Overhauling NCLB: It's time to mobilize for an education law that actually improves schools
Ohanian Comment: I wonder why NCLB opponents refuse to acknowledge the gorilla in the room. The Republican-Democrat alliance Neill mentions is really members of Congress doing the bidding of Corporate America. We won't be successfully at rallying grassroots America unless and until we expose the corporate influence pulling the puppet strings on NCLB. And I'm not talking about McGraw-Hill profits here. Corporate influence goes much deeper than that.
I stay forget spinning your wheels by writing letters to your legislator (the very person who already sold out school kids). We have to come up with direct action for taking back our schools.
Stay tuned. Yet another group is forming a plan of action at this moment. They will announce their presence soon.
By Monty Neill
The federal law that is wreaking havoc on educational quality across the
nation, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is due for reauthorization by
Congress in 2007. While many observers believe this will not be
completed until after the 2008 presidential election, we need to begin
mobilizing now to ensure that the next version of the longstanding
Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is a very different law in
several critical regards.
The importance of changing the law can scarcely be overemphasized. While
state laws and district practices have often promoted the same harmful
policies as NCLB, the federal law has made such programs more onerous,
adding more testing and layers of counterproductive "accountability"
mandates. And NCLB has made it harder and less likely for states or
districts to implement improved assessment and genuine school
improvement programs. Over-hauling NCLB should be a political priority,
not only for groups working at the national level, but also for local
and state individuals and organizations, many of whom have potentially
powerful ways to reach out to and influence members of Congress.
To ensure that the new ESEA provides positive assistance to low-income
children and their schools, three key things are necessary: a clear,
widely agreed-upon vision of what the law should be; an aroused,
mobilized, and organized force to support change; and an understanding
of the various positions in Congress and what it will take to produce
major changes in the law. Each of these points could easily be a
separate article, but after short comments on the first two points, I
will focus on the third.
Five principles should guide thinking about a new law.
First, the goal should be high-quality teaching and learning to benefit
the whole child, not drill-and-kill to artificially inflate scores on
mostly multiple-choice tests in a few subjects.
Second, a new law should focus on the capacity of schools to improve,
including adequate resources, professional development, and stronger
Third, any accountability structure must use multiple forms of evidence
as the basis for making decisions, not just scores on standardized tests.
Fourth, sanctions must be a last resort and tailored to meet specific
problems, not arbitrary actions using one-size-fits-all formulas. They
should also be designed to build capacity for improvement, not to punish
schools and districts.
Fifth, the new law should effectively empower educators, parents, and
communities to work together collaboratively, rather than move
decision-making responsibilities ever further from local communities. It
should also include equity and civil rights protections to ensure that
local empowerment does not mean the power to ignore low-income, racial
minority, English-language learning, or disabled children.
The "Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB," signed by 90 national
education, civil rights, and religious organizations, outlines key
components of what the new ESEA should include. The Forum on Educational
Accountability is carrying on this work by developing more detailed
proposals on capacity building, assessment, and accountability and by
facilitating collaborative action among dozens of groups.
National groups will need to effectively mobilize their constituents to
persuade members of Congress to revamp NCLB. This education and pressure
could take multiple forms, as suggested in FairTest's "Seven Ways to
Work to Overhaul the Federal Education Law," including holding public
forums, passing resolutions, writing letters and op-eds, and meeting
with members of Congress and state legislators.
Examining the Consensus
For a mobilized constituency to persuade Congress to pass a beneficial
education law, it is vital to consider the thinking that underlay
passage of NCLB in order to demonstrate that NCLB is not meeting its own
goals. (After all, the main stated NCLB goal is a good one: "Ensure that
all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a
high-quality education.") It is also necessary to grasp the varying
views of NCLB supporters in order to respond, where possible, to their
needs, or to counter and isolate proposals that are harmful. (Among
other things, proposals to expand testing, intensify sanctions, develop
a national test, and promote privatization are likely.)
Two prominent, pro-NCLB conservative analysts, Frederick Hess and
Michael Petrilli, have argued that since the late 1980s, presidents
(Clinton and both Bushes) and Congress have forged a "Washington
consensus" that revolves around three agreements:
First, that the nation's foremost education objective should be
closing racial and economic achievement gaps. Second, that excellent
schools can overcome the challenges of poverty. And third, that
external pressure and tough accountability are critical components
of helping school systems improve.
This "consensus" sidesteps some major issues such as privatization while
ignoring the harmful educational consequences of cheap, test-driven
"reform" and ever-more-distant bureaucratic control over schools.
However, because this consensus does exist in part, it is a useful tool
for thinking about the "bipartisan" agreement supporting NLCB.
Hess and Petrilli argue that despite some strong opposition and very
thin support among the public and especially among educators, this
consensus is likely to hold in Congress. But they also worry that the
consensus could fall apart: Bush is weakening, and Republican
Congressional leadership has changed while the most conservative
Republicans are balking at the intrusiveness of the law as well as its
funding requirements. They conclude that the law's survival may depend
on Democrats, especially Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, who
helped craft NCLB and remain as party leaders of the relevant committees.
Historically, as the "Washington consensus" on education evolved,
members of the black and Hispanic caucuses in the House opposed both a
national test and much of NCLB. They don't believe high-stakes testing,
for example, leads to fair outcomes or improved schools. As NCLB was
being considered in the House, white liberals and some conservative
Republicans joined these caucus members in promoting amendments -- such
as eliminating the requirement to test in every grade 3-8 -- that would
have made NCLB far less onerous. Though support for such amendments was
gaining quickly, time ran out.
Historical analysis suggests that pressure to change the law in
fundamental ways will come from both the right and the left. Progressive
educators are not likely to have much impact on Republicans, but could
-- in alliance with mainstream education, civil rights, and other groups
-- develop a push to change the views of key Democrats.
It is the white liberals who may be pivotal. Like Kennedy and Miller,
many believe NCLB is a step forward in civil rights, though they decry
the refusal of the Republicans to fully fund the law. Evidence to show
the law is not working as they intended, pressure from civil rights
groups, and strong alternatives could move more members of Congress
toward different legislation.
What About the Gap?
It's time to dismantle the intellectual and evidentiary underpinnings of
the "Washington consensus." The political heart of NCLB is its professed
goal of closing racial and economic achievement gaps. Bush successfully
marshaled rhetoric such as "the soft bigotry of low expectations" and
"which child would you leave behind?" to support NCLB and present
Republicans as favoring equity. Meanwhile, many Democrats, led by Bill
Clinton and many governors and members of Congress, accepted and
promoted the unproven notion that standards-based, test-driven
accountability would improve schools serving low-income children.
But the test-and-punish structure in NCLB will not overcome the systemic
inequities of race and class, the real "gap." While promoting
educational equity is essential and should be the central focus of
federal support, real progress will require more money and a shift away
from the mania for "accountability." The truth is that test-based
accountability for schools is not effective at closing real opportunity
and learning gaps.
Despite supporters' claims that NCLB has led to tangible progress,
results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
suggest only modest closure of score gaps in some subjects and grades
and no change in others. As Jaekyung Lee of the Harvard Civil Rights
Project has pointed out, racial gaps closed substantially for younger
children from the 1970s into the late 1980s, mostly likely because of
policies that attacked racism and poverty. As federal policy retreated
from equity concerns, however, one result was that the score gaps
widened. They began to close again in the late 1990s -- but still not
for high school students.
The primary narrowing has been in math. This is due to an intensified
emphasis on math instruction. However, as educators are pressured to
teach to state tests, NAEP gains appear to be mainly in rote learning,
not conceptual understanding or problem-solving.
The price of the focus on accountability testing has been narrowed
instruction in the tested subjects and increased focus on rote learning
-- what Jonathan Kozol has termed "cognitive decapitation." It has also
led to reduced instruction in history, art, and other subjects not
included on high-stakes tests.
With no gains in NAEP at grade 12 for any racial group, with independent
studies showing that high-stakes tests -- including state graduation
exams -- don't produce improved learning results but do increase dropout
rates, it is becoming increasingly clear that the focus on high-stakes
testing is an educational failure.
This Democrat-Republican alliance not only created the "Washington
consensus" on testing, it fostered a public discussion in which schools
are scapegoated. Congress must be challenged over the notion that
schools alone can overcome the effects of racism and poverty. Reports by
influential groups such as Education Trust claiming to have identified
thousands of "high flying" schools -- ones in which low-income kids
score high -- are misleading. Yes, there are many excellent schools and
great educators accomplishing great things with low-income children. But
as Designs for Change pointed out in a recent study of Chicago, echoing
the work of educators such as Deborah Meier and Ann Cook, they do not
succeed by turning their schools into test-prep programs.
We should learn from truly good schools. But if the federal government
was serious about leaving no child behind, it would address low wages
and unemployment; lack of good housing, medical care, and nutrition;
community instability; and segregation by race and class. Because
schools do have an important role to play, Congress should craft
policies that put reasonable expectations on educational systems. Then
it should focus support on strengthening beneficial practices to help
schools meet them.
In the absence of rational policies and adequate funding to actually
improve schools, the idea that "tough accountability" will induce
sustained improvement is at best misguided and at worst a deliberate
game to undermine educational quality, particularly for low-income
children, and privatize public schooling.
Educators and activists must explain to those members of Congress
willing to listen why NCLB cannot lead to equitable, high-quality
education for all. They need to use emerging proposals to promote a
strong, beneficial partnership among the levels of government. They need
to engage in extensive public education and mobilization. And they need
to create conditions in which those members of Congress who are not
willing to consider reason and evidence understand that their tenure in
office will be put at risk.
For more details on NCLB and its harmful consequences, see the FairTest
website, www.fairtest.org , as well as articles
in Rethinking Schools.
"Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB" is on the FairTest website and
the Forum on Educational Accountability website,
"Seven Ways to Work to Overhaul the Federal Education Law (ESEA/NCLB)"
is available at
Hess, F. M., and Petrilli, M. J. "Whither the Washington Consensus?"
(American Enterprise Institute, 2006.)
Lee, Jaekyung. "Tracking Achievement Gaps and Assessing the Impact of
NCLB on the Gaps." Harvard Civil Rights Project, 2006.
FairTest Examiner. August, 2006, August. "Harder to 'Fly High' than Ed
Trust Claims" and "Teacher Quality Important, But Cannot Overcome
Poverty," both at www.fairtest.org/examinertoc.html
. Summaries of Harvard Civil
Rights Project and Design for Change reports are also in this issue.
Designs for Change. The Big Picture, 2006. www.designsforchange.org
Monty Neill (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is
executive director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open
Testing, located in Cambridge, Mass.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES