Last night I posted Rick Hess’s account of how No Child Left Behind managed to anger and disappoint education reformers of almost every stripe. This morning I’d like to suggest that this consensus in favor of scuttling NCLB also poses a threat to education reform.
Okay, I’ve donned my armor. So now I’ll say it. NCLB did a lot of good. Specifically, the law generated and also publicized a great deal of data not only about student performance, but also about “disaggregated” student performance. In plain English, the law forced schools to reveal just how badly some groups of students were lagging behind.
In Utah, where I taught during the stormiest NCLB years, I watched the new law collide with a long and often justified tradition of mistrusting federal government intervention.
But some of the nerves it jangled, frankly, deserved the hit.
I’ve told this story on my blog before, but it bears repeating in this context. Several years ago I attended a Utah State Office of Education seminar for social studies teachers. During one of the breaks the assembled teachers indulged in the usual grumbling about NCLB. A young teacher from a rural southern Utah town (I won’t identify the town or the teacher) blurted out: “They don’t understand. You just can’t teach the kids from the rez.”
I don’t want to underestimate the challenges of helping Native American students succeed . . . but I was still appalled at her willingness to write off some of the kids who sat in her own classroom.
And I’m appalled still that the Obama administration initially allowed Virginia a NCLB waiver permitting different targets for minority kids. As Michael Gerson writes in today’s Washington Post,
The commonwealth is one of those states granted a broad exemption by the Education Department from No Child Left Behind’s “unrealistic” requirement that all schools dramatically improve educational performance for every ethnic group. Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction pronounced this change “a long time coming and very much appreciated.” The state’s replacement targets, in the manner of such documents, were expressed in educational jargon so thick that few understood them. But eventually it came out that Virginia was codifying the goal of having 57 percent of African American students proficient in math by 2017, compared to 78 percent of white students. (Currently, 52 percent of black students in Virginia are proficient.) It is an educational objective so “realistic” that it is difficult to distinguish from racism. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucuscalled these new standards “insulting and narrow-minded,” involving the categorization of children “in a way that harkens back to Virginia’s inglorious past.”
Once exposed, both Virginia and the Education Department were forced to backtrack. A do-over is in the works. But this is the general direction of “flexibility” in No Child Left Behind waivers, which now cover most of the states. Few have been as blatant and controversial as Virginia’s. But most states have adopted new expectations that are lower, sketchier, less binding and less connected to real accountability. Much of the American educational system — enabled by the Education Department — is in the process of backing down from the highest goals for minority children.
I’ve talked before about how Utah lags behind most states in closing the gap between disadvantaged students and the middle class majority: http://educatingourselves.blogs.deseretnews.com/2011/08/06/good-news-on-the-education-front-except-in-utah/
Let’s make sure that resentment at federal intrusion isn’t disguising a reluctance to face, and address, these unpleasant truths.