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With Friends Like These Progressives, Who Needs to Worry About Conservatives?

Susan Notes:
This small piece of research about the Progressive Policy Institute was posted on this NCLB site in early May. Just coincidentally, of course, the June 21st Century Schools Project Bulletin attacked my article in Phi Delta Kappan. The point here is that digging beneath the labels of "Progressive Policy" and such is important, and anyone can do it. We need to check such outfits out--and share the result.

Here's what Rotherham and company said about my PDK article:

(12.) Paranoia Watch
We can't decide what is more inexplicable, the logic in this article or Phi Delta Kappan's decision to sever their ties to reality and publish it:

In "Capitalism, Calculus, and Conscience," Susan Ohanian repeats the common paranoid charge that efforts to increase standards are really a corporate plot to force kids to drop out and hence provide low-skilled workers for the "global economy". Never mind that here in the real world corporations are demanding skilled rather than low-wage workers (but ignore that, it's just part of the clever concealment of the true plot!) and that actual data on standards-based reform and drop-out rates is quite mixed among the states.

That's just the tip of the iceberg and we can't hope to do the article justice here, you can't caricature a caricature, so you'll have to take our word that it's worth reading. All the usual suspects --Achieve, the Business Roundtable, and so forth --are cited as card-carrying conspirators, but so is the New York Times. Who knew? The Bulletin was certainly surprised to learn that the "Gray Lady" is part of the corporate conspiracy to destroy public education and that the Times' bias actually leans Right. A clever and devious plot this is indeed!

All laughing aside, what's seriously troubling about the article is both its abject poverty in the ideas department and its absolute certainty that anyone associated with standards-based reform is not only wrong on the merits, but also actually venal and depraved. Standards-based reform and the accompanying testing, with all its warts, is Churchillian in the sense that it is the worst equity idea anyone has come up with besides all the others. What we need is a war of ideas about equity for poor and minority students, not a war of overheated but under-thought articles served up by magazines that ought to know better and an overgenerous helping of paranoia to boot.
Further Reading:

"Capitalism, Calculus and Conscience," Susan Ohanian, Phi Delta Kappan:


A policy forum was held April 9, Implementing the No Child Left Behind Act. Sponsored by The National Center on Education and the Economy (Mark S. Tucker, President), Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (Chester E. Finn, Jr., President), and 21st Century Schools Project/Progressive Policy Institute (Andrew J. Rotherham, Director), papers presented at the forum reveal the not-so-strange bedfellows backing this federal legislation.

For those not familiar with the Progressive Policy Institute, here are the progressive credentials they offer in this self-description:

a catalyst for political change. Its mission is to modernize progressive politics and government for the Information Age. Leaving behind the stale left-right debates of the industrial era, PPI is a prolific source of "Third Way" thinking that is shaping the emerging politics of the 21st century.

Excerpts from Mr. Rotherham's biography posted at PPI reveal interesting "progressive" credentials and connections. They are posted below the NCLB forum notes.

Key points from essays by forum participants, expressing their enthusiasm for No Child Left Behind, deserve scrutiny. Maybe what follows shows us that with friends like these progressives, we parents, teachers and administrators fighting for public schools should spend less time worrying about the conservative school-bashers.

In an essay titled "A 'Supply-Side' Solution," Andrew Rotherham includes these points:

  • One of the most valuable aspects of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act is its emphasis on expanding public school choice options for students in low-performing schools.

  • Now that NCLB requires public school choice options. . . the lack of high-quality public options in some areas is quickly becoming apparent.

  • The "publicness" of charter schools is measured not by ownership and governance, but by the fact that the schools serve the public's children and are publicly accountable.

  • Charters complement NCLB, and standards more generally, by providing options for students.

  • To meet the NCLB challenge, [federal funding for charters] should be at least tripled and used more strategically.

    Kati Haycock and Ross Wiener, executives at Education Trust, state that those of us who criticize NCLB don't care about kids:

  • Much of the criticism of [NCLB] is fueled by misunderstandings of what it actually requires and driven more by the interests of adults who work in the system than by concerns about what is right for kids.

  • Nothing in NCLB requires states to label any school as "failing". . . ."Needs" improvement" does not mean "failing."

  • There are no financial penalties in NCLB for schools that fail to make AYP.

  • In the end, the greatest threat to finally making much-needed progress in both raising overall achievement and closing gaps between groups is not a too-rigid law or an overreaching federal government. Rather, it is the widespread belief that low achievement is the inevitable result of societal inequality.

  • Thomas J. Kane, professor of policy studies and economics in the School of Public Policy and Social Research at UCLA, concludes "The Need for Triage," with this observation:>

  • The federal government is currently playing a game of "chicken" with state governments, with the credibility of the federal Department of Education on the line. It is probably unrealistic to expect states to convert a large share of their schools to charter schools, or turn them over to private contractors for operation, or to fire a large share of their staffs. The federal government has ample time to find a way to swerve, although it may require statutory change.

  • Sandy Kress, former president of the Dallas school board, senior education advisor to George W. Bush, and principal architect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, writes a memoradum to superintendents of struggling schools, including these points:

  • The work of running schools must be re-examined and reconfigured.

  • Are the strategies actually used in the classroom to teach the curriculum research-based?

  • Do you and your principals know exactly where the taught curriculum is aligned and not aligned with state standards?

  • Are the materials actually used in the classroom aligned closely with state standards and effective for teaching to them?

  • In an accountably run system, the vast majority of students should never fall off course.

    For complete essays, see:


    Bio notes from the Progressive Policy Institute:

    Andrew Rotherham is Director of the 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. The 21st Century Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute works to develop education policy and foster innovation to ensure that America's public schools are an engine of equal opportunity in the knowledge economy. Through research, publications and articles, a regular electronic newsletter, and work with policymakers and practitioners, the Project supports initiatives to strengthen accountability, increase equity, improve teacher quality, and expand choice and innovation within public education.

    Rotherham's 1999 paper on reforming the federal role in education, "Toward Performance-Based Federal Education Funding" became the basis of the New Democratic Three R's education reform bill on Capitol Hill. Components of this proposal -- cited by Washington Post columnist David Broder as, "the clearest evidence of change" in federal education policy -- played a prominent role in reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
    Mr. Rotherham previously served at The White House as Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. He advised President Clinton on education issues including reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, charter schools and public school choice, improving educational options for disadvantaged students, and increasing accountability in federal policy. Mr. Rotherham also managed education policy activities at the White House and led the White House Domestic Policy Council education team. He is the youngest person to serve in this position.

    Mr. Rotherham taught briefly and worked as a consultant before becoming a policy analyst for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), a professional association representing more than 14,000 public school superintendents. At AASA, Mr. Rotherham analyzed issues including school finance, the federal budget, appropriations, and school infrastructure. He also coordinated AASA's grassroots and Capitol Hill advocacy efforts in these areas.

    — 21st Century Schools Project/ Progressive Policy Institute

    June 2003


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