Even Paige Fans See that NCLB Won't Work
Rod Paige has decent values and noble goals. But he might be setting up himself, and his boss, for failure.
Paige, the U.S. education secretary, was in California recently trying to build support for President Bush's public school reforms.
His passion is palpable. Seeking to transform a political slogan -- "No Child Left Behind" -- into national policy, Paige is an evangelist for the idea that every child can learn, and must learn, no matter what his or her background or condition in life.
"Low expectations can take many forms," Paige told the Commonwealth Club of California. "It may be as explicit as buying into the stereotype that some people just are not as intelligent, so why bother? It may take the shape of a misguided sense of compassion that says it's kinder not to give some children difficult material because they will get discouraged and give up. It may even come from the simple fact that the teacher -- also the victim of low expectations and poor preparation -- has no idea how to fix the problem.
"Any system and any person that gives up on any child because of what he looks like or who his parents are is no less discriminatory than a jeering mob blocking the schoolhouse door. It is every inch the bigotry that once exiled some people to the back of the bus."
In an interview, Paige, the former Houston school superintendent, said low expectations that educators have for minority or disadvantaged students can become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
"If I don't believe that all kids can learn, and I see that all kids are not learning, does that disturb me? It doesn't. Because it fits my expectations. Suppose you say all kids can learn. You look and see all kids are not learning. The next question is, why aren't these kids learning? It sends you in a different direction."
It's hard to argue with Paige's beliefs. But the very program that he and Bush have created to encourage states to set high expectations seems designed to do the opposite. It has within it incentives that might lead states, including California, to lower their sights, not raise them.
The president's program requires states to set their own standards and do their own testing. Then it tries to use the power of the federal purse to encourage them to make progress.
This is like telling a person that he must run a race -- but he gets to choose the distance and set his own goals for the time he will make. If he fails to make progress toward his goal, he will be penalized. Human nature would lead most people to set a modest target, one they know they can meet, to avoid the possibility of punishment.
The same dynamic is at the heart of No Child Left Behind. The federal program says that every student must be "proficient" in basic subjects by 2014. And each year between now and then, every school must make steady progress toward that goal, not just overall but for every significant ethnic group.
Before the feds got involved, California already had adopted its own very ambitious standards and accountability program that was laying bare the state's deficiencies.
The most recent round of tests found that, in English and language arts, roughly one-third of California students were proficient. In math, about 40 percent of the pupils in the primary grades were proficient, with those numbers dropping steadily as you move through the ranks toward junior high.
I know of no one, not even those with the highest of expectations, who believes that every California student can reach what our state has defined as proficient in 10 years. Or that our students can make the progress the feds are requiring. But under Bush's program, California can be penalized for trying, while other states that set lower standards will be portrayed, and treated, as success stories.
This will lead, inevitably, to tremendous pressure on policy-makers to simply change the definition of "proficient," to lower it to a level that most students can meet.
Paige told me he has thought about this problem, but there are limits to what he can do.
"Each state is sovereign when it comes to its education situation," he said. "We can only say to a state, 'If you want these dollars, you must set high standards. You must have clear standards. You must have a way of measuring against those standards.' But also in the law it says to me, you cannot tell them what that standard must be."
I don't see a good way out of the box into which Paige and the president have put themselves. I don't favor national standards because I think they would stifle creativity at the state and local level. But without them, the federal government cannot honestly say it is holding anyone to high expectations. It might even be doing the opposite.
It's beginning to look as if California would have been better off without this intervention.
A dilemma in Bush's education reforms
March 26, 2003
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES