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NCLB Outrages

Leaving My Lapel Pin Behind: Is No Child Left Behind’s birthday worth celebrating?

Michael Martin letter sent to National Review:

Your article by Michael J. Petrilli, "Leaving My Lapel Pin Behind," fortunately explained some of the premises of his argument that reflect his erroneous reasoning. Writing about poor parents having the ability to send children to other schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Petrilli says "in most of our big cities, there are too few good schools to go around. Uncle Sam can't snap his fingers and make it otherwise." This is patently false.

As I have detailed in an online report titled A Strange Ignorance, there is scientific medical evidence that the symptoms of so-called "failing schools" (which are almost always "in our big cities") reflect the widespread prevalence of lead poisoning among children living in inner-city neighborhoods. The first evidence that revealed lead poisoning caused permanent cognitive damage occurred in 1943 when two researchers doing a followup study on 20 lead poisoned children found that (as Time magazine reported at the time) "All but one child, Dr. Lord discovered, were school failures. Only five had normal I.Q.s, and four of the five were so erratic that they could not learn easily. Most of the other children were so stupid (I.Q. 69 to 96) and ill-behaved that they had to repeat classes, attend special classes or even give up school entirely." (See at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,932645,00.html.

There has been ever increasing research detailing this medical condition over the years, including evidence that over half to two-thirds of inner-city children may be poisoned. Recent studies have shown that over half of inner-city children are BORN poisoned from lead mobilized from their mother's bones during pregnancy. The documented symptoms of lead poisoning include learning disabilities, misbehavior, aggression, and a loss of nearly 8 IQ points even in low-level poisonings that the federal government does not count. And the federal government has refused to count them even though medical experts have petitioned them to do so.

A National Academy of Sciences report on why Black children are over-represented in Special Education and under-represented in Gifted Programs cited lead poisoning, and even suggested that Black children were being under-referred to Special Education considering their problems. In one longitudinal study "The researchers found that the best predictor (when the children are 7 years old) for aggressive behavior in school, juvenile delinquency, and eventual criminal violence is the degree of lead poisoning." The federal government's National Institute on Drug Abuse has noted that a large number of those who abuse drugs are merely attempting to self-medicate lead poisoning linked ADHD symptoms. This is the clientele of inner-city schools.

When you have a school population that has been endemically poisoned with a brain damaging chemical that creates the very symptoms that characterize so-called "failing schools" it is patently false to claim "Uncle Sam can't snap his fingers and make it otherwise." A federal program to eliminate the presence of lead poisoning could, in short order, reduce the levels of lead poisoned children in "our big cities" to those experienced by the "White flight" who moved to the suburbs. Petrelli is essentially blaming educators for their inability to overcome the well-documented brain damage that occurs due to the indifference of society to the endemic lead poisoning of inner-city children. But Uncle Sam could "snap his fingers and make it otherwise."

When you have teachable students in city schools, they will be taught. But Petrilli ignores that Dr. John Rosen, one of the foremost experts in lead poisoning at the Montefiore Medical Center of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York stated about low-level lead poisoning: "if the poisoning isn't caught early the effects include extreme loss of intelligence and problems with language development and abstract thinking. ... It doesn't actually kill children, it only kills their brains." And ignoring that, as Petrelli does, is far worse than just "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Michael T. Martin
Research Analyst
Arizona School Boards Association
2100 N. Central Ave, Suite 200
Phoenix, Az 85004

By Michael J. Petrilli

For five years now, I’ve considered myself a supporter of the No Child Left Behind Act. And not just the casual flag-waver variety. Much of that time I spent inside the Bush administration, trying to make the law work, explaining its vision to hundreds of audiences, even wearing an NCLB pin on my lapel. I was a True Believer.

In a way, I still am. After all, in the 21st century, saying you “support” NCLB is shorthand for affirming a set of ideas, values, and hopes for the country as much as an expression about a particular statute. I’m not just referring to the proposition that “no child should be left behind” — the notion that we have a moral responsibility to provide a decent education for everyone. Ninety-nine percent of the education establishment can get behind that “purpose” of the law and still resist meaningful reform.

I mean a set of powerful — and controversial — ideas that provide the subtext for all the big NCLB battles. First, that virtually all children (even those living in poverty) have the capacity to achieve a reasonable level of proficiency in reading and math by the time they turn 18 — and that it’s the education system’s job to make sure they do. Second, that everyone benefits from having someone looking over his shoulder and that schools and school systems need external pressure — i.e., accountability — in order to improve; good intentions aren’t enough. Third, that good education is synonymous with good teaching. This requires good teachers, which every child deserves, but which today’s education bureaucracies, licensure rules, ed schools, and union contracts too often impede. Fourth, that giving parents choices within the education system has all kinds of positive benefits, from creating healthy competitive pressures to allowing educators to customize their programs instead of trying to be all things to all people. And fifth, that improving education is a national imperative, and that the federal government can and should play a constructive role.

In other words, at the level of ideas, NCLB is the embodiment of the 1990s era education reform playbook. Educators, policymakers, think tankers, and activists who “support” NCLB are saying “I’m part of the education reform team.”

But does that mean that they necessarily agree with the machinery of the law itself? Speaking personally, I’ve gradually and reluctantly come to the conclusion that NCLB as enacted is fundamentally flawed and probably beyond repair.

Of course, I harbored doubts about certain specifics from the beginning. You didn’t have to be a genius to see the “highly qualified teachers” mandate as a huge overreach and a probable failure, as it took a reasonable notion (teachers should know their stuff) and tried to enforce it through a rigid rule-based mechanism (second guessing principals who, for instance, hired engineers as math teachers). Nor was it hard to determine that asking all states to reach universal “proficiency” by 2014 but allowing them to define “proficiency” as they saw fit would create a race to the bottom.

Other flaws took me longer to appreciate. For example:

Surely schools would respond thoughtfully to the law’s incentives to boost achievement in reading and math, and would understand that providing a broad, content-rich education would give them the best shot at boosting test scores, right? Yet the anecdotes (and increasingly, evidence) keep rolling in of schools turning into test-prep factories and narrowing the curriculum. (See here, for example. [pdf file])

Surely if those of us at the Department of Education pushed hard enough we could get districts to inform parents of their school-choice options under the law, and ensure that kids trapped in failing schools have better places to go, right? Yet (as I conclude in this paper presented in December at the American Enterprise Institute), hard experience has shown that “stronger implementation” would only make a difference at the margin. It cannot solve the fundamental problem: in most of our big cities, there are too few good schools to go around. Uncle Sam can’t snap his fingers and make it otherwise. Furthermore, while it’s hard enough to force recalcitrant states and districts to do things they don’t want to do, it’s impossible to force them to do those things well. And when it comes to informing parents, creating new schools, or implementing almost any of NCLB’s many pieces, it’s not enough for states or districts to go through the motions. They have to want to make it succeed. If they don’t, Washington is out of luck. It has no tools or levers to alter the situation. That’s why I’ve called much of the law “un-implementable.”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the AFT’s Michele McLauglin wrote in her NCLB blog about the AEI conference, “Petrilli and Checker Finn…seem to be arguing for a more limited role for the feds in education because the U.S. Department of Education doesn't have the ability to get states and districts to implement the law well. Unless I am missing something, this seems to be a shift in position for the Fordham Foundation, which has been a major supporter of NCLB.”

Guilty as charged. I can’t pretend any longer that the law is “working,” or that a tweak and a tuck would make it “work.” Yet I still like its zeitgeist. As Kati Haycock argued at the AEI confab, NCLB has “changed the conversation” in education. Results are now the coin of the realm; the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is taboo; closing the achievement gap is at the top of everyone’s to-do list. All for the good. More than good. But let’s face it: it doesn’t help the dedicated principal who is pulling her hair out because of the law’s nonsensical provisions — the specifics that keep NCLB from achieving its own aims.

Here’s the crux of the matter: when it’s time for reauthorization, can we overhaul the law itself without letting go of its powerful ideas? Two other outcomes are more likely. One is the tweak regimen: the law gets renewed but remains mostly unchanged, and we continue to muddle through, driving even well-intentioned educators crazy and not achieving the results we seek. (This is the prediction of most “education insiders.” It amounts to ostrich-like stubbornness in the face of evidence that an overhaul is what’s needed. The second is bathtub emptying: Throw the baby out along with the murky water and give up on the law and its ideals. Then we go back to the days when schools felt little pressure to get all of their students prepared for college and life and democratic participation, and we declare No Child Left Behind another failed experiment.

That would be a disaster.

What, then, to do? In my opinion, the way forward starts with a more realistic assessment of what the federal government can reasonably hope to achieve in education. Using sticks and carrots to tug and prod states and districts in desired directions has proven unworkable. It was worth trying but experience has taught us that this approach suffers from too much hubris and humility at the same time. Instead of this muddle, the feds should adopt a simple, radical principle: Do it yourself, or don’t do it at all.

In the “Do it Yourself” category would be two major responsibilities: distributing funds to the neediest students, and collecting and publishing transparent information about the performance of U.S. schools. Redistributing funds is easy; it’s what Washington does best. Still, it could do it even better by adopting weighted-student funding, ensuring that dollars follow children to their school of choice, with extra cash following students with the greatest needs. Furthermore, it could do more to ensure that high poverty schools receive equitable resources before the federal dollars arrive. (December’s Funding Gaps report from Ed Trust demonstrates the screwiness of today’s federal-funding formulas.)

As for its second responsibility, an important bullet waits to be bitten: collect and publish swift, reliable, and comparable data on the performance of the nation’s schools via clear national standards, a rigorous national test, and a common approach to school ratings (e.g. a single definition of “adequate yearly progress”). Then everyone would have a consistent and fair way to distinguish good schools from bad. We would have consistently high expectations for all students and all schools, and would end the federal/state cat-and-mouse games being played over accountability. The federal government should also make school-level financial information transparent (a necessity to achieve the funding reforms mentioned above) and continue to pay for high-quality research and make its results transparent and accessible to all.

Into the “Don’t Do it At All” bucket goes everything else. No more federal mandates on teacher quality. No more prescriptive “cascade of sanctions” for failing schools. No more federal guarantee of school choice for children not being well-served. The states would worry about how to define and achieve greater teacher quality (or, better, teacher effectiveness). The states would decide when and how to intervene in failing schools. The states would develop new capacity for school choice. These are all important, powerful reforms, but they have proven beyond Uncle Sam’s capacity to make happen. These policy battles should return to the state level, where governments can actually do something about them and do them right. And if the federal government just can’t help itself and wants to “promote” these causes, let it offer competitive grants for states and districts that want to move in these directions.

The Do It Yourself or Don’t Do It At All Act doesn’t have the same ring as leaving no child behind. But its zeitgeist is the same. It would also be a better fit for our federalist system and a more effective vehicle for the reform ideas that we NCLB supporters hold so dear. In this new year, let us resolve to be humble enough to admit the law’s limitations and brave enough to stand up for its ideals.

— Michael J. Petrilli is a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

— Michael J. Petrilli
National Review Online


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