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NCLB II: The Liberal's Dilemma

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Politically, the future of No Child Left Behind is quite clear. Relative to the Bush years, more money will go to public schools with less accountability.

The money part is no great surprise; Democrats believe the President reneged on his agreement to higher levels of funding in return for higher levels of accountability as soon as Republicans gained control of Congress. They are probably correct, but what matters is that it’s what they believe.

The accountability part is no great political surprise. On this one point, chief state school officers, school boards, superintendents, teachers unions, and even mainstream publishers agree. Fully aside from funding, their trade groups share a view that the system can’t make it under NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions. (They are probably correct.) Countervailing institutional support for this level of accountability from governors, legislators and mayors just isn’t there – in no small part because program evaluation hasn’t suggested that the market created by the law will change student outcomes enough to justify the battle. (Shame on the school improvement industry.)

Still, writing in the January 7 issue of the Washington Post, Senator Edward Kennedy highlighted the dilemma NCLB reauthorization poses to liberal Democrats. Politically, the Democrats have owned the idea called “public education.” More to the point, public education’s real political institutions hold a lot of equity in the Democratic Party. The “public education” sector of our economy is the last great bastion of American trade unionism - a historic, if fading, source of party strength. The money, organization and votes matter to any politicians' power in the Party, and the Party’s ability to win elections from the White House to the school board. The NEA doesn’t control the Democratic Party, but it comes close to controlling its education policy.

With this reality in mind, Senator Kennedy parrots the institutional critique of No Child Left Behind:

“The process for rating troubled schools fails to reward incremental progress made by schools struggling to catch up. Its one-size-fits-all approach encourages "teaching to the test" and discourages innovation in the classroom…. It falls short in achieving smaller classes so that teachers can give children the one-on-one attention they need.”

Good, bad or indifferent, these arguments were being made when NCLB passed in 2001. At the time the Senator was not persuaded. Now he agrees. I suspect he has no choice, because the Democrats surely believe they are going to regain the White House. He knows that the political center on education reform he held with Congressman Miller during a Bush presidency will be considered the far right in 2009.

The political choice for Kennedy is clear, but the moral price will be high. The Senator knows that No Child Left Behind pits one of his party’s institutional pillars against one of its most sacred values – civil rights. He pays homage to that legacy:

“On the plus side, the law demands that all children must benefit -- black or white, immigrant or native-born, rich or poor, disabled or not. Before its enactment, only a handful of states monitored the achievement of every group of students in their schools. Today, all 50 states must do that…. All schools now measure performance based not on the achievement of their average and above-average students but on their progress in helping below-average students reach high standards as well.”

Finally, he grabs onto the one glimmer of objective evidence that NCLB has advanced the Democrat’s civil rights agenda.

“The positive changes are evident in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as "The Nation's Report Card." The improvements are still modest, but they're noticeable, particularly among students who formerly were low achievers. We're beginning to see a narrowing of the achievement gap between white students and other students. “

I wish it were not true, but there is something of a zero sum game here. The price of redirecting resources and attention to students that public education has neglected is the infliction of a great deal of pain on the institutions of public education that did things differently. And here we come back to a basic problem of politics. Superintendents, principals and teachers might do very well in a new system with a new set of institutions. But institutions have lives of their own, and like every living thing, they want to go on living and will fight hard to do so.

Senator Kennedy ended his column this way:

"Four decades ago, my brother Robert Kennedy asked at a Senate hearing on education: "What happened to the children?" That question is as appropriate today as it was in 1966. We're still not doing enough for the nation's schools and children."

Exactly. For liberals, the political choice on NCLB is obvious – go along with the institutions. But the moral consequence of that choice can only haunt the conscience.


4 Comments

The “objective evidence” says that NCLB has not worked.

Sen. Kennedy claims that there were “modest” improvements on the national NAEP examination because of NCLB. Modest indeed: On the reading test given to 4th graders, there was a three-point gain since 2003. This isn’t much on a test in which the difference between the lowest and highest 10% is 90 points. NAEP scores for 8th graders are the same as they were in 2003.

Sen. Kennedy also claims that the achievement gap has been narrowed: The gap between 4th graders students from low and high-income families has been reduced by only one point since 2003, and for 8th graders it has been reduced by only two points.

On an international test given to fourth graders (the PIRLS test), American children scored 542 in 2001 and 540 in 2006, again leading to the conclusion that NCLB did not work.

NCLB requires much more time devoted to reading instruction, an extra 100 minutes a day for children in Reading First. This amounts to an extra semester every two years. If NCLB had been even mildly effective, gains would have been much larger.

This is in fact an excellent summary of the liberal dilemma with regard to education. In fact, education is hard to regard as being a democrat/republican issue anymore. Hard as it is to admit, the advent of charter schools in some areas is the first thing in a while that has really made urban districts sit up and take notice. Losing students and state dollars faster than families can rise up and move to the suburbs has eroded their guaranteed market-share and they are starting to have to pay attention to what it is that parents want for their children.

This is not to say that there has been wide-spread reform as a result. There are still many who are waiting for this too to pass. The NEA certainly is one entity hoping for a return to the good old days of free flowing dollars with limited expectations. But it is our children who will pay--first. Next it will be our demographic blip of baby-boomers, already at risk of being uncared-for in our old age. If we continue to raise a generation ill-prepared not only to care for us, but also to compete for resources in the world to enable that care we may reach the end of a lifetime in which the focus was always on us.

How can any law that has fifty different standards be constitutional? Without national standards NCLB is meaningless.

I wish it were not true, but there is something of a zero sum game here. The price of redirecting resources and attention to students that public education has neglected is the infliction of a great deal of pain on the institutions of public education that did things differently. And here we come back to a basic problem of politics. Superintendents, principals and teachers might do very well in a new system with a new set of institutions. But institutions have lives of their own, and like every living thing, they want to go on living and will fight hard to do so.

I think this misses two points. One is that the problems of NCLB would be easier to handle if resources had been less zero-sum. I'm a school board member in California, in a district struggling with the mandates and effects of NCLB, and it would certainly be easier to add instructional time for students who were scoring less than proficient if our choices weren't to either take instructional time from some other subjects (by middle school students in "support classes" not only get fewer electives, they get less science), or to try lengthen the school day without increasing teacher salaries. And yes, in theory, it would be easier to do the second if we didn't have a teachers' union -- except that I don't think the teachers it was imposed on would be any happier about it, or any less likely to start looking for work in a district that wasn't feeling the NCLB pinch.

There's a second, less obvious issue, that is very much the liberal's dilemma. The focus on closing the achievement gap is "only words" if the current achievement gap in public education is replaced by a two-tiered educational system where poor kids go the public schools, and get a no-frills, 3-R's education while parents who want their kids to have art, music, science, field trips, etc opt more and more for private schools (or, in places like CA where the charter school laws are favorable, charter schools). And I think this is a vision of public education -- minimalist public provision, supplemented by market choices for the affluent -- that conservatives are okay with, and liberals less so.

In many urban districts this is a moot point -- middle class parents had opted out of public education before NCLB. But in our district, and a number of surrounding districts, NCLB is becoming the wedge. For one, the "school choice" provision blesses middle class flight from program improvement schools, even if those schools, in fact, do as good a job of educating English speaking kids with college educated parents as the schools not in program improvement. But, from my experience, this effect is small compared to the effects of narrowed, curriculum, the focus on test preparation, and the perception that public schools have no incentive to focus on students who already score "proficient" on state tests. The reality is probably less stark than the perception -- but the perception is powerful. Last year, when my daughter moved from the her mostly middle-class neighborhood elementary school to a middle school that's in program improvement, virtually all of her close friends moved to private schools.

And its not just parents -- it's a dynamic that affects the teacher corps as well, with the most skilled and dynamic teachers -- who will always have a choice of where to work -- choosing the districts where they have the freedom teach without pacing guidelines and test prep requirements.

Some of these issues may have been evident when NCLB was passed. But I suspect many people believed that closing the achievement gaps would be a lot easier than it actually is. It's hard to imagine that anyone who truly supported public education intending that by 2014 virtually every school that receives Title I funds would be labeled failing, and that's where NCLB is heading.

I've learned a lot reading the growing number of education policy blogs, but one of the surprising things I've learned is that the issues that seem uppermost to policy makers, and which seem to frame the NCLB reauthorization discussion -- school choice, merit pay, and the power of teachers' unions -- seem very far from the school improvement issues our district struggles with.

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