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No Child Left Behind Still Stalking Our Schools

January 20, 2012


I have linked to Stan Karp’s Rethinking Schools blog before, it is also a link on the right side of my home page.  I like Stan’s writing and logic, he is intelligent, down to earth, and he tells it like it is (plus I like him because NJ, my home-state, is where he taught).

In this piece Stan labels NCLB as a Zombie which is still stalking our schools.  I think the use of the word Zombie is an interesting characterization because in all the movies you see Zombies are hard to kill just as NCLB is going to be hard to kill.  I think part of the “hard to kill” aspect of the law is its clever naming.  I mean, who can vote against something called No Child Left Behind?  Can you imagine the mind of the candidate considering voting against this law, you can see him/her thinking about their next debate, or a TV commercial stating: “___________ is heartless, he/she doesn’t care about children, he/she voted against a good education and chose to leave children behind.”

Here is Stan’s piece:

Stan Karp

Anniversaries are often cause for celebration… but the 10th anniversary of No Child Left Behind is mostly a time for damage assessment. A new report from FairTest sums up the fallout from the “lost decade of NCLB:” stagnating test scores, narrowed curriculum but not narrowed achievement gaps, extra collateral damage for the most vulnerable students and communities.

This massive, bipartisan, wrong turn in federal education policy has been a colossal failure, even on its own test-score terms, and the damage will continue until we force a change in federal policy.

NCLB dramatically expanded the federal role in education, but transformed it for the worse. It shifted federal policy away from its historic role as a promoter of access and equity in public education through support for things like school integration, Title I funding for high poverty schools, and services for students with special needs. Instead, it mandated top-down micromanagement of assessment and “accountability” policies that Washington had no clue about or capacity to do well. This bad law helped consolidate the shift of decision-making about teaching and learning away from educators and classrooms to state and federal bureaucracies.

This law was signed under George W. Bush, isn’t it interesting how Republicans are always complaining about intrusive big government, but they are always enacting policies which promote intrusive big government?  Think Patriot Act, NCLB, and of course, tampering with a woman’s right to choose.

NCLB’s mandate to testevery kid every year in every grade and measure the results against benchmarks that no real schools had ever met was never a credible “accountability” system. It was an enabling mechanism for creating a narrative of public school failure and imposing sanctions that were not educational strategies at all, but political strategies designed to promote privatization and market reform.

This is the key for people to understand about NCLB and even Charter Schools.  They are not designed to help public education, they are designed as Trojan Horse policies to undermine it.  As Mr. Karp states, they are an: “enabling mechanism for creating a narrative of public school failure.”  Teachers need to remember that and become much more politically active if we will be able to change policies like this.

This approach predictably produced profiteering and educational chaos. “This reads like our business plan,” said the CEO of Pearson, Inc., when he first saw the plans for NCLB. It’s been a gold-rush decade for textbook and test publishers.


But for schools, teachers, parents and students, it’s been a nightmare. NCLB’s testing mania seeped into every classroom and its sanctions fueled the rush to deregulated charters and teacher bashing. By the end of 2011, nearly 50,000 schools failed to meet NCLB’s absurd annual yearly progress targets. All 50 states had considered legislation rejecting all or part of NCLB and the law was almost as unpopular as the Congress that created it. The bipartisan coalition that originally passed NCLB was in shambles and the law was collapsing of its own weight.

Yet NCLB continues, zombie-like, to threaten schools with sanctions and bombard them with mandated tests. Like a bad Hollywood horror movie, it is also spawning sequels. Given an opportunity to learn from a decade of policy failure, the Obama Administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan instead doubled down on NCLB’s “test and punish” approach to reform. Much as it traded one destructive war in Iraq for another in Afghanistan, the Administration morphed one counterproductive set of education policies into another.

I am so very disappointed in Obama’s choice of Arne Duncan to run the education department.  I have said so many times on this blog.  Duncan has spent NO time in a classroom, and as most people who haven’t spent time in a classroom he will never understand what it means to teach a room full of kids.

Obama-Duncan’s Race to The Top uses the same flawed test score tools to drill deeper into the fabric of schooling. Where NCLB imposed penalties on schools and students (e.g., grade retention, diploma denial), test-based sanctions are now increasingly targeted at teachers. Left unchecked, these trends will undermine the teaching profession and create a less experienced, less secure, less stable and less expensive professional staff.

I think that is the ultimate aim of these laws.  As I have written previously, if you look at these laws long-term it is the businessification of public schools and the funding attached to them that people are interested in capturing.  The aim is not to teach children, the aim is to make a profit.

Duncan has also pioneered new directions in bad policy, distributing federal education dollars through “competitive grants” to “winners” at the expense of “losers,” and bribing states to adopt the Administration’s unproven pet reforms. Unable to secure Congressional agreement to reauthorize NCLB, Duncan devised a dubious waiver process that will increase the pressure on 5,000 schools serving the poorest communities at a time of unprecedented economic crisis and budget cutting. While the waiver plan rolls back NCLB’s AYP (adequate yearly progress) system as it was about to self-destruct, Duncan’s new guidelines require states to identify up to 15% of their schools with the lowest scores for unproven “turnarounds,” “charterization,” or closure.

Arne Duncan is really a disaster for public schools, our best hope is that he takes a high-paying position somewhere with some education publisher or software company and maybe, just maybe Obama can replace him with some like Linda Darling-Hammond (this is assuming Obama wins a second term).

It’s increasingly clear that we will only get the changes we need in federal education policy when pressure forces them from below. We need to occupy education policy the same way we need to occupy Wall Street. This is one reason we should mark the 10th anniversary not only by redoubling efforts to get rid of this bad framework for federal education policy, but by remembering those who saw the disaster coming and sounded the alarm from the beginning.

While politicians and pundits led the race over the cliff, there were many educators and advocates who were speaking truth to power: the much-missedJerry BraceySusan OhanianAlfie KohnMonty Neill and FairTestDeborah MeierBill MathisRichard AllingtonGeorge Wood, and many others, includingRethinking Schools, saw through NCLB’s false promises and hollow rhetoric from the start. That’s worth remembering too as we chart the way forward to a better, post-NCLB future.


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