Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

NCLB Outrages

What is behind No Child Left Behind? Checkers and me

Ohanian Comment: I question the label "ultraconservative." Ultra-conservatives do not support the Finn view, which is the corporate view. And as for "true believers," could anybody be more faithful to the reauthorization than George Miller and Ted Kennedy? How long will people continue to let Democrats off the hook?

Who is going to make NCLB implode Roundtable is doing its best, but we are not exactly overwhelmed by donations or signatures on The Petition.

By Todd Alan Price

As 2006 came to a close, two significant conferences convened in Washington, D.C., whose mission was to decide what to do with the floundering No Child Left Behind law.

Convocations of some of the law’s most prominent supporters were convened to try to salvage something, anything, from what’s increasingly being seen as a failed law.

First it was the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on November 30, hosting “Fixing Failing Schools: Is the NCLB Toolkit Working?” with such luminaries as Diane Ravitch of the Brookings Institution and Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Then it was the Thomas B. Fordham Institute itself hosting “Moving Beyond the Basics: Why Reading, Math, and Science Are Not Sufficient for a 21st Century Education” on December 12, again with Ravitch and other ultraconservative notables.

I recorded the proceedings on video along with Karen Rybold Chin, my business partner in the Wisconsin-based company On The Earth Productions. It was part of what has evolved into a de facto life’s project for me as a teacher in a university department of education who has had a second career as an independent videographer recording for television the unraveling of America’s system of public schools.

Along the way I have strung together a video chronicle that started with the coming of private school vouchers in my home state of Wisconsin in 1989 and has extended, since the early 1990s, to Ohio, the state that has been the main battleground for the struggle between public education and its enemies in the movement of radical free market conservatives seeking to have schools taken over by private corporations and turned into for-profit enterprises.

My motive in recording the Fordham conference was to capture for history the exact words that the spokespeople for the pro-privatization movement had to say now that the bloom is off the rose and the so-called No Child Left Behind law has been drilled with so much criticism that it might well implode over the next year. How exactly would they respond, and what prescriptions for fixing the law would they be trying to launch in an effort to preempt demands for voiding it altogether when it comes up for reauthorization on its fifth anniversary in 2007?

Having already set a goal for next year of video documentation of these proceedings before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Karen and I traveled to the two December forums in Washington to see where the main original movers of the law and leading advocacy voices for it stand now that the Republican legislators who enacted it have lost control of Congress.

Beyond all of the rhetoric, what rationalizations would be offered by these No Child Left Behind true believers for the glaring flaws in the law that have come to light since its enactment in 2002, and what would their take be on whether or not, based on measurable results, the law is working?

The verdict that came in was remarkably similar to the one being echoed by the administration of President George W. Bush and Congress on the war in Iraq: No one believes we are winning in Iraq or in the reform of public education. However, regardless of if NCLB is or is not working, we’ll fix it and stay the course.

A notable presence at both Washington conferences was Chester “Checkers” Finn, former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan Administration and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. Finn wears on his sleeve an ideological devotion to fundamentalist capitalism and accordingly sees the free market as the Invisible Hand that will bestow salvation and academic success upon all students, or more precisely those whose schools, teachers, and parents learn how dexterously to make the right choices in a choice-based educational system.

Where, as in business, there is a material (and, yes, financial) incentive to improve, only then will schools improve. Finn is the walking epitome of the idea, inherent in the No Child Left Behind law, that schools can be forced to improve by instilling fear in teachers that failure to raise student performance levels to 100 per cent passing levels in three years’ time will result in schools being cold-bloodedly shut down and/or taken over by private companies.

Instead of arriving victoriously at these conventions astride a winged horse of success at the end of No Child Left Behind’s first five years, however, Finn was discovered by our camera with all the prideful demeanor of a man whose toupee had blown off in the wind.

Yielding a body blow to the Panglossian belief that forcing teachers to teach better by scaring them with the prospect that their schools could be shut down will lead to a universal climbing by students of the ladder of success, test scores reveal students who are massively losing ground, with teaching and subject matter becoming narrower, and with all the resulting outrage and malaise one would expect. With teachers leaving the profession and parents suffering clinical stress along with their children over NCLB’s requirement of an explosion in make-or-break testing, it seems that no one is happy. That this dose of reality has been a traumatic letdown to the free-marketeering think tankers who have been the faithful constituency for No Child Left Behind was obvious on the faces of the two conference panels’ participants.

Finn, following in the footsteps of Melville’s Ahab on his sinking ship, railed at the gloomy response of the panelists at AEI, who, one by one, begrudgingly bemoaned the failures of the law, even going so far as to suggest that the panelists might need to take drugs for depression!

At the next conference, sponsored by Fordham, Finn again strove to reignite an upbeat attitude. We interviewed him on camera at the second conference and he answered my questions about the law as follows:

What are the concerns about curriculum and No Child Left behind?

Finn said, “Well, today is indisputably focused on what we call the liberal arts in K-12 education and whether they are being squeezed out by the emphases on reading skills and math skills . . . and most of the people in the room I would say are worried that literature, history, the arts and other important subjects are in fact being marginalized.”

Mr. Finn argued alternately that the law’s fixation on test prep isn’t such a great thing because the incentive is to teach-to-the-test, and that, yes, the liberal arts are being squeezed out! Finn and others were concerned that all the drill and kill test preparation in math and reading is pushing out Shakespeare.

“Every good idea gets carried to extremes and then there is a correction of course needed,” Finn said. “The basics are absolutely essential, and the kids need to be able to read and do arithmetic in order to get anywhere else in any other subjects. That does not mean, however, that they don’t also need history, literature, the arts and a few other things. This is not a conference about home economics, shop and driver’s ed, however. This is a conference about whether the classic core content curriculum needs to be taught to all kids or whether as a country going forward we are content with a skill set of reading and math. The sense that kids might learn to read…but never read a book.”

Well, it’s reassuring to know that even Finn and his fellow-free market ideologues are finally realizing what 70 percent of the American public that knows anything about the law is saying: (according to the 38th PDK Gallup Poll) NCLB is “ineffective and destructive” to the public education system. It’s just plainly bad for teaching and learning. So why do these stalwart No Child Left Behind-ites want to stay the course? Worse still, why do Democrats like the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and NCLB co-sponsor George Miller want to stay the course?

“No Child Left Behind is trying to increase the pressure on all sorts of public schools to make sure that their kids, especially their poor and minority kids, learn reading and math. That is an absolutely laudable objective that I completely share,” Finn said. “It’s not trying to destroy public education it’s trying to make it more effective. However, it is making it effective across a narrower swath of the curriculum than might be optimal.”

It seemed curious to hear a detractor of public education like Finn defend so strongly “all sorts of public schools” and hear him say that NCLB is not intended to destroy public education. I had never suggested as much in my question to him, but here he was trying to defend himself against a charge of public education bashing that he knows has been synonymous with his name. But what does he mean by “all sorts of public schools?” I asked if he was talking about charter schools, voucher schools and virtual schools.

Finn said, “If we do it right we both tighten pressure for better results and loosen the rules about how those results are achieved. The classic charter school bargain is greater accountability for results in return for greater freedom to operate your school as you see fit, which includes curriculum, textbooks, instruction, and all of those other things. So I think it’s the perfect combination.”

But those would be public charters right? I asked Finn. Not for-profit charters.

“There’s no meaningful distinction here,” Finn said. “All charter schools by definition are public schools some of them are operated by for-profit firms.”

So, in the mind of Finn, “all sort of public schools” includes “for-profit firms.”

He is not alone. In a recent Ohio Supreme Court decision on a lawsuit filed in 2005 by the anti-charter group Coalition for Public Education, schools operated by the for-profit company White Hat Management, Inc. can effectively call themselves “public” and be classified as public schools even though they are not governed by an elected school board and no one elected their boards of shareholders.

January 16, 2007

Todd Price is a professor of education at National-Louis University in Chicago and a partner in On the Earth Productions.

— Todd Alan Price


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.