America’s transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. Then, too, we faced an uncertain world which demanded new social knowledge to negotiate against the continuous fragmentation of our lives. The parallels are many because the differential treatment at schools then was also justified by reference to personal learning for general economic and democratic benefit. Dewey wrote, “ in the name of democracy and individual freedom, the few as a result of superior possessions and powers had in fact made it impossible for the masses to realize personal capacities and to count in the social order.” The casualty, then as now, is what Dewey called true democracy. Far more than a form of government, true democracy should be an associated method of living together that breaks down social barriers among people. According to Dewey, true democracy is the “free and mutual harmonizing of different individuals with every person sharing in the determination of the conditions and aims of his own and collective actions” (Dewey, 1910, 268). Dewey, Berliner, Guinier, Orfield and Kozol lament the silence of educators on matters of poverty and segregation because they are manifestations of our alienation from one another and prevent us from realizing democracy. Each separately and all collectively implore us to act on these larger social issues – these progressive dreams.

NCLB insults us by replacing teachers with the technologies of scripted instructional systems, by privatizating public education through for profit schools and tutorial companies, and by identifying vulnerable social groups for failure through disaggregated test scores. If we are to make a difference in the lives of our students, then we must look past NCLB in order to join with other individuals and groups to demand that American government provide programs which ensure the basic human rights of housing, health care, food and jobs for all citizens. Only then will we end poverty and segregation and position schools to contribute to the potential of a true democracy. Let NCLB be our catalyst to think these thoughts and to take these steps.

And to quote lyrics from Rage Against the Machine –

These are all American dreams.

These are all American dreams,

These are all American dreams…

— Patrick Shannon
IRA Convention, Chicago


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