A decade of kids left behind

January 26, 2012

Elizabeth Schulte examines a law that has transformed public schools--for worse.

WHEN GEORGE W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law 10 years ago this month, he had plenty of company--from both parties, Democrats and Republicans--standing beside him.

Today, the law is widely viewed as a failure, even by some Republicans--right-wing fanatic Rick Santorum, for example, recently claimed he regretted voting for it. But in 2002, it was seen as a bold bipartisan effort to improve public schools.

Conservatives and liberals--Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Ted Kennedy, no less--stood behind Bush as he cleared the way for what they promised would be a new era in education.

It was a new era--a new era of high-stakes standardized testing, school closures, increased privatization of public education and an all-out assault on teachers' unions.

And that era isn't over yet--because the Obama administration has picked up where the Bush administration left off. Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan came up with the Race to the Top (RTTT) program to reform NCLB. They claimed RTTT would reward teachers and schools that improve--based on how well they test.

Fourth graders work on a math test
Fourth graders work on a math test (Judy Baxter)

But if you're a teacher or a student in a struggling school, you know that the reality of "school reform" is very few rewards and no shortage of penalties.

NCLB BROKE new ground in the "all stick and no carrot" approach to education. The stated goal of the act was to make 100 percent of public school students proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Proficiency would be strictly measured by a national regimen of standardized testing. Schools would have to test third- to eighth-graders every year on reading and math, and demonstrate higher test scores each year. NCLB's sole method of measuring students' improvement was the average yearly progress scores.

Evidently, no one asked teachers what they thought about standardized testing before it became the deciding factor between success and failure in schools. According to a 2009 survey by the journal Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, only about a quarter of public school teachers believe their states' standardized tests provide "good" or "excellent" information about school quality. More than two-thirds of teachers responding said they "somewhat" or "completely" opposed basing teachers' salaries in part on their students' academic progress on state tests.

As New York City teacher and activist Brian Jones explained:

Every school I've worked in over the last nine years has faced declining budgets on the one hand, and growing pressure to measure up to these mandates on the other. The conversation has shifted from one focused on "equity"--in terms of resources, money, and staffing--to one concerned more with "excellence." In practice, we get neither. Why? Because "excellence" is narrowly defined by high-stakes standardized tests.

Thus, classroom time is increasingly absorbed by lessons in process of elimination, and other test-taking strategies. There's less time for science, for social studies, for physical education, for the arts. That 8-year-olds have to spend so much mental energy to think about how to jump through these hoops should be a national embarrassment.

If they failed to meet prescribed results on the mandatory tests, school districts in poor and typically minority areas, which had already been starved for resources for decades, were deemed "failures" under NCLB. Testing prepared the ground for school "reformers" to move in for the kill.

So-called "failing" schools could now be "reconstituted" (the entire staff replaced) or "restructured" (closed down or replaced with a charter)--even when the answer to the problem might be as obvious as devoting more financial resources. Preying on the hopes that many parents had for better schools for their children, the proponents of NCLB opened the door for private corporations that run charters to get money meant for public schools.

According to Jeff Bale, an assistant professor and teacher educator at Michigan State University and co-editor of the forthcoming Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation:

One of the most cynical aspects about NCLB was how the "reformers" manipulated the valid concerns over the educational outcomes of students of color in order to gain support for the new law.

The fact that the law required test scores to be broken down by specific demographics--race and ethnicity, gender, language learner status, special education status, etc.--was pitched as a promise to "shine a light" on how public schools were failing these students, and thus bring change.

No doubt many public schools do fail the vast majority of such students every day. But instead of doing anything about it, NCLB exploited these real concerns and subordinated them to a high-stakes testing regime that has only made the situation worse.

If anyone has experienced success since NCLB's passage, it's the for-profit education industry. Charters have turned out to be very profitable businesses. The only drawback is that they have failed to educate kids any better than public schools.

According to Martin Carnoy, Rebecca Jacobsen, Lawrence Mishel and Richard Rothstein's 2005 The Charter School Dust-Up, despite the fact that students who attend charter schools typically don't come from backgrounds more disadvantaged than public-school students:

-- In Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Texas, test scores from charter schools older than three years are still no higher than in public schools.

In an analysis of fourth grade test scores in all 13 states, charter school students have the same or lower scores than other public school students in nearly every demographic category. The scores of low-income Black students are lower in charter schools in both math and reading.

On two different tests used in Illinois, charter school students' absolute achievement levels averaged about the same or lower than those of students in comparable regular public schools from 1998-2001.

In Michigan, three studies using different methodologies found largely lower test score levels in charter elementary and middle schools than in comparable regular public schools.

And yet, according to the Center for Education Reform, charter schools are rarely closed for poor academic performance. The Center's analysis of 154 charter schools that closed in 2002 showed that less than 1 percent did so for academic reasons.

WHEN OBAMA took office in 2008, many teachers exhaled a sigh of relief, hoping that his tough talk about Bush's NCLB would translate into action that might reverse these trends. But the opposite has been the case.

Where Bush's NCLB opened the door to attacks on public schools, Obama's 2009 RTTT sharpened the assault on teachers and their unions. States who want to receive RTTT funding had to play by RITT rules, including agreeing to base teacher evaluations on students' test scores, with all their obvious flaws.

Measures like these have demonstrated no success at improving schools, but they do make it much easier for principals to get rid of teachers and weaken their unions. "Obama's Race to the Top initiative has effectively doubled down on NCLB," said Jones. "Whereas before the tests only determined the child's future, they will now increasingly determine the teacher's future, and even the school's future. So the stakes have been raised even higher."

According to a Center on Education Policy report released in December, more than 43,000 schools--almost 50 percent--didn't make the average yearly progress targets for 2011. This shows how far out of whack NCLB's capricious prescriptions about how to measure education success are with the learning needs of actual students in actual classrooms.

In September, Duncan announced that the administration would offer to waive certain aspects of NCLB, such as the 2014 deadline for 100 percent proficiency, for states that agreed to overhaul low-performing schools and institute harsher teacher evaluation systems. States that qualified for the waivers would be able to make up their own school accountability systems.

This measure would put less emphasis on the already discredited average yearly progress system. However, in exchange for the flexibility, states would have to make a list of 15 percent of their lowest-performing schools for "turnaround" or closure, and create guidelines for teacher evaluations based in part on student performance.

Also under RTTT, the federal government offers incentives to states that agree to institute projects the administration supports, such as devoting public funds to charter schools. As states are hard-pressed to pay their bills, these "incentives" amount to little more than coercion.

What all this "school reform" has meant is that America's already economically stratified school systems are now even further stratified. As Bale says:

I can still remember vividly the debates in the early days of NCLB at union meetings and activist teacher conferences, and in discussions at work, where anyone who criticized NCLB might be, at best, dismissed as indifferent to the needs of students of color, and, at worst, accused of being racist. Ten years later, we see the results of that cynicism: our schools are more segregated than they were 40 years ago, and quality education is increasingly rationed between the haves and have-nots.

As Stan Karp wrote at the Rethinking Schools blog, "It's increasingly clear that we will only get the changes we need in federal education policy when pressure forces them from below. We need to occupy education policy the same way we need to occupy Wall Street."

Ten years after its signing, NCLB is a proven failure at having improved schools. But it did succeed in getting the ball rolling on one punitive attack on public education after another. Now teachers, students and parents are coming to grips with how to stop the onslaught. As Brian Jones explained:

School closures and charter school co-locations are uniting students, parents and teachers in a fight to defend our public schools. There's a feeling that the powers that be are so determined to promote privatization that they won't take success for an answer. Even our most successful and celebrated public schools can face the chopping block.

At first, there were plenty of people who thought that it was only the "bad" schools that were being closed and co-located. Now, it's becoming so widespread that more and more people are asking questions.

The whole system they use to rate schools is on a curve, so every year, they have to label some schools as "failing." School closures actually solve nothing, of course, and more and more students, parents and teachers are learning that the hard way as well.

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