Have you been following the evolving story of the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind? I have, and it is disheartening. Instead of ditching this disastrous law, senators are trying to apply patches.
Most people now recognize that NCLB is a train wreck. Its mandates have imposed on American public education an unhealthy obsession with standardized testing.
- It has incentivized cheating, as we have seen in the well-publicized cheating scandals in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.
- It has encouraged states to game the system, as we saw in New York state, where the state tests were made easier and more predictable so as to bolster the number of children who reached "proficiency."
- It has narrowed the curriculum; many districts and schools have reduced or eliminated time for the arts, physical education, and other non-tested subjects.
- It has caused states to squander billions of dollars on testing and test preparation, while teachers are laid off and essential services slashed. Now we will squander millions more on test security to detect cheating.
Despite the manifest failure of NCLB, the Obama administration proposes not to scrap it, but to offer waivers if states agree to accept the mandates selected by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The secretary has a great fondness for teacher evaluation, having decided (in concert with the Gates Foundation) that the key to better education is to tie teachers' jobs and tenure to their students' test scores. This, of course, will raise the stakes attached to testing. Mr. Duncan has already used the billions in Race to the Top to bribe states to impose his unproven policies on their schools.
Happily, the latest version of the NCLB reauthorization does not include the teacher evaluation provisions that Mr. Duncan wants. That's good, but not good enough, because many states are already well down that path, not only the 11 that "won" the Race to the Top, but others that wanted to make themselves eligible. Tennessee was one of the "winners." NPR did a story about Tennessee's teacher evaluation program, which explained why the program is so thoroughly disliked by that state's teachers; see this article, as well.
When, if ever, will policymakers realize that they should find ways to support teachers, not to demoralize them? I just don't see how it is possible* to "improve" schools without the active engagement of the people who do the daily work of schooling. There is just so much top-down beating-up that can go on before teachers and principals rise up in protest, especially when so many at the top are not educators.
Lawmakers in D.C. and in the state capitals are not competent to decide how to reform schools and how to evaluate teachers. In what other profession would this kind of interference be tolerated?
The federal government does not know how to reform schools. Period. Congress doesn't, and the U.S. Department of Education doesn't.
The fundamental role of the federal government should be to advance equality of educational opportunity. That's a tall order. Congress should revive the commitments made in 1965, when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed: To use federal resources on behalf of the neediest students; to protect the civil rights of students; to conduct research about education; to report on the condition and progress of American education.
So long as Congress tries to breathe life into the moribund NCLB legislation, its members are wasting their time.
* An earlier version of this blog incorrectly used the word "impossible."