No Politics Left Behind

I mentioned a few days ago that I would be posting an article written by two teachers whom I know well. They defend the much-maligned the No Child Left Behind law for exposing how poorly our educational system serves poor children. It’s not a perspective on hears often from teachers, but I think they make some important points.

Here’s the article:

“Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society” (John Adams).

Given the political spectrum of these times (perhaps all times), few readers can doubt that the abuse of words by those in and out of power simply verifies Adams’ contention. Some are worse than others at this exploitation of words in the pursuit of political power. We submit that some the loftiest mismanagement of words is committed by the greatest single special interest in America today, the culture of education. Right off, it is important to separate ourselves from moral blame in this thinking. There are many, in fact thousands of educators who do not lie, cheat, or steal from the public coffers. These sincere folks are simply prisoners of a culture that allows no deviation from the constant abuse of words in order to achieve and/or continue its influence. And the education leaders who are morally suspect know who they are and do not need to be specified here. How do the writers know these thoughts? No better example can be found than in the developing history of the greatest proposal for change and reform in education since John Dewey, No Child Left Behind (2001) [NCLB].

The etiology of this massive attempt to reshape the world of learning is very curious. Rarely have two more disparate souls united in one effort than the liberal’s liberal from a northeast state, Senator Ted Kennedy (1932-2009) and the cowboy’s cowboy, George W Bush. Yet, it was their mutual agreement and support that placed NCLB among the laws of our nation and well that they did. The need was and remains obvious. Of course, both had their own special reasons for creating NCLB, and, true to politicians, had their own benefits to attend to. Yet, the extent and magnitude of NCLB goes far beyond individual political self-interest.

There are have and have not students in education in America. It is a massive system built on socio-economic class divisions and class warfare so favored and loved by a segment of our political continuum. Education is liberal philosophy in practice without the sharing of the “misery” Winston Churchill referenced. Further, at the same time, even moment, education is the most conservative bureaucracy on this nation’s most favored causes’ list of priorities.

Reader, let’s take a moment and look at this last statement. Merriam-Webster defines conservative as “tending to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions, i.e. traditional.” For all the fluff, public relations, and abuse of words, where has education changed in any major way during the 20th century? Time warp a teacher in the early 1900s into the early 2000s. They would recognize the individual classrooms as the basic instrument of grouping students. The use of the child’s birthday as the determining factor in grade placement, and well the use of symbols, letters, and numbers to reflect whether or not they were learning. Oh, and they would understand the need for individual schools with some sort of administration (political power) to insure the continuance of the entire system. Please understand these are just a few examples. To be sure, there have been changes and fads in some areas, notably the rights of children to be protected from the abuses of society such as racism and prejudice. But the basic foundation of who is in charge and why has not changed. Yes, and children who are socio-economically different appear to have done quite poorly then and now as evidenced by the famous “gap” in testing scores.

Enter No Child Left Behind pushed by the eastern liberal and the Texas conservative. NCLB simply outlined some very serious and systemic change for which it paid the full political price laid on from all segments of the education lobby. Some of the evils NCLB began with were the requirement (more on this later) that we first test all students to even find out who we were to teach better (and receive billions of dollars to do so). The requirement is that we measure both what the children know in specific areas (Math, Reading & English) and then chart their progress. The additional requirement is that we report these measurements for all to see. The obligation is that we actually take substantive steps to improve the knowledge base of those students identified as failing in our system. The measurement of graduation rates, which is the ultimate goal of learning, is the major requirement from the Federal level in return for Federal dollars.

The unions of teachers, administrative types, and school boards, and their political friends have not stopped yowling about all this and more. Of course they did. NCLB revealed some very embarrassing facts that the education lobby cannot explain away with false words. American education is failing a significant group of children who can be identified by a series of attributes that refute the fog that all children are treated equally in our system. They are not.

But the worse criticism by liberals and conservatives alike was the “requirement” part of the law. Reader, we ask you, without NCLB would the education establishment have taken any of the serious reform measures made over the last decade? Trust us, they would not. By way of analogy, would the states have abrogated institutional bias against minorities without the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 and Brown (1954)? As much as it disturbs us to admit it, there may be times when we do need our central government to bring us beyond ourselves and the powers that be at the state level. And so the education establishment screamed and trashed George W Bush time and again in the political arena for NCLB. Odd, little was said about the paragon of liberalism, Ted Kennedy. The abuse of words. And this played out in the election of Barack Obama who promised change in education as well.

Where are we now? The answer to that is found in the change to Race to the Top. This program is simply a return to the past devoid of real accountability and the same state level self-creation of goals, methods, and assessment allowing States Departments of Education to avoid the cruel admission that too many children are failing still. The best example of the abuse of words can be found the Department of Education’s own comparison between NCLB and the new system and the sea change back to the old status quo.

Anecdotal to be sure, but the evidence in our own experience at the secondary level was this with the advent of NCLB. For years our school was only too happy to ignore and drop from testing the students who chose not to attend school. Yes, we received money for educating them, and they are on our rolls, but not to be found, ghosts. Instead of leaving them alone, under NCLB, our school began calling and caring that these students come to school for the testing and was confronted with the question: what are we doing to educate and graduate these children? Uncomfortable? Absolutely. And the scores showed the obvious results: lack of school equaled lack of learning. The ghosts became real people. Today, we do not call them in anymore to our knowledge and so that question recedes to the point that graduating high risk students is not even one of the goals for our schools. It really is easy to forget the children who need us the most to help them truly break the cycle of failure which plays out for years to come for a high school dropout. But the abuse of words and power will explain this away and sooth our consciences. Are you soothed?

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