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NCLB Outrages

The No Child Left Behind Act and the Assault on Progressive Education and Local Control

As a progressive educator I hold two sets of values and beliefs. The first set is pedagogical and curricular --ways of viewing human development, childhood, adolescence, the nature of learning, knowledge, and knowing. Progressive practices aim to engage the learner, nurture imagination, cognitive and artistic expression, and foster social-emotional and moral development. The words most often associated with such practices are whole child and student centered. While these terms oversimplify, they encapsulate core values of the progressive pedagogical tradition. The second set is political and addresses the question of control --how power is distributed throughout the society including schools, and the role of government at all levels. At the core of political progressivism is a commitment to, or more aptly, an aspiration for democracy --that there should not be a hierarchy of privilege based on wealth, status, race, gender, and that everyone should be able to exercise their basic human rights including the right to participate fully in making decisions that affect our lives and the life of our communities. This includes control over the institutions that educate the young. I believe democracy requires economic and social equality, the redistribution down of money, power, cultural capital, pleasure and freedom. In the next several pages I address how these two pillars of progressive education, the pedagogical and political, have fared over the years from the mid sixties and early seventies through today, the era of 'compassionate conservatism' and the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Rise and Fall of the 'Great Society'
In accepting the nomination for president in 1960 John F. Kennedy spoke of a ‘New Frontier’, a "frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams," and as President he would address the "…unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty." However, at the time of his assassination in 1963, most New Frontier proposals were marooned in a Congress dominated by an alliance of pro-corporate Republicans and racist, Southern Democrats adamantly opposed to the implementation of the 1954 Brown v Board of Education desegregation decision. When Lyndon Johnson assumed office he embraced the idealism of the 'New Frontier' and in a commencement address at University of Michigan in May 1964, spoke eloquently about what he called the "Great Society". It is a remarkably humane and inclusive vision of American democracy, and of a government dedicated to protecting civil rights and liberties and serving social justice

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

In the next two years, Johnson, former Texas Senator, Democratic majority leader, and consummate dealmaker, navigated through a recalcitrant Congress an impressive array of progressive laws and programs unrivaled since the early New Deal. These include the 1965 Civil Rights Act outlawing racial discrimination in public accommodations and voter registration; the Economic Opportunity Act that established the OEO, the Office of Economic Opportunity along with Job Corps, remedial and vocational education programs, work-study grants for students, VISTA, a domestic peace corps; a revision of the Immigration and Nationality Act which repealed the notorious system of racist national quotas imposed in the 1920s; the Voting Rights Act that put teeth into the enforcement of the 24th amendment to the Constitution ratified a year earlier; Medicare and Medicaid; The Federal Housing Act; the Clean Air and Water Act. The list goes on.

In 1965 Johnson's two landmark educational initiatives were unveiled: Head Start and the Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA). Head Start was conceived in 1964 as a pre kindergarten, daycare program by a panel convened by OEO composed of fourteen nationally prominent experts on children's health, social and cognitive development, and childhood education. The goal of Head Start was to "break the cycle of poverty" by providing poor children and their families a comprehensive program addressing a wide range of needs --physical and emotional health, socialization, nutrition, and education. It began as an eight-week summer program in 1965 with a few thousand children and by 2004 has grown to a seven billion dollar annual program serving just over nine hundred thousand poor children in eighteen thousand centers located in every state, DC, Puerto Rico, and US territories.

From the perspective of policy and politics what was striking about Head Start is how it was organized and controlled at the national and local levels. The locus of control for program design, governance, and personnel rested with the local staff and policy councils or advisories composed of parents, staff, and members of the immediate community. There was federal oversight, but little interference in personnel policy and day-to-day operations. In an effort to insure that Head Start retained its comprehensive, holistic, balanced emphasis and not stress the academic over health and other developmental areas, the federal Head Start bureau was deliberately located outside the Office of Education (predecessor of the US Department of Education), and local programs were independent of state and local school authority.

ESEA was devised to provide aid directly to local districts and schools that served children of the ‘disadvantaged'. Its purview expanded over the years and it now authorizes funds for Indian education, teacher training, early literacy, school libraries, bilingual education, technology, and school safety. In 2004 Title I, its largest set of programs, authorized $11.7 billion of aid to 47,000, nearly half of the nation’s public schools. While federal dollars account for only seven percent of the nation’s expenditures for schools, these dollars are critical to districts and schools that serve disproportionately large populations of the poor, African-Americans, Latinos, and immigrants for whom English is a second language.

At the time ESEA passed it was widely presumed that a basic value of US democracy was that schooling of the young was a local community responsibility. While the states set guidelines, and provided funds and oversight, specific pedagogical and curricular decisions were mostly left to teachers, principals, districts, and locally elected governing boards. There were exceptions notably the textbook adoption states --California, Texas and several states in the Deep South. But even these states lacked the legal mandate and/ or the bureaucratic apparatus to force compliance to specific curricular and pedagogical mandates. In order to guard against intrusions by federal officials Congress added explicit language to ESEA prohibiting any "federal agency or official from exercising direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel in any educational institution or school system." Most ESEA funds went directly to the local authorities thereby bypassing the authority of the states' education officials and departments of education.

In 1967, the final piece of the Great Society educational agenda was set in place. Called 'Follow Through', it was intended to capitalize on progress made by Head Start by providing educational services to children from kindergarten through third grade. However, by 1967, talk of the Great Society and War on Poverty had all but disappeared from mainstream politics. 1965 was the zenith of Great Society legislative accomplishment, but it was also a year of other fateful events that led to the unraveling of the Johnson presidency. Thousands of "advisors" and massive U.S. bombings had failed to secure US victory in Vietnam and Johnson dispatched the first contingent of combat troops, 3,500 Marines, to Vietnam in early March. By year's end there were I84, 000 troops and the numbers were rising. As the numbers swelled so too did anti-war protests on college campuses across the country. The resistance was widespread and led by a new generation of radical (largely white male) college students, known as the 'New Left'.

1965 was also a year of domestic violence and racial ferment. There were civil rights demonstrations and marches throughout the South led by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Coincidentally, the first contingent of Marines, arrived in Vietnam on the Monday following 'Bloody Sunday', a day when peaceful marchers in Selma were gassed and brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers in plain sight of cameras and the national press. 1965 was also a year when several thousand young men and women descended upon the South to test the Johnson Administration's resolve to make good on its vow to defend civil rights. 1965 was the same year that Malcolm X was assassinated while preaching a message of Black unity and resistance (as opposed to non-violence), and that Watts, a neighborhood of the desperately poor in LA, mostly African American and Latino, erupted into six days of uncontrolled violence that killed 34, wounded 1000, burned and leveled hundreds of buildings, and led to the arrest and jailing of over 4000. From 1965 through 1967, the first year of Project Follow Through, there was violence in 100 cities across the U.S. 1967 was also the year that that Martin Luther King delivered his historic sermon "A Time To Break Silence" at Riverside Church in New York City that forged a link between the anti-war and civil rights movements.

In the competition for guns or butter, the guns won again. As the costs of the war soared, Great Society programs were funded at a fraction of projected costs. Project Follow Through was originally intended to aid all public elementary schools serving the poor at a cost estimated at just over a billion dollars annually, It was funded in the tens of millions less than 10% of the original estimate. In March 1968, the "Tet" offensive, the simultaneous attack on US held cities and military installations across South Vietnam, punctured the myth that a US victory was at hand. Johnson's popularity plummeted to a new low, nearing 30%. With the national election on the horizon, a disheartened, unpopular Johnson shocked the nation by his announcement he would not seek another term. Later that same year, the two icons of the growing antiwar and civil rights movements, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F Kennedy were murdered, and in November Richard Nixon was elected president on a platform of restoring fiscal responsibility and pursuing 'peace with honor'.

It is important to note how Project Follow managed to survive until 1994. It was rationalized as an "experiment" to test and establish once and for all, which of the approaches taken by the two dozen or so project sponsors was most effective. This use of standardized tests sparked strong community opposition. It is ironic that this tactical move aimed at saving Follow Through by converting it to an experiment not only contributed to the programs demise, it set a precedent for the use by the federal government of standardized testing as the primary measure of educational success.

The right wing counter-revolution
The decade of the sixties and escalation of the Vietnam War were accompanied by massive political, social and cultural transformations. Social conventions and authority –family, corporate, government, and university-- were everywhere under siege or so it appeared to those with power. This tumultuous decade gave birth to a new assertive Black identity movement that demanded not only civil and voting rights but political and economic power; a progressive anti war movement able to drive a president from office; a reinvigorated women's movement, and consumer and environmental protection movements foreshadowing others --La Raza, Native American, Asian-American, gay rights among others. The fears that the 1960s movements provoked in the halls of government, big business and culturally right wing sectors of American Society are difficult to exaggerate. As the I970s began the major US corporations were experiencing what the business pages call a 'profit squeeze'. The World War II enemies of the US, Germany and Japan, were seriously challenging the economic dominance of the US. All moves toward liberal, social democracy that would restrict corporate power were portrayed by its leaders as serious threats to corporate profitability, economic recovery and growth. To Christian fundamentalists the cultural transformations of sixties were nothing less than a frontal assault by the godless on their cherished values and beliefs about family, sexuality, and country.

Nixon's election confirmed the beginnings of a successful counter-revolution orchestrated by an (uneasy) alliance between US financial corporate interests and the far right to undo social, political and legal gains of the Great Society and the New Deal, and advance the right wing cultural agenda. Now, thirty years later, this coalition of shared interests is in full command of the leadership of the Republican Party, the Congress and the Supreme Court. They installed a president who calls himself a compassionate conservative, and decries big government while unabashedly using the power of government to promote corporate interests, increase the wealth of the wealthiest, undermine civil and women's rights, and suppress dissent. A major sector for the consolidation of state power and extending corporate influence is education, pre-school through the university.

While ESEA and Head Start survived, there were changes over the years that eroded by increments the historic commitment to democratic community control of schools. . Bush the elder called the first "educational summit" in 1989. It was dominated by Fortune 500 corporate executives, governors, and federal officials who concluded national standardized testing is essential for federal and state officials to exercise control of curriculum, teaching and learning, and teacher qualifications. Their proposal for national testing failed to make it though the Congress. Bush's successor, Bill Clinton, the 'New Democrat' and champion of national testing, managed to get his "Goals 2000" Act through Congress. Among other things this legislation authorized grants to states to develop assessments that linked so-called content standards to standardized testing. But Clinton's proposal for national testing died in Congress because of the opposition of the Black Caucus and Christian fundamentalists led by then Senator John Ashcroft.

Where Clinton and Bush I failed, Bush II was successful. He attached his proposal for national testing to the 2001 revision of ESEA, and re-christened it the No Child Left Behind Act. (NCLB) The law cedes unprecedented powers to federal officials. As a condition of receiving federal dollars states must now adopt content standards linked to standardized testing; and schools must measure and make "Annual Yearly Progress" --as determined by federal regulations. All curriculum materials and services for teaching reading (and soon math) must be approved in advance as "scientifically based"; and all school staff must be "highly qualified" as defined by federal regulations that nullify local prerogatives and state law. To attract the votes of conservative Republicans in Congress who are ideologically opposed to federal intervention and national testing, Bush tacked on two provisions. One requires all pubic schools receiving federal dollars to provide student lists to military recruiters. The second mandates that no school or district can deny the Boy Scouts, or any other group listed as a "patriotic society" under the U.S. Code, access to school facilities for after school meetings even if this violates state and local anti-discrimination statutes.

The Future of a Progressive Education Movement
Tactical moves by the corporate right coalition were instrumental in undermining much of the Great Society and in turning on its head the nation's historic commitment to local control. They framed the issues of school reform in terms of raising standards and measuring results and promoted the fiction that gains in standardized test scores and the improvement of academic standards are one and the same. Billions of corporate dollars over the last 15 years have created a new generation of think tanks, foundations and non-profits whose sole function is to provide experts and produce reports and studies to buttress right wing, pro- corporate policies and counter evidence that these policies restrict educational opportunities and widen the class and race gap. Another tack of this coalition was to increase government control of the curriculum by a provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that requires all teaching materials and services be "scientifically based". The effect of this regulation is to censor curriculum materials and approaches that don't fit the government's pro corporate, right wing education agenda. Among the greatest achievements of the right is its success in creating a mythic story of the sixties through the nineties --the Great Society programs were failures; the social movements of the times are "special interests", enemies of progress, and the common good; a liberal intellectual elite is to blame for moral decay and fostering cultural and class warfare; and the true keepers of the democratic tradition are Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and right wing Republicans. .

In my view, if a new unified progressive education movement is to emerge as a political force in US politics, it must capture the initiative reasserting for the 21st century the fundamental political and pedagogical values of progressive education. We must acknowledge the need for public accountability and at the same time directly challenge all forms of national and statewide standardized testing used singly or in conjunction with other measures to rank schools, define achievement or merit, or distribute rewards and sanctions to schools and teachers. Substituting the current crop of standardized tests with a new breed of "authentic" standardized tests is not an advance since they do not challenge the centralization of government power. Standardized testing is the key issue because standardized testing is the essential tool for centralizing control. Without standardized tests, top-down, bureaucratic government control of teaching and learning cannot function.

It is vital that progressive educators reclaim and critically examine the history of progressivism and progressive education in the US, not only to dispel the rampant right wing mythology, but also to become informed of progressive education's many accomplishments, its failures, and its numerous manifestations over time. Many progressive educators have attempted to depoliticize progressive education, viewing it narrowly as a children's rights and pedagogical movement to the exclusion of a wider vision of social, economic, and political justice. If a new reinvigorated progressive education movement is to take shape, it must view itself as a political movement, as an integral part of a broader struggle for human rights, social, racial and economic justice. And, as with progressives generally, progressive educators must confront the cultural parochialism, class bias and racism within our own practices and organizations. These are rooted in history and remain as formidable barriers to collective action and achieving democracy and equality.
Harold Berlak has written extensively on curriculum, educational assessment and educational policy. He holds a doctorate in educational research from Harvard University and is a former professor of education at Washington University in St. Louis. Currently he is an independent researcher and consultant, a fellow at the Educational Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University and senior research fellow at the Applied Research Center, Oakland California. hberlak@sbcglocal.net

Note: A version of this essay will appear in Holding Values, Brenda Engel (ed.) Heinemann 2005 (forthcoming).

— Harold Berlak
Rouge Forum


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