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Looking to the Past

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As we wrap up this week where people are debating NCLB's future, I'd like to ask you to think about the past.

In "No Child Left Behind: What Would Al Say?" published in the Sept. 5 Education Week, Richard D. Kahlenberg draws on his research for his new biography of Albert Shanker. He suggests that the late president of the American Federation of Teachers wouldn't have liked several elements of NCLB.

Even though Shanker was one of the biggest proponents of standards-based reforms in the 1990s, he had a different vision than what emerged from Congress in 2002.The four key differences that Kahlenberg identifies are:

1.) NCLB sets a goal that all students are expected to reach. Shanker wanted a variety of goals that give each student a challenging but reachable goal.

2.) NCLB creates consequences for poor student achievement on adults, but not students. Shanker said that any testing system had to give incentives for students.

3.) NCLB lets all states set their own content standards; Shanker advocated for a single set of national standards.

4.) States have relied mostly on multiple-choice testing to comply with NCLB's enormous testing burden. That went against Shanker's desire for high-quality assessments that give reliable, valid, and useful information.

Kahlenberg suggests that NCLB would have been a better piece of legislation if Shanker had been alive. I'm interested in hearing from you about what you think. I'd especially like comments from those of you who knew and worked with Shanker.

1 Comment

I reluctantly supported NCLB for many of the same reasons that I reluctantly supported the standards movement - I had been wrestling with Al Shanker's ideas for years. Shanker would have been an eloquent voice for realism, but I don't think he could have saved NCLB.

The harm has not been precisely caused by NCLB. Our urban schools, and especially our poor children of color attending schools with a high concentration of generational poverty, have been severly damaged by the PANIC caused by NCLB.

And that panic was caused by "human nature." And that's a dynamic that Shanker could have explained but not changed.

Until recently, I have felt like we've been in a slow motion version of the NYC teachers strike, with ideologues like the Ed Trust inflaming racial conflict. (Now that the other civil rights organizations that support NCLB have shifted on "multiple measures" we can start a real dialogue.)

Fundamentally, the problem with Sahnker's Standards is that the word sounds too much like standardized. Once we panicked and turn inner city schools into test prep factories, this reform was lost.

I hope Shanker would have stood up for the NEA which tends to represent suburban schools. We in the AFT had to gamble and support the NCLB as a last chance to save our urban kids. The only thing that suburban schools got out of the law was assistance to "do the right thing" and better serve their poor minority students. And what have they got for their efforts? ridicule from the ED Trust and pressure to undermine their schools by excessive teach to the test.

Paradoxically, I still support National Standards (but to a lesser extent) and I still enthusiastically support data driven decision-making. Someday, we will have the technology for a national system of accountability, but will we have the wisdom?

Data driven decisions only work when implemented with integrity. I have seen that happen on a small scale with excellent leadership. But how do you mandate integrity when implementing a national system of high-stakes tests?

One of the many reasons I still teach in an inner city high school is that I get to enjoy the full range of human beauty and folly. Shanker, who rejected utopian solutions, would be a wonderful companion in that journey.

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