The Education Reformation of NCLB and the Crusade to Kill Public Schools
From October 1, 2005
Choosing the language that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross used to describe the process of dying, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on September 28 that “I think we have gone in to all the phases with ‘No Child Left Behind,’ –we’re into acceptance, if you will.” Whether “we will” or “will not” remains to be seen, but Spellings had one thing right: the American public school that has been the institutional bulwark for democratic aspirations for nearly 200 years is in the fight of its life. Ironically, it has been the corporate socialists who now control the federal government that reached the “acceptance stage” long before any of us knew that a sickness had set in. The campaign for acceptance of the imminent death of the public schools and the rise of privatized corporate welfare schools has been a concerted and continuing campaign, whose outcome is, indeed, certain unless changes are demanded by the American public in federal education policy now. How did we get to this stage?
It should come as no surprise that many of us grew up with the belief that the public school was the institution through which we as Americans come to realize the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. After all, that is what we were taught in school, and what our teachers were taught, and their teachers before them. It is one of our cherished chestnuts that goes all the way back to Horace Mann, who masterfully pitched his case for public schools to a wary public in the early19th Century. What we were not taught in school, and therefore less likely to know, is that Mann’s plea for financial support to the skeptical industrialists and business owners of his day focused on, instead of liberty, providing a morally-prepared work force that would offer the factory owner the best kind of property insurance for his valuable investments. Workers educated in the new common schools would show up on time, take orders, and not vandalize the equipment. Though the liberty pitch to the common man was important in garnering widespread support, Mann’s idealistic salesmanship actually prevailed on the strength of this latter argument, even if the system that Mann inspired was unable to ever fully deliver on either of his promises. What would be left in the wake of those unfulfilled promises to the Boston Brahmin as well as the Massachusetts country farmer are the relics of reform efforts that now scatter the historical path that lead up to the door of the 21st Century schoolhouse.
Our modern history, then, is strewn with examples of efforts to exorcise the perceived mediocrity of the public schools that resulted from that initial over-promising by Mann and other promoters of Common School Crusade. Systematic reform goes back at least to the beginning of the 20th Century, when progressives sought to emulate the new science of efficiency and scientific management that brought us the assembly line and mass production. Having taken charge of the management of public education under the leadership of academics such as Stanford University’s Elwood Cubberley, the efficiency crowd sought to make the American school a smooth running and efficient business that could sustain the unending production of knowledgeable and malleable workers for what seemed to be America’s unquenchable industrial engine. The case that the efficiency reformers made for turning schools away from the classical goals of education centered upon the need to counter the economic threat of the German industrial machine just after the turn of the 20th Century. It was essentially an economic and national security argument based on fear that made it possible to turn “failing schools” into sorting machines that would use the new efficient science of the primitive IQ tests to decide children’s future work slots in a carefully-engineered society for which the zealots for efficiency campaigned heavily.
The disgruntled and displaced educational traditionalists, who had enjoyed centuries of dominance based on an unremitting system of memorizing, reciting, and strict discipline, lay in wait for an opportunity to attack the new social efficiency and utility-driven schools. They got their first big break in 1957, when the Soviets were first to launch the man-made satellite, Sputnik. Traditionalists like Arthur Bestor and Hyman Rickover quickly took advantage of the opening, scoring big with a receptive and gullible mass media by railing against the flabby school curriculum that had given the knowledge advantage to the Russians, thus placing American national security in jeopardy. Not mentioned were the intelligence and economic policy failures that allowed the Soviets to move ahead, and not mentioned was the complacency of American business to embrace the emerging technologies of the time. Not mentioned, either, was the fear that schools had lost control of the young, who seemed more fascinated with rock-n-roll than they did with those 3 Rs.
Thus the successful strategy of blaming the schools from the early century came to be used once more, this time against those who used it first. Blaming the schools worked to create an effective scapegoat that sold newspapers, which, in turn made the need for reform widely talked about and eventually accepted, thus ushering in an ideological solution desperate for educational problems to fix. Thus became the pattern for the large education reform movements in public education. It must be noted, too, that in 1969 when the USA was first to land a man on the moon, credit for that national victory did not go to the immediate turnaround in the failing American school system, but to the ingenuity and can-do spirit that coalesced in a cooperative venture by American business, government, and the investment communities. Never mind that the schools were not to blame in the first place.
The same pattern would be repeated in 1983, when “dumbed-down schools” were blamed for the economic threat by the Japanese and other Asian economies, whose schools were obviously much better than ours. American schools were so bad, said A Nation at Risk, that they had taken the United States to the brink of “unilateral educational disarmament.” Not mentioned in this analysis was the failure of America’s automakers and other industries to re-tool and re-invest to keep pace with energy and environmental conditions, and never mind the accumulating evidence for needed economic policy changes that the U. S. government had failed to acknowledge or to make a priority. This time, however, reform of the public schools would not be enough for reformers: the situation would require an alternative to the “public school monopoly,” as the first President Bush would call the school situation during a summit at Charlottesville, Virginia in 1989 with corporate CEOs and the nation’s governors. By the early 1990s, however, when the USA’s economy began an unprecedented surge that left Japan and others in the economic dust, it is worth noting that credit, once again, did not go to the immediate turnaround of the American schools, but to sound economic policy and to an entrepreneurial exploitation of technological advances. Never mind that the schools had not produced the crisis in the first place, just as they had not effected the solution.
Now, fifteen years later and well advanced into an era of testing hysteria that has left America’s children and parents edgy and anxious and our educators demoralized and exhausted, comes another education summit in February 2005, again in Virginia, and this time with the world’s top technocrat, Bill Gates, delivering the keynote. In the sights of the test-based reformers now is the American high school, as flabby it would seem as America’s school children and totally unprepared to insure the continuance of America’s economic predominance in the world. The high schools are so bad, it would seem, that students are leaving in droves, creating an embarrassing dropout rate for the world’s bastion of equal opportunity and economic success.
Those that are not leaving, according to the now-familiar narrative, are entering college without the basics that will assure their success in the high-tech jobs of the future. These students are so unprepared, says the familiar refrain, that corporations are looking to other countries to fill the need. Not mentioned is the fact that those high-tech and low-tech jobs are being funneled offshore into foreign job markets by people like Mr. Gates and the other CEOs at the Virginia summit who are unwilling to pay American workers a fair wage. Not mentioned, either, by the reform-by-testing crowd is the sad fact that, of the ten states with the lowest graduation rates, all ten already have high school exit exams. And nine of them have had exit exams for more than 10 years. The solution, nonetheless, is clear: higher standards and more high-stakes tests.
The great diversion continues unabated, this time, however, with some built-in solutions to that public school monopoly that Reagan and GHW Bush could not crack.
No Child Left Behind is different from all the other educational reforms that have preceded it—this time the reformers are assured of a win, regardless of the outcome. If schools are able to achieve the impossible and attain the 100 percent math and reading proficiency by 2014 that the legislation requires, then the reformers will have threatened, bullied, and shamed their way to educational success by having rendered our schools into scripted testing factories. If the more probable scenario develops (psychometricians say certain), however, and a large majority of American schools are clear failures or on the “Federal watch-list” before or by 2014, then the road to school privatization will be clear sailing. By then, American parents will be shell-shocked and willing to try anything to avoid another one of those Federally-mandated letters telling them that their children are failing because their schools are failing. And state legislatures, broken financially and in spirit by then from the under-funded burdens of NCLB implementation, will be desperate enough to turn the whole effort over to the EMOs of an education industry that will be ramped up, ready, and waiting to pounce.
What separates the current reform efforts from all others in American history is the degree to which millions of American children are suffering, are dropping out, or are being labeled as failures at an early age in ways that will forever leave them behind in a world of disenfranchisement or poverty that no standard or test can touch. Beyond this utter tragedy that is concealed under a cynical and hollow rhetoric that would make Horace Mann blush, there is a deeper tragedy still: for were we to achieve the impossible as required by NCLB with its 100 percent testing proficiency requirement, we will have by then narrowed the focus of the school curriculum and teaching to the narrow confines of that which is tested. Regardless of how valid those tests are likely to be, and experts like James Popham says that 90% of them are junk, this will tragically, perhaps, leave us even more unprepared to deal with the changing world events and challenges that will assuredly come, more unaware and unappreciative of our own diversity and the democratic adaptation that a healthy future requires, and more blinded to our imaginative and critical capacities that have thus far assured America’s cultural and scientific eminence in the world of nations. Is this the educational success to which we aspire? If so, then what should we call failure?
To those who continue to support an educational policy of false promises that threatens psychological and intellectual genocide against our children, and thus our future, let me ask you to go into the schools and see what has already happened there before you continue down this road. Ask elementary teachers and students about what has happened to the joy of teaching, learning , and of coming to school. Ask principals about what has happened to recess and field trips and civic purpose. Ask curriculum coordinators what has happened to the social studies, health, and the arts. Ask counselors about student behavior and teacher morale. Ask the public what it means when their local schools’ Title I dollars are used to pay private tutoring firms who are accountable to no one except their own Washington lobbyists and the insiders at US DOE that shovel them their millions. Ask parents about what it means when their children pass their subjects and are left behind because they did not pass a test. Ask them and listen, and you will begin to hear a rumble, steady and getting stronger, moving upward—signaling that the American public will not go so gentle into that night of the corporate socialists.