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After the Election, What Will Happen to NCLB?


Dear Deborah,

As this election nears a close, it is sad to note that very little has been said about education. In a way, that's a good thing, as we really don't want the president deciding what should happen tomorrow in our schools. I assume that more important tasks are at hand, such as the economy and foreign policy.

On the other hand, the candidates have been unfortunately silent in letting us know what they plan to do about the abominable No Child Left Behind law. By now, even its defenders understand that the people who must implement the law are hostile to it and know it is unworkable. Yet the candidates are silent. Clearly the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which has existed since 1965 and is the main mechanism for funneling federal aid to education) must be reauthorized. No matter who is president, that law—whatever it is called—must be re-enacted.

The question is what to do about the special features of NCLB, especially those related to accountability, remedies, and sanctions. Will the federal government continue to require that all children must reach "proficiency" by 2014? Will it continue to mandate that states must test all children from grades 3-8, and once in high school, with tests of their own devising and standards of their own manufacture? Will the federal government continue to insist on "adequate yearly progress," will it continue to label schools "failing" (or "schools in need of improvement) if they are not making adequate yearly progress towards 100 percent proficiency? Will the federal government continue to mandate choice and tutoring for "failing" schools? Will it continue to mandate such sanctions as turning schools over to state control, turning them into charter schools, turning them over to private management, and other kinds of "restructuring"?

As I re-read this paragraph, I realize that the amount of jargon being churned out by legislators is nearly overwhelming, that talking about schools and school improvement has become almost as arcane as a conversation between two medical technicians or third-year law students.

People who do not live inside the Beltway cannot imagine how strongly entrenched are the forces that demand reauthorization of NCLB, more or less in its present form. Many of the Beltway think tanks—more so Democrats than Republicans—seem to have a proprietary interest in NCLB and they jeer at anyone who wants to change it. The Republican think tanks are uneasy with the extent of federal interference and control of education that NCLB has legitimized. The Democratic think tanks think that any complaints about NCLB are the work of lazy, selfish interest groups who just don't want to do the hard work of making 100 percent of our kids "proficient" by 2014.

Last weekend, I spoke to the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents about NCLB. The most common reaction was, "How do we express our views about this law without being characterized as just another selfish interest group?" It is a curiosity of our times that the views of the people who are actually supposed to do the work of educating children—the teachers, principals, and superintendents—are dismissed out of hand by NCLB's defenders as those of self-interested pressure groups who don't care about children. After all, why listen to the people who actually work in schools?

Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former official in the current Bush administration, is one of the few Beltway think-tankers who have begun to realize that NCLB is not working. He wrote an opinion piece last week in The Washington Times acknowledging that NCLB is "hugely unpopular with the bases of both political parties" and that there is "widespread buyers' remorse." He suggested that the federal government should stop micromanaging the schools; that it should provide incentives for states to sign up for national (but not federal) tests, then leave the states and districts to devise their own reforms, sanctions, labels, and ratings. This is somewhat akin to what I have suggested on this blog in the past, i.e., let the feds collect and dispense accurate information, and let the states and districts decide what to do about that information. (Full disclosure: I am a trustee of TBF and have known Mike Petrilli for many years.)

Since Mike Petrilli's suggestion—to get rid of Washington's heavy-handed micromanagement—was fairly close to my own (I am less certain than he is about the uses and misuses of test scores, even in the hands of state and school districts), I was glad to see his sensible proposal. However, Mike's column was met with scorn by Andrew Rotherham, who blogs as eduwonk.com. Andy, who was an education adviser to President Clinton, said that Mike was a "reflexive contrarian," and implied that he should back off his criticism of NCLB and recognize "the day to day realities of making policy..." NCLB, it seems, needs just a little tweaking, not radical change.

Petrilli is right, and Rotherham is wrong. In his article, Petrilli said that "Washington is at least three or four steps removed from the operation of local schools..." I would amend that to say, "Washington is at least 300 to 400 steps removed from the operation of local schools..." Here is a law written jointly by the Bush administration, and by Senator Ted Kennedy, Congressman George Miller, and their staffs. This group of politicians and their advisers decided how to reform every school in the nation. What experience does Senator Kennedy or Congressman Miller have as school reformers? How many of their staff and advisers have ever led or turned around a failing school? How many years did any of them serve as teachers or principals? How many schools have they personally reformed? By what logic or evidence did they decide that turning "failing" schools over to state control or private managers or charters would make them high-performing schools? Did they read Hess and Finn's "No Remedy Left Behind," which shows that none of the federally mandated remedies are working? Did they read the latest report from the Center on Education Policy on restructuring, which says that congressionally mandated restructuring isn't working?

I fear that the tenor of the current debate (or lack thereof) about federal education policy will only increase the burdens and ordeals of our public schools. When you have a debate in which those who are in the trenches are labeled as selfish "adult" interests (and therefore to be ignored), while those who know nothing are given responsibility to write the marching orders, you have a plan that will fail.




Great post!

We've all seen the same dynamics but few have described them so well. Educators are overwhelmingly opposed to NCLB, but how do we express our opposition without reinforcing the so-called "reformers" assumptions that we are just lazy defenders of the status quo.

I think the "reformers" know that the law's interventions have largely failed, but again it just reinforces their scorn for educators. (also, I'm my politics are very differnt than Petrilli's but I'm struck by his proposals being almost word for word what I would recommend. I suspect the support for your ideas on accountablity would get overwhelming support from educators.)

I'd just add one great thing about the CEPs research. They always include prose descriptions of reality as seen by educators. Anyone who reads their work with an open mind would benefit from their wisdom. But notice how many times they have quoted educators, on issues like the difficulty of counter-acting poverty, but the educators are off the record, because they don't want to be attacked for "low expectations."

As long as educators are prohibitted from expressing their honest professional judgments and policy-makers adamently refuse to listen to our experience, reform will be undercut. Frustratingly, it is liberal Democrats, who presumably believe in free speech, who are the worst in shouting down the real experts.

"...how do we express our opposition without reinforcing the so-called 'reformers' assumptions that we are just lazy defenders of the status quo."

Communicate and get buy-in from parents of school children.

I am not an educator. But my vested interest in my children means a vested interest in educators and the education system. Help us to help you.


I suppose one option would be to declare Title I a collossal failure and give it up--based not only on the NCLB experience, but also on the previous experience prior to NCLB. With limited accountability, the additional cash may have been associated with an upturn in scores and narrowing of gaps. But the supplement not supplant concept is one that is hard to maintain over time, and those benefits were gone by the 1990s.

Perhaps there could be a five year phase out of funding replaced by a competitive grant process in which states could propose their own improvement projects and the feds would just say yes or no, based on their assessment of the likelihood of progress; and defund programs that did not meet their own goals over time.

I think the big problem with Diane and Mike's suggestion is that it assumes "heavy-handed micromanagement," when in actuality a fair amount was left to states and districts. Setting standards and developing assessments--to the states. Determining curriculum, primarily local, except for states that had another provision. Selecting a school--well there was a bump up in parent's choice options (small, but there, nonetheless). Determining how to improve achievement, to schools and teachers.

John--what I think that educators and others on the front line need to do if they want to not be seen as narrow special interest groups stuck in 1950 is to:

1) Stop speaking through your unions. Unions are intentionally special interest groups. Their job is to protect the working interests of workers--not to improve the quality of education. Use other professional groups as a voice and strengthen their ability to speak as a single voice in favor of education. Keep the unions out of the debate on funding and how to teach and whether poor kids can learn.

2) Propose something. The Palin-style "government get out of the way and let us do what we already know how to do" is less than convincing. Demonstrate that you actually understand what you are proposing by taking the bull by the horns and implementing it. Don't try to convince someone to shift from tests to portfolios until you have a critical mass of teachers already implementing this in valid and reliable ways in the classroom. These are things that can be done at the local level. For the most part, they are not.

3) Become conversant with some of the other groups that advocate for neighborhoods, children and families. It is disengenuous to call for schools to become community centers providing dental and health care and meeting other family needs when the groups already working on these issues cannot get schools to give them the time of day. How many after-school or tutoring programs have access to school buildings? How many summer intervention programs collaborate with parks and recreation?

I don't think this (major change to NCLB) is likely to happen any time soon. The devil that we know is always preferable to the devil that we don't and any federal dollars to be dispensed from this time forward are highly likely to have accountability measures attached. The likelihood of the coming administration (if there is time to focus on domestic issues on top of the War in Iraq and the economy) is that accountability will continue to get rounded around the edges, but not disappear (maybe the deadline with be lengthened, or dispensations granted to states that are really trying) and there will be some increased funding.

Diane, Great post.

John, The only way to express opposition is to put forth a viable plan for getting to the same place (better schools) but using a different pathway. Just saying that NCLB is a disaster will never be enough.

Even Mike Petrelli's plan really doesn't offer any path for improving schools. His point is more that the current law is so bad, the Feds should just abandon ship. He's not wrong, but it is not a pathway toward improving our children's education.

How would any federal politician willingly abandon NCLB without an alternative concrete/viable pathway towards improving our children's learning?

Do you also want unions to get out of the way and stop working for civil rights, humane public policy, and more peaceful ways of conducting foreign policy? Should unions sit idly as the Right Wing and their new Left wing allies undercut collective bargaining? If we unions commit suicde, you might wonder if the Republican Right majority will advance the welfare of kids.

Unions have proposals for peer review, removing ineffective teachers, performance pay, 360 degree evaluations, most (maybe all?) of the Obama proposals.

If we want SUSTAINABLE improvements, unions must represent both students and teachers. I'd like the balance to be 49% the welfare of teachers and 51% in favor of students, but in the real world the best will be 51% teachers welfare vs. 49% students.

But iif we really want to help kids we must embrace the principls of demacracy. Technocrats won't get it done. And you can't help kids by destroying the teaching profession.

I'd put our practical record of reform up against any other institution.

Mr. John “Union” Thompson,

You can talk all you want about putting kids first but structurally things look the exact opposite. Unions force unemployment or relative poverty on those teachers who are not employed. This union created phenomenon trickles-down too as the restriction on employment makes the pool of those employed in other areas greater and wage rates lower. How does that help kids?

By raising their rates unions force employers to cut back in overall production and/or force consumers to cut back on overall consumption. Unions raise the cost of education - like any monopoly would. But costs do not matter to parents or kids, right?

Unions encourage sloth because of their government enforced legal privilege. It is bad enough that the government tramples on basic rights via compulsory attendance and taxation. Unions, instead of standing up for parents and kids, synergize government’s looting capacity. It makes sense: unions are in on the booty. The more privilege unions acquire the more parasitical they become.

Does the vitiation of the 1st Amendment that unions orchestrate in the classroom have to be mentioned?

Granted, union opposition to NCLB is a positive check on one particularly heinous aspect of government power- but it is purely out of self-interest. No union ever believed in limiting the absolute level of government power.

But unions certainly engage in propaganda in effort to create the impression that kids’ and society’s interests are what they have in mind when they say to parents: “Hand over your wallet and kids or else!”

Conclusion: Unions are civil rights’ violations!

John, Not sure why you think that I am anti-union.

My comments were that just saying that NCLB is bad will never be good enough *without* a proposal that addresses how to improve student learning.

Incremental improvements are probably necessary, but what are those improvements suppose to look like?

Investing in teachers sounds great, but what type of changes are the investments supposed to make? Are those changes supposed to make teachers feel more appreciated/comfortable or are they supposed to change teaching practice?

How are the warm fuzzy "just let teachers teach" type of reforms supposed to change teaching practice?

The motivation behind NCLB is hard to argue with "help children to learn better and comparable to that seen in the best countries around the world".

It is that very nice motivation that sustains NCLB. Without providing a concrete alternative pathway to get to that destination, the chances of dislodging NCLB are rather dim.

Erin--I believe that John meant the anti-union screed for me. There's this thing about fiduciary responsibility. Unions are accountable to and for the employment conditions of their workers. This is their primary raison d'etre.

I would welcome the views of the UAW on public education, as I welcome the views of the NEA on Civil Rights (or Gay Marriage--for those following California), because I don't see a potential conflict of interest. But, the NEA is not a good mouthpiece for the interests of children's education. (On the other hand--I used to get a lot of good films from the UAW, to supplement the public education of the kids that I worked with--pieces of history they weren't getting in school). I would love to see the NEA put their considerable lobbying efforts behind universal pre-school, universal health care or a good many other family supportive policies that would provide the more generalized supports for education that they suggest are necessary before teachers can be held accountable.

But again, if teachers (administrators, superintendents, et al) want to be heard, they have to bring solutions to the table (and the solutions that we are looking for are related to improving student learning), be willing to implement them and demonstrate their success and speak through a professional, rather than a labor, mouthpiece.

This doesn't, to my mind, negate collective bargaining.


Thank you for your thought-catapulting column! As I read, two of my thoughts intersected: one about freedom of speech in schools, and another about privatization.

If we are to improve the schools, then those working within them should be allowed to speak openly, without repercussion, about what they see and would like to see. At present, public employees' freedom of speech is restricted by law (see precedents such as Pickering v. Board of Education, 1968, and Connick v. Myers, 1983). Privatization would limit it still more.

Many teachers have at some point attended a professional development seminar run by a private entity. The trainer in such situations may resemble a salesperson more than an educator. At such a training, the teacher is introduced to a package of services that the school has purchased or is considering. At some point the trainer reveals that the materials are protected by copyright. The teacher may not use them or even photocopy them, let alone criticize them publicly. Only after the school purchases the package is the teacher allowed to use the materials within the restrictions of the license.

What if you have serious reservations about the services being offered? Who will hear your concerns? The trainers have their eye out for "problem" teachers and may well report you if you say something. If you go to the press, you risk repercussions for disclosing protected material. What happens to thoughtful critique?

Some will say that the critique will occur once the private services are allowed to compete in a free market. This is not so. First of all, they will compete through branding and PR. Second, many of these services differ only on the surface. We would be faced not with a rich variety of education options, but with a deadening sameness.

I agree with others who have commented that if one criticizes an existing program, one must be willing to offer alternate solutions. But shouldn't we object to the marketing itself? Doesn't such marketing in schools limit the amount of honest discussion we may have? Doesn't that in turn fuel the perception that teachers are just complainers? If teachers, principals, and superintendents may not talk in specifics, how will their views be understood and heard?

Diana Senechal


I am not entirely certain if I understand what you are describing--but if it is something like the purchase of curriculum or textbooks, actually purchase of anything, in a public institution, there are in fact some pretty stringent rules covering the ways in which purchases are made. RFPs are published with all kinds of specific criteria describing the kind of product that is sought. Proposals generally become a part of the public record. Review committees (of proposals) would also be public--and perhaps other things, such as scores, rubrics, etc.

The scenario that you describe, though--of some kind of secret sales talk with spies on the lookout for dissenters--not sure where to put that one. Is this professional development (training in how to use the product) that was most likely included in the purchase price of the materials (and people who sell a product have some stake in ensuring that it is used properly, so as not to poison the well for further sales)? Copyright would protect the product owner/developer from someone attending sales demos and then copying from sample materials to use in a classroom. But to be prohibited from public criticism? Unless that were part of some agreement with the district--perhaps to pilot materials that are provided for free prior to release of the official version. Is that what you are describing? I wouldn't say that this is the usual every day practice.

When you speak about marketing in the schools--do you mean companies selling products to schools/districts, or do you mean using the classroom as a marketplace (like accepting free book-covers or maps with a commercial company logo on them)? While I would personally endorse a diminished reliance on purchased curricula/programs, in favor of more collaborative development of these things by teachers, I cannot envision a time in which schools would ever separate themselves from the need to purchase products and services.


A textbook is publicly available and subject to public criticism. By contrast, some of the "curricula" being marketed are not. You cannot find them in a bookstore. You cannot order them on your own.

If you choose to criticize such programs or products, you are faced with two unsatisfying options. You may speak in generalities (in which case your argument will likely seem weak). Or you may speak in specifics (breaking copyright and license agreements).

Now, purchase records and committee reports often contain the same impenetrable jargon as the brochures. To understand what these programs are really about, you have to point to specifics. And that is where you risk trouble.

Similarly, if you see a badly written question on a standardized test, you may not bring it up publicly. That is a somewhat separate issue, as tests are protected for specific reasons. All the same, those with access to the concrete information may not discuss it.

Diana Senechal

Sorry, long post. On November 5, here is what I would like to hear President-Elect Obama say:

About a week ago, the current Secretary of Education announced new regulations placing new expensive demands on states at a time of great economic crisis. These regulations are salt in the wounds caused by NCLB. I want states to know that our administration will continue to pursue high standards and accountability, but as of January 21, 2009, the regulations announced last week will be suspended.

I am proposing a one-year moratorium on the testing and regulatory requirements of NCLB, while maintaining current levels of Title I funding. This will provide immediate economic relief to states, who can then re-invest these funds in actual teaching and learning. This moratorium will also allow us all a chance to step back and rethink the costs and benefits of NCLB.

You know, we often say that NCLB was a bipartisan plan, as if that made it a better plan. Perhaps it was just a way of each political party trying to blame the other. Regardless, NCLB is a system that does not appear to have lived up to its promises. It is unfair to demand states at a time to great fiscal crisis pay more money to implement an accountability system that does not appear to the experts to have improved education.

The regulations announced last week reflect everything that is wrong with NCLB and why it is disliked by so many people on both sides of the isle.

Through the National Governor's Association, states are already working to standardize graduation rates. Gathering and analyzing those data is an expensive process. But instead of allowing states in good faith to continue to make progress, as fast as they can, in developing those systems, the regulations just announced require states to immediately implement expensive software systems they simply cannot afford at this time. If we have learned anything since the enactment of NCLB, we have learned that accountability done fast and cheap does not result in a system that provides meaningful measures of student achievement. The Secretary has demanded states rush to develop these systems; we are asking that states work as quickly as possible, but will not penalize any state that does not currently have the money to build a quality system. We all want accountability, but we cannot force states to quickly sling together an expensive system that will probably not provide an accurate measure of student success. That was NCLB, this is now.

Last week's proposed regulations would have cost vast amounts of money for no return. Every state that has to add NAEP scores to its report card will have to pay to have report cards redesigned at tremendous cost. States are being rushed to evaluate tutoring services and create websites to advertise which tutors are good tutors based on rushed, expensive evaluations. The Department has put additional burdens on states to provide transportation for school choice transfer programs. Public school choice is important, but with gas prices as high as they are now, I cannot imagine that the federal government would demand states spend more money on gasoline before they spend money on textbooks and teachers. Those are the kinds of expensive demands that have been placed on states by the federal government for little or no return on our investment.

For all of the talk of accountability, the Department of Education has too often operated in secrecy, allowing some states to participate in special programs, but not others. I am not here to undo decisions I assume were made fairly, but we cannot continue to operate this way. All I know is that we have a growth model pilot program that continues to grow and grow, some states can participate but others can't, and despite being in effect for three years, no one has completed a review of the program to see if the results are correct. Do growth models predict a child's future? No one knows. Do American parents know that decisions are being made about their children based on calculations no one has checked? When it comes to accountability, we should demonstrate it of ourselves before we demand it of others.

Furthermore, the federal government will no longer provide startup funds that lure states into programs that the federal government cannot and will not be able to support in the future. As President, I will use my line item veto power to end programs designed to lure states into expensive endeavors they cannot themselves afford. The Teacher Incentive Fund has provided money to improve teaching, but there is little evidence it has done so. Most of the money has gone to pay the startup costs and overhead for cash-reward bonus plans. The federal government does not have any formal plan to continue to provide these funds in the future. The federal government has never promised to continue to fund this program in any meaningful way. Spending that money now will only encourage districts and states to spend money they, too, cannot afford. There are better ways to promote better teaching and we will do so.

At the same time, I will use the bully pulpit of the presidency to encourage states to innovate through the use of charter schools. But the federal government should no longer use federal taxpayer dollars as a kind of hidden-earmark, handing out charter school startup funds to one state, but not another. Should we encourage Utah to develop innovative charter schools? Yes. Should we, the people of the United States, have given $8.5 million to Utah, as we did last August, so Utah could try it? No. I have nothing against Utah -- and I thank my good friends in Utah for their electoral votes -- but we do not have the money at this time to be so generous. If the people of Utah want charter schools, they have my full support, but we cannot provide funds specifically for them and not for others. And we certainly cannot afford to fund charter schools for every state. Under the US Constitution, that is a responsibility of states.

NCLB was an expensive program and parts of the program may serve as a useful template for future policy. The federal government has a role to play in education to be sure that states are providing an equal opportunity for students to learn. But we are no longer going to require unfunded mandates. We are no longer going to try to micromanage the school in your neighborhood, the schools in your city. We tried that. It didn't work. It is time to stop, reconsider what we have learned, and give researchers a fair chance to evaluate the data collected. It is not too late to start to see what actually works and what does not.

But we need some time and we are going to take some time. That is why I am proposing a one-year moratorium on NCLB. Some will say we cannot afford to let our children fall behind another year. I say we cannot afford to continue to march in the wrong direction another year, mislead by misleading data. Let me ask my fellow Americans, parents of our school children. How many of you have seen your child's report card under NCLB, with an end-of-grade or end-of-course test score and wondered: What does this mean? How many Americans actually believe that a single test at the end of the year tells you everything you need to know about your child? Who believes that? Do we really believe that we can judge teachers and schools and states on how well fourth graders bubble in a multiple-choice test? Again, that was NCLB, this is now.

Finally, the only way we are going to improve education in the United States is to bring together knowledgeable, experienced educators and leaders who are sincere in their desire to improve the quality of education. We need leaders who understand the challenges we face. We need leaders who know that we must all work together, Democrats and Republicans. That is why I am proud to introduce to you the next Secretary of Education, Dr. Diane Ravitch.


Re: "I would love to see the NEA put their considerable lobbying efforts behind..."

The issue is not all parents (myself included) agree with "universal pre-school, universal health care or a good many other family supportive policies", etc. When teacher unions or teacher organization start advocating agendas beyond the school and beyond the classroom, expect conflict with parents/voters/tax payers who disagree.

As a parent of a school children, I am willing to support the schools in whatever way I can to help with their education. However, if supporting their education becomes twisted so I have to support other agendas that i disagree with (or consider harmful), I will withdraw my support and as much of my resources as possible from the system.

Perhaps the NEA could focus more on dialog and partnership with the parents of school children?


You are up against vast, nationalist, government privileged, self-interested powers that want to see public schools become the 'end all be all' in community life. Public schools already make up the largest portion of any local budget.

What realistic action could you take as a parent to 'withdraw your support and as much of your resources as possible from the system'? If you try to withold taxes you will end up in jail and your kids will be without a dad. You may try to homeschool your kids- but you still have to follow state regs and pay into the system. That may be ok if you are rich. Any ideas?


I do not know the definition of "rich," but I make less than $250k per year.

Currently my wife and I support the public school which my children attend by partnership with the teacher, time (volunteer), money (fundraisers), and advocacy.

While I have no interest in slaying Goliaths, I will do what i have to to protect my children and get them a good education.

If you want an example of what a few parents with vested interest in their children can do, google "Ryan's Law" and "PDD Waiver". These were grassroot efforts by the South Carolina autism community. No big bucks, no powerful lobby groups. Just communication with state reps (enough support was generated to override the governor's veto).

This is why I urge educators to partner with parents.


It is true that many disagree with universal health care, universal pre-school and other family supportive policies. The fact of the matter is, though, that the NEA, and many teachers are using children's poverty as an excuse for achievement gaps, singing the song that the schools cannot improve until we end poverty. There is some research support to indicate that countries that are more supportive of families and young children have more equitable outcomes in education--correlation studies at the international level. It is certainly true that in the United States we tend to reject these things out of hand. There are other unions who have examined some of these specifics from their own points of view and formulated stands accordingly. The UAW can tell you how much more a car made in this country costs vs a car made in Canada or Japan, due to increased health care costs. This affects their workers (yet they don't use it to suggest that they must produce a lower quality product).

I am all for dialog between teachers and parents. I don't know that the NEA--or the union local is the appropriate representative for that conversation, although I would be very interested in having parent representation at the bargaining table--it might cut out some of the silliness in teacher contracts (such as mandating each building allow teachers to vote on the time of parent conferences--I don't know that a union could present that demand with a straight fact to a group of parents).

But John has a valid point and one that I endorse, which is that, over time, unions have advocated for many social justice issues that affected not only their specific workers, but many potential workers and workers without union protection. I have never had the good fortune to be backed by a union--but I have protections today (number of hours worked, sick leave, protection against discrimination, health insurance) as the result of the work of unions.

Teachers unions today are stuck. They have not developed a vision of education that includes broader efficacy for all students--unless that means more or better paid teaching jobs. Their vision (as I see it) is based largely on an industrial model of hourly work with protections for workers. They are functioning primarily in a reactionary mode. Their dilemma is not dissimilar to that faced by other labor organizations in the US as work has changed. Japanese automakers have been able to run non-union shops and operate in a very different way from Detroit's assembly line. The assembly line, and all of modern industry were extremely vulnerable to union action in the form of strikes due to their linear nature and the concentration of work/capital in a single location. This is far less true today. People who care about the treatment of workers are going to have to find new ways to ensure fair treatment as the work becomes more dispersed, more automated and less vulnerable to work stoppages. The power of organized labor is dissipating and I don't know that clinging to an assembly-line mentality is going to change that.

The NEA likes to legitimize their organization through a veneer of concern for children, through the connection that making life better for teachers will improve life for children. This is pretty shaky ground, particularly when union contracts interfere with the flexibility of districts to move teachers based on student need, rather than seniority, or when there is a need to maintain a level of mistrust between workers (teachers) and management (principals) in order to organize. Principals are not stockholders or owners. Neither are superintendents or school boards. This is a critical difference between NEA and UAW. There are no stockholders or owners in public education, in the sense of capital skimming off the value of what is produced by the workers. Demonizing management (or government or parents or school boards) by placing them in that role is not at this point helpful to a reform process.

That is why I suggested that other professional organization might provide a better voice for teachers in planning and implementing reform. Perhaps professional organizations would see a valid educational need for greater flexibility in teacher's working hours in order to meet variable student needs, or to develop better community partnerships. Unions would then be the appropriate venue to see that this was implemented in a way that is fair to all teachers.

What I keep hearing from teachers is an overwhelming sense of powerlessness (despite union membership) to impact anything that happens in their buildings. I don't see unions enabling teacher empowerment at the building level. I see them expecting management to solve all problems (discipline, curriculum, relationships with parents). I don't see them lobbying for collaborative planning time. I don't see them lobbying for time to meet with parents, or to connect to the community (although they might support hiring surrogates to do this in their place). They weren't interested in providing quality supplemental educational services until parents were given the opportunity to obtain this elsewhere.

The way to get credence for Bolder Broader more Beautiful, if this is what teachers want to advance as their agenda, is to put something behind their words. Get the bucks together to run some pilots and evaluate their efficacy. Begin conversations with service providers in every community about how to build coalitions (odds are, there is already a coalition--education just needs to show up). Start talking to parents about what you want to do. All the parents. Not just the ones who walk in or are agreeable. Find out why they agree or disagree with what you want to do.

The solution to being seen as a single issue group is to stop being a single issue group. That requires some ability to join with and hear others.


I am still unclear about what you are describing. What copyright laws prevent criticism of a product?

BTW--most states release some portion of their test items (I believe New York releases all of them)--which would provide an opportunity to discuss any of them publicly. There are also generally a variety of review boards that examine items prior to their use--many of these are open to teachers. This doesn't guarantee perfection, but I don't know anything that does. And there have been instances of questions being officially challenged following a test administration.

It looks as though Ryan's law and PDD Waiver's are the results of special interest groups trying to get as much from the state as possible. Well, why not? The government has made itself de facto in charge of your kid's health anyway.

One of the prices is the risk: You cannot stop other interest groups from getting government to socialize healthcare completely and do away with special dispensations for autism. After all, they are playing the same game that you just happen to be winning at the moment. There is no reason to believe that autism is any more special than other afflictions and conditions. Ryan's Law makes it harder for minority conditions to be covered. And if these underdogged ailments do get state mandates then impending rising costs across the insurance biz will effect everything else- including employment. Who will be able to afford insurance? This will and has provided rationalization for more state control. If the state controls insurance can it rightly be called insurance?

But such is the statist game of legal plunder. No matter what moral result you want- the process is necessarily immoral and has the unintended consequence of enhancing government power to the point that it eclipses whatever limited value you fought to receive from it.


The "special interest group" are parents of children with autism. They are not paid lobbyists. They are not "connected." They are not "rich." They are regular working people.

You asked "What realistic action could you take as a parent..."

I have laid out two ideas that worked, that fought the "system" and won. I understand that you disagree with what was accomplished, but it does demonstrate that government and the insurance lobby can be influenced by regular people.

You have been eloquent in describing what is broken. What are your ideas? And what are the examples of this working?

Unions Cause Relative Poverty and Unemployment:

Many believe that unions are only ‘sticking it to the man’, to the evil capitalists and managers. But in reality unions hurt their fellow workers primarily. Unions necessarily raise costs on producers- which certainly benefits workers in the short run: the workers holding the jobs, that is.

The rising cost of workers pushes employers to make decisions on whether to: cut back on new hires, invest in technology that eliminates positions, move overseas to where there are less labor costs, raise prices (which most likely will be rejected by consumers and/or result lower revenues), or end the business. A worker that might have been hired pre-union is forced into a larger pool of workers on the outside who face lower wages or unemployment.

Government union monopolies are often powerful enough to increase the number of positions in the workplace. But this just means that job creation and wages are lowered in non-government areas.

Reason(?), you say,

"Many believe that unions are only ‘sticking it to the man’, to the evil capitalists and managers. But in reality unions hurt their fellow workers primarily. Unions necessarily raise costs on producers- which certainly benefits workers in the short run: the workers holding the jobs, that is."

This is certainly not born out by the experience of workers in the US or in other unionized countries. Think about this when you go home at the end of 8 hours instead of 12, when you receive disability benefits if your arm is chopped off by machinery (or you get carpal tunnel from typing on your computer) instead of moving into the local homeless shelter, or when you plan for retirement or take your family on vacation, or pull out your health insurance card. These are not things that are just granted by employers because they are good people. They are things that they have had to offer to stay competitive in a labor market where unions have organized workers to bargain for these things in return for their work.

Or read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, or the lives of mill workers in Lowell, Massachussetts or the number of worker deaths per mile in building the Erie Canal, or black lung disease among coal miners. Read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair about the unregulated meat packing industry. These are the conditions that exist under raw capitalism in an every man for himself working environment. We are fortunate in this country to have softened these effects and experience a more humane workplace overall--but again, these things didn't just happen. It took the collective action of many people, most of them under the umbrella of unionism. It is a part of our history, and one that I am not willing to toss aside.


Your emotional anecdotes have done nothing to negate the validity of my statements on unions. I, like you, could also supply a historical litany. One major example is how unions were used to enforce apartheid in South Africa. One economist labeled this phenomenon "The Color Bar".

Data does not speak for itself when dealing with human history. Theory comes first. There is no escaping the fact that capitalist production enabled more leisure time for workers.


That your interest group is more worthy of attention than other groups might be true, but it is a subjective evaluation. Personally, I wish you success in providing the best care for your kids. You sound like an amazing parent.

Me? I say that government should not be involved in education in any way, shape or form.

-It is too dangerous to make schools public monopolies. Government will want to create official 'history' and force it on our children.

-Public schools are bastions of resource misallocation due to their disconnection with the real exchange that happens in the market place.

-Public schools suppress freedom of association via compulsory attendance.

-Public schools become battlegrounds between groups of people wanting to force their values on others. Markets resolve this low level civil war in the way that freedom of religion creates space for a plurality of faiths.

I could go on and on...

My computer is in the shop so I barely have time to post with typos, etc.

My point is that liberals have bought into an anti-union approach. We wouldn't tell social workers to improve their kids lives through their professional organizations, but not through their union, or for that matter their church.

As I wrote in todays TWIE, I was stunned by the Ed Trust reports. Other NCLB supporters on the Right and Left seem to realize that the law has largely failed. But they and Spellings are the last true believers. They couldn't even be bothered to considered real world solutions; they just tighten the screws. And they do so in ways that that must know won't work. They, like Michelle Rhee, seem to be preoccuppied with defeating their enemies with the hope that NCLB III will work.

But there are plenty of compromises that wouldn't satisfy Reason, but I think that Margo/mom, Erin, Diane S., and others and I could agree on.

But we must back off from this preoccupation with blaming teachers and focus on the problems.

Fundamentally, the thing that bothers me about the Ed Trust and Rhee is their seeming obliviousness to self doubt. Every day I make plenty of decision sregarding students and I will never know if I was right or wrong or in between. I never want to impose my model on others without checks and balances. In my experience, everything involves trade-offs. I just can't understand people who are so completely convinced of the righteous of their approach when my whole life in inner city schools makes me wrestle with shades of gray.


I am familiar with the NASW--a professional organization that speaks for Social Workers. I have never heard of a national (or local) union that speaks for Social Workers. Social Workers are a surprisingly un-organized lot.


No copyright laws prevent criticism of a product, but whoever wishes to cite specific examples must consider the following:

1. Copyright law. Copyright generally prohibits the unauthorized reproduction of a work in any form, with the exception of "fair use," which is open to interpretation. Criticism that negatively affects sales may be deemed unfair use, from what I can tell.

2. Licensing restrictions. Those depend on the license itself. They may be more or less stringent than the copyright law.

3. Security of testing material. Certain tests are released to the public, as you pointed out; others (in particular, interim and predictive tests) are not. I have been required in the past to sign releases saying that I would not discuss the contents of a given test, generally or specifically, with anyone.

4. Restrictions on the First Amendment rights of a public or private employee. There is a large grey area in the law. Certain districts have a reputation for retaliating against teachers, principals, and others who criticize their programs.

In the past I have had serious misgivings about specific test questions. On one occasion I contacted the appropriate office and asked permission to discuss the test questions publicly (the window period for test administration had passed). I received a courteous reply but was denied permission on the grounds that the test questions might be reused.

Diana Senechal


I suggest you talk to a lawyer. Criticism of published, copyrighted works certainly goes on all the time. I cannot imagine that any client/user of a product can be prohibited from discussing or critiquing any product, regardless of how far from the grocery store it is sold. These things go on all the time (Consumer reports, for example). Certainly any employee of any organization, who can be recognized as an employee confronts a line somewhere that subdivides their personal and professional lives and opinions. In the case of teachers, there is certainly a body of case law that helps to define that line. Retaliation in general against employees who do right things (whistleblowers) have some legal protections, but retaliation is frequently difficult to prove (easier for teachers, simply because they have a contract that specifies conditions under which they can be let go--most of us don't have that).

But, I think the wiser course is to be in a pro-active position: that is among those who make curriculum or program selections (in my district the union is always at the table--they ought to be able to advise about what is going on or being thought about), or on one of the committees that reviews test questions, or sets cut scores, or determines standards. These things--in the public sector--generally have windows for public involvement. This isn't the same as every individual teacher having a Y/N vote on every decision that comes down the pike, or the freedom (and the responsibility) to create everything from whole cloth as they see fit.

John "Union" Thompson. Wow! Out of the mouths of babes (Reason). That's the best one I've read on this blog in quite some time. Talk about hitting the nail on the head. He's so brainwashed with union propaganda he can't see the forest for the trees. Boy, can anyone figure out why he spends so much time hammering Michelle Rhee?

The NEA mandating foreign policy? Come on! Now you know why so many people (teachers included, especially new teachers) can't stand unions (that's the NEA as well as their state lackeys). When reputable newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, etc., rail endlessly against teacher unions and specifically the NEA, you'd think after several years, these folks would get the message. To date, they apparently have not. Many people ar coming to the conclusion the only unions in America today doing anything for teachers are the locals. The state and federal brats think they're running the world. They think they have all the answers. THEY DON’T. The NEA does NOTHING for teachers except give them a bad reputation. It’s called guilt by association.

Diane, as I mentioned in your last entry I am often in agreement with you but must respectfully disagree with you on this one. No Child Left Behind will be reauthorized with bipartisan support. As Erin said, “The motivation behind NCLB is hard to argue with, "Help children to learn better and comparable to that seen in the best countries around the world.” NCLB has problems. Even Margaret Spellings will concede that. They’ve been acknowledged and can be addressed with appropriate amendments. Do you honestly believe anyone in Congress would vote against such a law?


I was not asking for advice, and I have no need to see a lawyer.

I was responding to Diane's column. She points out that the policymakers speak in jargon far removed from the classroom, and those in the schools who speak their views are dismissed as self-interested individuals and pressure groups.

I started thinking about how privatization affects our freedom of speech. In order for us to reach policymakers, we need to show exactly how their policies and catch-phrases affect the daily life of a school. We need to illustrate this with specific examples.

Privatization (whether of select services or of entire schools) limits our access to these very examples. More and more instructional materials are private property and not publicly available. We see the ads, not the reality.

You may disagree that (a) this is the case or (b) this is a problem, even if it is the case. Please disagree, then. Recommending a course of action distracts from the discussion. (Also, I am allergic to the word "pro-active.")

All instructional materials used in public schools should be available to the public, regardless of their source. Take the Core Knowledge curriculum. You can find it in bookstores and libraries. This should be the norm.

Diana Senechal


I am very confused, but I am not a lawyer. As far as I know privatization does not place the restrictions that you speak of on free speech. If someone is restricting your free speech and telling you that it is because of the things that you have cited, I think that they may be wrong. But I am not a lawyer.

I find it to be a less than helpful route, when trying to impact curriculum, policy or anything else to respond to what someone else has done without having tried to impact the work at an earlier stage.

Real privatization would put entities completely out of the reach of policy makers and rent seekers trying to squirm their way to the public trough. Partial privatization, which describes what is happening now, merely redistributes political power (like in Russia) and may be worse than pre-privatization.

Partial privatization does not create accountability because the government is still in charge of the contracts. There is a name in economics for a system that maintains the appearance of capitalism and property rights but is directed by government authorities: fascism.

Would you want your kid going to Halliburton Elementary, a public school headed by Principal Bush and Vice Principal Cheney?

Yet, unions complaining of this privatization-that-really-isn't are not arguing against fascism per se. Rather, they are trying to protect their own privileged position at the tax spigot. In other words, it is the socialist guild-teapot calling the fascist-kettle black.

Combining privatization-that-really-isn't and union power with the current moves towards (further) nationalization of schools may prove to be the most chaotic and unaccountable system yet.



Try searching for substantial information on private programs currently in use in public schools: Success for All, Schools Attuned, WestEd, KIPP, and others. You will find a website and possibly a sample lesson plan or two. You will not find a full curriculum or textbook. Nor will you find them in a public library or bookstore.

If I am wrong and such resources are indeed publicly available, by all means point me to them.

If the public does not have access to this information, how can it assess any such program thoughtfully? How can it distinguish the true texture of a program from the advertiser's gloss?

Diana Senechal


One quick way to access information about various programs is through What Works. While they only use research with experimental or quasi-experimental designs on their specific topic areas in providing their own evaluations, they include a full list of studies/evaluations. Success For All is listed there, in reading (I didn't check on math). I don't see this as fundamentally different from non-packaged/commercial "programs" such as Positive Behavior Support--which has lots of research available, but as an approach rather than a package does not have "materials" to review. Certainly, any district who is interested in purchasing a program has all kinds of leverage in asking for the things that they need to make a decision: from observations of the program in use, to a list of districts who have already used it (and permission to contact), a full set of curriculum to review. Clearly this is not going to be something that every teacher in every district gets to look at before a choice is made. Most districts with union contracts, however, make sure that there are some teachers included in the groups that make such decisions.

But, I still don't see this as an issue that has anything to do with putting limits on teachers right to an opinion or putting any kind of damper on their right to speak their mind. My own district went through a trial/evaluation period using several commercially produced reading programs. There were lots of opinions voiced--by teachers and others. There was also an evaluation performed by an outside evaluator, who found most had major areas of weakness. In the end the district decided to develop their own reading program, based on what they had learned from the evaluation. I don't know that this is the wisest, most efficient means to go forward, but they are a large district, so it was possible. Again, I cannot discern any that any damper has been placed on teacher's ability to speak their mind. Most teachers that I have heard are very critical of the new system. In the end, if teachers hate it but kids are learning to read, I am not sure how the district will resolve the issue.

But, the reality in this country is that R&D $ have to come from somewhere. In this country, we are very privatized when it comes to these things. Even when methodology researched and government sponsored and materials developed someplace outside the commercial world (like a university), distribution has to be on someone's dime. We choose to do this through the free market. For better or worse, this is something that Americans are deeply committed to.

Some other countries do it differently, government plays a greater role in bearing the cost, with some loss in the availability of diverse options (and possibly pretty colors and other sales tools). Again, as Americans we are deeply mistrustful of government generated curriculum materials. That is a choice we have made.

In the end--as Bob Dylan says, you've got to serve someone. In the toss up between free market materials and government produced materials, Americans lean strongly towards free market. Maybe we will lean another way as a result of the market collapse, but I suspect not.


There is an interesting article entitled "The Legal Standard On the Scope of Teachers' Free Speech Rights in the School Setting" by Jo, Seog Hun (Journal of Law and Education, October 1, 2002). It shows how courts have ruled differently on the balance between "public concern" and the school board's interest. The author finds logical faults in Pickering and Connick and shows how these have "hindered courts in turning out reasonable judgments."

The author summarizes the thrust of the Pickering and Connick majority opinions: "the stable and prevalent principle suggests that a remark or communication of a citizen is presumptively protected by First Amendment, while speech of an employee about internal office affairs may not be."

Now, how does this relate to the availability of information? If certain curricula can only be accessed by the schools that use them (or those considering the use of them), then a court might argue that they are "internal office affairs" and not a matter of public concern.

Diana Senechal


I would think that anyone who would argue that a discussion of the content of a purchased curriculum is the equivalent of discussing internal office affairs would not have much of a legal leg to stand on. But this would presume that such a discussion is challenged in court. Who, I wonder, would bring such a challenge? Would the company that published the material have standing to bring suit against an employee discussing the internal office affairs of a district? I would think not. Would the district be able to argue that materials that they purchased had become internal affairs? They are not unique items, they do not communicate the inner workings of the business. They do not reveal personal information. School districts, as public entities, have relatively little non-public information. I am not certain where the fear is coming from, but it looks like you are going pretty far off the beaten path to suggest a limitation on your speech.


It is unfair to dismiss my concerns as "fear." I started out with concerns about the effects of privatized curricula on freedom of speech, and then went to some trouble to defend my concerns. The subject of freedom of speech in schools is vast and complex. The more I look into it, the more subtlety there is.

I would love to dig further into caselaw and provide more examples. But I am underslept and have much else to do. I will have to leave this discussion here for now. That does not mean that I will stop thinking and reading about it.

So, back to the question of jargon. If we want to break through the jargon coming from policymakers, we must be able to demonstrate how such jargon translates into practice. This requires open discussion and open access to curricular materials, period.

That in itself would not break the jargon wall. But it would help.

Diana Senechal

I am an older brand-new pre-K to 3rd grade teacher.

I raised several children of my own first.

I can say that if parents don't assure that their children are reading for pleasure for 2 hours daily (every day, school term and vacations) at home, no amount of beefing up the education at school will make much difference in the lives of these children.

I also realized last year that enrolling in and graduating from college is pretty much decided by the end of first grade. If a child is not an interested and frequent reader in very early elem school on through middle school, that child's chances of being accepted to college (never mind graduating from high school) are greatly diminished.

It annoys me no end when parents shriek, "the schools have failed our children!" No they haven't--you parents failed your children. You did this by not arranging your home to encourage and reinforce recreational reading, and reducing tv viewing from the average of 5 hours daily (disgraceful!) to at most 1 hour daily, (or none, which is the choice I made in my home when my own children were young until they graduated from high school--and of course went off to college).


Testing is only proper when the testers can be held accountable. Since testing is done by the state and the state remains largely unaccountable-it does makes the rules and does not have to live by them- testing as we know it has become just another tool of oppression. Only testing in the market place is effective in terms of social cooperation and accountability.


I can only hope that as a teacher you are open to continuing to learn. I have encountered attitudes similar to yours from time to time throughout my children's school careers. Not a one has ever set foot in my house or become conversant with any of the things that I do to raise my children--but they are absolutely certain that what they are doing (as a first year teacher no less) is absolutely the best that can be done and anything less than success must be because of poor parenting.

I would suggest that successful learning is a result of parents and teachers working together--which is something that cannot happen when a teacher is convinced that by K-3 the parents have already ruined their children's chances.


You state, "I can say that if parents don't assure that their children are reading for pleasure for 2 hours daily (every day, school term and vacations) at home, no amount of beefing up the education at school will make much difference in the lives of these children."

Margo is right. Girl, you need to lighten up a bit. I taught school for 34 years and can count on one hand the number of kids that read that much at home. Many of them turned out to be quite successful too. As a teacher, you're going to have to roll up your sleeves and work hard with many youngsters to get them where they need to be. The home is not going to do it all for you. As Margo suggests, in collaboration with parent(s), many of your students can have a successful school experience.


In creating curriculum, I'm finding a lot of what you are saying is true. That is why my first order of business is to hire a copyright attorney....

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