Teachers, tests and terrorism
Ohanian Comment: Comparing teacher effectiveness with government employee effectiveness plays well to the gallery, and the 'easy target' theory perhaps has some merit. But this theory fails to consider the corporate influence on education policy. NCLB had its roots in Business Roundtable policiy of the late 1980ies.
by Louis Freedberg
SECRETARY of Education Margaret Spellings recently compared the federal No Child Left Behind law to Ivory soap. "It's 99.9 percent pure," she said, referring to the five-year-old law which comes up for review in Congress next year. "There's not much needed in the way of changes."
Anytime anyone compares a federal law to Ivory soap, you have to pay attention. It's not quite like saying it was handed down from Mount Sinai, but it comes close.
The central assumption of the law, proclaimed by President Bush as one of his main successes, is that teachers be held accountable for the performance of their students. It lays out a series of sanctions which kick in for teachers and schools, if students don't meet precise standards set by Washington.
It's fine to hold teachers accountable -- but shouldn't other employees be held to a similar standard?
I recently attend a symposium on the NCLB law, sponsored by the Hechinger Institute for Education and the Media, held at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City. I took a break from the conference, which took place on the weekend before Sept. 11, to go down to ground zero. As I stood in front of the space where the World Trade Center towers once stood, I wondered why we don't expect the same level of performance from other government employees as we do of teachers -- especially for those who paid more generously and whose actions have life and death consequences.
Why, for example, don't we have a "No Terrorist Left Undetected" law, which would spell out in detail the consequences for not apprehending a terrorist or preventing an attack by one? After all, President Bush declared last week that "the most important job of government is to protect the homeland.''
Yet the failures of government in relation to 9/11 were well-documented by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. The commission's most damning conclusion: "Across the government, there were failures of imagination, policy, capabilities and management."
Few, if any, officials have been held accountable for the failures that contributed to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- or other blunders such as the invasion mess in Iraq.
I'm not just referring to top dogs such as former CIA Director George "Slam Dunk" Tenet, who was rewarded for his agency's failures with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
I'm talking about all those government employees whose salaries are paid wholly by the federal government (in contrast to teachers, who are mostly with local and state dollars).
Just a few weeks ago, a bipartisan government report found large-scale waste, abuse and mismanagement in the way the Department of Homeland Security awards billions of dollars in contracts. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-L.A., the ranking minority member on the Committee on Government Reform, said, "Virtually everything that could go wrong has gone wrong."
While they're at it, shouldn't Congress consider coming up with a "No Disaster Ignored or Mishandled" law?
The shortcomings of then-FEMA Director Michael "Heck of a Job" Brown in New Orleans were so egregious that at least he was held to a minimal performance standard. But what about those who held back on funding for stronger levees long before Brown became a symbol of government incompetence? Or those responsible for the waste of billions of federal dollars after he left?
"The blatant fraud, the audacity of the schemes, the scale of the waste -- it is just breathtaking," fumed U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
What I find equally breathtaking is the lack of accountability that untold numbers of federal, state and local officials are being held to.
Yet teachers, whose average starting salary in California is an insulting $35,760, are being asked to eliminate a stubborn achievement gap that has persisted despite the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars on education "reform" over the past quarter-century. Helping kids succeed who start school way behind may be just as challenging as preparing for a hurricane an entire nation could see approaching on television.
Could it be that the federal government has picked on teachers because they're easy targets? Singling out teachers to be "accountable," while other government employees get a pass, not only doesn't make sense, it's also unfair.
Louis Freedberg is a Chronicle editorial writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
San Francisco Chronicle
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES