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NCLB Outrages

How the "Cons" Are Screwing Middle Class Children, Parents and Our Nation's Future by Destroying Public Education

Ohanian Comment: Too bad the author has elected not to receive any e-mails, so we are unable to tell him that the progressives are in this just as deeply as the conservatives, both buying the Business Roundtable message.

Only 10 members of Congress voted against NCLB. That's hardly just a "con" mandate.

I disagree strongly with the assertion that All the issues around education come down to one question: investment or expense? What is fundamental is Who decides what education is about? Who decides what the preschooler in Head Start's day should look like? Who decides kindergarten content? Fourth grade content? Right now, the corporate-politico Standardistos have grabbed these decisions away from education professionals.

I don't want more money pumped into Head Start if they are going to continue to make it a skill drill conveyor belt preparing kids for kindergarten, which has become a skill drill conveyor belt preparing kids for first grade, which is hysterical about getting them on track for college.

by Thom Hartmann

Knowledge Is Power
One of the primary elements of a true, functioning, representative democratic republic, like we aim for here in the United States, is that its citizens be well informed.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his friend J. Correa de Serra on January 28, 1786, and said, "Our liberty depends upon the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost," he was assuming that Americans knew how to read their daily newspapers.

Not anymore. A 2005 study by the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that about 5 percent of the adults in the United States are not literate in English, meaning 11 million people lack the skills to handle many everyday tasks. Some 30 million adults, or 14 percent of the population, have "below basic" skills in prose. Their ability is so limited that they may not be able to make sense of a simple pamphlet, for example. Another 95 million adults, or 44 percent of the population, have intermediate prose skills, meaning they can do only moderately challenging activities. An example would be consulting a reference book to determine which foods contain a certain vitamin.

The cons' solution, as usual, is to privatize education. They say the public school system is too broken to fix. And just to make sure it stays broken, they passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which will cost the states more in property taxes and other taxes than they are going to get out of it.

The solution is not to go in with a hammer and destroy the schools. It is not to privatize the schools. It's to change the way we are teaching.

Education Is an Investment
There is a growing consensus that something is melting down in our schools, but the solution is not to abolish free public education. The solution is to make free public education better.

All the issues around education come down to one question: investment or expense? The conservatives would have you think that any kind of social programs are expenses. It's really important to reframe the conversation in terms of investment.

We know that the investment in a preschool program like Head Start yields substantial returns down the road in terms of reduced crime, reduced expenses associated with the detention of people, and increases in the tax base. For every $1 you invest in Head Start, you get $9 back. The child is far healthier, less likely to end up in special education or the criminal justice system, and more likely to go to college. Preschool is an investment, not an expense.

The cons, however, don't get it. The whole con agenda seems to be, "Let's go back to a caste system." They are hearkening back to men like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who believed we should have a ruling class and a working class and that the ruling class should be literate and the working class should just know enough to make change when they buy something.

They are doing their best to destroy public education. They are trying to destroy the teachers' unions and starve the schools.

Traditionally, we've determined the success or failure of the U.S. public education system by how competent our citizens are at being part of the workforce, participating in our democracy, and having social mobility. Those are all things that you can measure, and in many ways they all relate back to building critical-thinking skills-seeing the big picture, being able to challenge conventional wisdom, thinking outside the box to use the old cliché-as much as they do to the actual imparting of information. We've historically seen education as an essential and organic part of our democracy and considered access to higher education-regardless of the parents' income level-to be one of the keys to building a strong middle class, a strong economy, and a strong nation.

The cons, however, see education as just another commodity. And if it's just a commodity, like shoes or carrots, there must be a simple way to measure it. So instead of measuring its impact on society, they say, "Let's just see how well our kids are doing at memorizing some of the things that we think are important."

The Wrong Measure
The tragedy of treating education as a commodity is twofold. First, the things the cons are measuring in their one-size-fits-all tests don't include the basic issues of democracy, freedom, liberty, and the history of this nation.

Standardized tests don't let us know if our kids know the difference between the worldviews of Paine versus Burke or the differences in the vision of democracy between Plato and Jefferson. They don't test if our kids understand why the Boston Tea Party happened or what differentiated the Founders from the Royalists of 1776. And the tests the cons devise are not designed to teach kids a thing about the populist and progressive movements in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the Wobblies and the history of organized labor, or the history of Roosevelt's and Truman's battles with cons over programs like labor policy, national health insurance, and Social Security.

The second tragedy for us and our children is that the cons-in their effort to commodify education-have turned the testing over to a few large corporations. Back when I was in school in the 1950s and 1960s, our teachers would write up their own tests, sometimes even in longhand, and make copies of them on the mimeograph machine. The cost was just a few cents-basically the cost of the paper and the mimeo machine's amortization. But the testing companies can charge $5, $10, $20 or more for 5 cents worth of paper. And the No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to buy these tests from specific large, politically active testing companies.

Testing has gone from being insignificant-basically just IQ tests-during the Golden Age of the middle class to being a million-dollar-a-year industry in the Reagan eighties to a multibillion-dollar annual industry after the passage of NCLB. They've used it as a way to privatize another part of education.

Combine that with the relentless pressure for school vouchers, the federal aid programs to religious schools, and the ongoing conservative assaults on every teacher's union contract that comes up for renewal and you get it that they want to destroy public education by completely privatizing it. The result will be that the rich won't see any difference (they're already sending their kids to private prep schools like Andover, where both George Bushes went), the poor will be left with a few token dregs of education, and the middle class will be squeezed even harder.

No Child Left Behind has really sped up this process. Once a school district accepts the federal money for NCLB, it has to agree to the federally mandated and corporate-run scoring system. And if your school fails the test twice in a row, you have to give kids the option of going to another school and then pay for their transportation. But there is no money budgeted to pay for that transportation. And every kid a school loses means fewer state and federal dollars for that school.

What school districts are finding is that they are getting screwed. The state of Utah, for example, one of the most conservative states in the Union, has refused to abide by the requirements of the law. And other states may soon follow.

The real problem with NCLB, however, is not that it is underfunded. The problem is the assumption that you can commodify education at all. You can't.

The No Child Left Behind Act, and other school-privatizing schemes, is really a blowback to a nineteenth-century "create kids for the factories" model of education. Teaching for the test is the worst thing you can do. Want to teach a child to hate learning? Drill them and you'll do that.

Different kids learn in different ways. The most powerful thing a teacher can do is not to make sure that a child has memorized a test but rather to ignite in that child a passion for learning, a love of knowledge. It's to bring back their natural curiosity.

Children love to learn. In just their first few years, they learn a language, how to interact in a family, and a million details. Kids don't fail-schools fail. And part of that failure is the result of the cons' meddling with our schools in an effort to break them so that they can say, "See? We told you public education isn't any good. Now let's hand it over to the business sector." And then we're back to the old rigid caste system in which the only people who get a good education are the children of the wealthy and the corporate elite.

Education is not a consumer product. Schools are not a commercial activity. They are part of the commons and essential to a functioning democracy. We have an obligation to make education work because we are creating the future of our country in our schools.


Thom Hartmann is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author, and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show carried on the Air America Radio network and Sirius. www.thomhartmann.com His 17 published books include "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight," "Unequal Protection," "We The People: A Call To Take Back America," "What Would Jefferson Do?" and "Ultimate Sacrifice." His most recent book is "Screwed: The Undeclared War on the Middle Class and What We Can Do About It."

— Thom Hartmann


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