A Destructive Hostility
U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige made a statement to the nation's governors on Feb. 23 that the largest teachers union, the National Education Association, is a "terrorist organization." Although he immediately apologized for his "poor choice or words," it was clear that the current hostilities facing educators around the country was being turned up another notch.
Since the No Child Left Behind legislation was passed in 2002, educators have felt more and more pressure. No Child Left Behind proponents claim that more accountability is needed to prove that teachers are doing their jobs. Testing was mandated every year for children in every school around the country. It was stated that by using testing as evidence of failure, no child would be left behind because schools could be forced to change their ways and provide the education that every child deserves.
Results from these tests were to be measured against state standards, and failure to show annual improvement would result in a school designation that reflected that failure. Although the government changed its wording from "failing schools" to "schools in need of improvement," there was no secrecy about the fact that the federal point of view was that schools in general were not doing their jobs. No Child Left Behind was designed to prove that as fact.
This emphasis on the "poor" quality of schools seemed acceptable in large circles and has not been overtly challenged even today by most organizations, including the NEA. This is to my great surprise because the premise is largely founded on myth rather than fact. Test results are not an accurate reflection of school progress or improvement because of their limited scope and lack of validity. They are only as reliable as any evidence taken from a one-time measure of performance.
Education experts have long understood the importance of ongoing and regular assessment to understand progress and growth. Learning outcomes other than those that can be measured on standardized tests are a fairer reflection of improvement because they reflect the diversity of our student populations. Some schools are being given honors for their good work at state and local levels while the federal government reviews them in "need of improvement." The dichotomy should not be lost on the general public. Something is clearly amiss.
Only just now are the figures from the mandated tests being challenged in broader and broader circles as parents and educators are figuring out that the formula used by No Child Left Behind and the testing companies is flawed and misleading. When more than one-quarter of schools in any given state end up on the needs-improvement list, as they have in Utah, one has to begin to question the results.
When statistics are examined, all too often the conclusions are that insignificant variables of students are skewing the results so much that entire schools suffer from having one class that does poorly or from having too many special-needs youngsters. Some districts, like Houston, where Mr. Paige comes from, have gone so far as to tamper with school data by claiming no dropouts even as they urge or push students into leaving their high schools in order to raise grade nine scores and maintain good standing.
The NEA and others, including Sen. James Jeffords and former Gov. Howard Dean have challenged the legislation, not on the grounds that No Child Left Behind is inherently flawed, but because it is grossly underfunded.
Some critics claim that No Child Left Behind funds only about one-tenth of the actual cost to states to implement the requirements, especially for annual testing. Bill Mathis, the superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, used a much lower estimate when he found that only about one-third of the funds necessary were to be provided by the federal government. Whichever figures you use, the glaring fact is that we cannot afford to proceed under this legislation in a responsible fiscal capacity.
When the NEA decided to challenge the federal government with a lawsuit claiming that the bill was underfunded, they were jumped on by the Internal Revenue Service for supposed improper donation of campaign funds. Reg Weaver, president of the NEA, immediately denounced these claims, but the connection was not lost on those of us who saw the act as a response to what the government felt was a significant threat. In light of the newest comments by Rod Paige, it seems more than likely that we were right in our assessment of the government's covert actions.
The battle is no longer to create better schools or to ensure the success of every child. No, the battle is far more complex with the intricacies of power and money on one side fighting to control those who have dedicated themselves to children and schools. The battle is becoming more and more clear that No Child Left Behind has a lot less to do with improving the quality of education than it does in serving the hungry needs of autocrats and big business.
Companies like McGraw-Hill stand to make billions because their tests and reading programs are recommended to fill mandates by federal legislation, while school children suffer from overtesting and undue stress placed on them to learn with a regimented curriculum.
Alis Headlam of Rutland is a senior fellow with the Vermont Society for the Study of Education.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES