Researcher Blasts No Child Left Behind and Vouchers
Educational writer and public schools advocate Gerald Bracey is well-known in some circles as an outspoken critic of charter schools, vouchers and President Bush's sweeping educational reform bill, the No Child Left Behind Act.
An author of numerous books on education, Bracey has held positions at Educational Testing Service, Indiana University, the Virginia Department of Education and Cherry Creek (Colo.) Schools.
The 63-year-old Arlington, Va., resident was here last week for a presentation to the Seattle School Board and offered his thoughts on a few timely issues.
On No Child Left Behind, which requires schools and districts to make "adequate yearly progress" in raising student achievement or face sanctions:
"When it first came out, what struck me so much about it is it was totally unlike anything else coming out of the Bush agenda. This is probably the most anti-regulatory administration since before the Great Depression.
"Everything (Bush has) done except for No Child Left Behind is very obviously aimed at helping corporate America and rolling back regulations. With No Child Left Behind, here comes this 1,100-page law with very strict requirements and hundreds of pages of regulations. I looked for an ulterior motive, and it wasn't very hard to find one.
"In the 2000 election, there were voucher referenda in both Michigan and California, and they both went down in flames, 70/30 in both states, even though the proponents of the vouchers outspent the opponents two to one.
"The original (No Child Left Behind) bill sent to Congress contained voucher provisions. Congress struck those, looking at the results from the 2000 elections. Bush has since brought them back; after five defeats, he finally got a voucher bill through Congress as part of the spending bill to provide $15 million a year for Washington, D.C., kids for vouchers.
"After the 2000 election, there really was an atmosphere that the day of vouchers is pretty much over. But when you bring in this concept of adequate yearly progress and have to have 100 percent of the kids proficient (in state-set academic standards) by 2014, and you have to do this not just with the school as a whole but for all these subgroups, the ethnic groups, the economic groups, the English language learners and the special-ed kids. They all have to be 100 percent proficient.
"This is a way of making people assume that good schools fail, and that's happening all over the country. It's going to get worse.
"To me, that would open the floodgates again for vouchers. Obviously the schools have failed -- vouchers are the answer."
On high-stakes testing:
"I think high-stakes (tests) generally are a bad idea. As soon as you make test scores important, then you introduce all kinds of corrupting influences.
"People start teaching to the test and gaming the system. You retain kids in the grade before they're tested so they'll do better the next year, but you greatly increase the probability that they'll drop out, too. That's become much more common.
"You can see it especially when kids are tested in 10th grade -- a lot of school districts have these huge bubbles of ninth-graders. People consider that a transition year and if you're not ready they'll hold you back. First grade and ninth grade are the big hold-back years.
"High-stakes tests create a great deal of anxiety, and they diminish the idea of learning for learning's sake, which I think is still a viable idea. I don't hear anyone talking these days, by the way, about lifelong learning. It seems to have dropped off.
"I can't imagine that anybody in kindergarten today would, 30 years later, write a book called 'Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.' Today, it would be 'Everything I Needed to Know About Sound-Symbol Correspondence and How To Be a Burned-out Learner by Fourth Grade I Learned in Kindergarten.'
"Because kindergarten is not a fun experience anymore in lots of places. The superintendent in one Maryland district recently eliminated nap time, saying, 'We can't have this kids' stuff anymore.' "
On charter schools and their future in Washington, where legislation allowing for charter schools was passed during the last session:
"When charter schools came along, I was ambivalent. I didn't start reaching firm -- mostly negative -- conclusions until the Florida State University Charter School Accountability Center commissioned this paper on charter school accountability and I started looking at the evaluations.
"The data that emerged, and it was a huge amount of data that came out in 2003, was overwhelmingly negative. There was a large study from RAND (Corp.) about California charters, and at one point it said California charter school students are keeping pace with demographically similar students in (traditional) public schools.
"I looked at the 2003 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) data, and in fourth-grade reading, California was 49th of 50 states. And in eighth grade, they tied Hawaii for last place.
"So to say that charter school kids are keeping pace in California means they're keeping pace with the lowest-scoring kids in the country. I mean, those kids are not doing as well as kids in Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana, and the traditional bottom feeders.
"The original promise, the one thing that all the charter school advocates said in the beginning was there's a trade-off -- you give us autonomy, we'll give you improved achievement. And in fact it has not worked out that way at all.
"What I would watch for here is since you don't have a history of charter schools, who's going to be interested in starting charter schools? My guess is in Washington it's not going to be parents or groups who have some vision of what education ought to look like. It's probably going to be attractive to the profit-making educational management organizations.
"The schools will be public, but they get some percentage of per- pupil expenditures for running the schools. They'll be run for profit and what that does, unless they're home-grown here in Washington, is remove decision-making to some remote place."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES