I realize we’ve got sexier issues to think about today — lies, corruption, global thermonuclear war — but I’d like to take a moment to reflect on No Child Left Behind. If education issues aren’t your bag, feel free to skip the details between asterisks (***) and go right to the conclusions.
When George W. Bush was running for president in 2000, he talked a lot about education. He promised to be The Education President. This was an odd issue for a Republican to run on, considering the Reagan/libertarian wing of the party long had wanted to eliminate the Department of Education and leave public schooling entirely to the states. But, conventional wisdom said, talking about education made Bush more palatable to suburbanite soccer moms. It was a big part of his “compassionate conservative” shtick.
In 2000, and again in 2004, the Bush campaign touted education reform as among Bush’s biggest achievements as governor of Texas. His ads claimed “dramatic results” in Texas education. In fact, CBS reported in 2003 that much of this “success” came from cooking the books — reporting false dropout rates and test scores. But that didn’t stop Bush from continuing to brag.
The centerpiece of President Bush’s education reform, the No Child Left Behind Act, was signed into law about four years ago. Bush is proud of this act. He mentioned it frequently during the 2004 campaign. The Department of Education building in Washington DC — I don’t know what they do in there, but it’s one big mother of a building — is festooned with NCLB banners, and the entrances are decorated with cheery “little red schoolhouse” facades. The building serves as a billboard promoting NCLB.
Sydney H. Schanberg provides a thumbnail explanation of NCLB in this Village Voice article from 2003:
The president’s No Child Left Behind law requires every public school system to administer rigorous annual testing of students, starting in the third grade, in such subjects as English and math. If the test scores of any segment of a school’s population — such as Latinos struggling with English or disabled students in special-ed classes — do not meet the proficiency levels set by the law, the entire school is listed as “failing” and students can choose to transfer to a school in the district that is doing well. In other words, averaging the test scores of the entire student body might produce a successful result, but the scores of the struggling segment will still, under the law, brand the school as “failing.” In addition to placing new financial and space demands on successful schools, the law’s requirements will also lay serious new money burdens on the ones with troubles, for such things as additional teacher training and additional classes.
In February 2004, Rep. George Miller, Senior Democrat on the Committee on Education and the Workforce, released this statement:
The Bush budget continues to renege on the commitment to fully fund the No Child Left Behind Act. This year the Bush Budget underfunds the No Child Left Behind Act by $9.4 billion. As part of this shortfall, the Bush budget underfunds the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program by $1 billion, eliminating afterschool programs for over 1.3 million children. The Title I program is underfunded by $7.2 billion. The Bush Budget leaves nearly five million disadvantaged children without extra academic help and services. Cumulatively, President Bush and the Republican Congress have underfunded NCLB by $27 billion since its enactment.
Naturally, during the 2004 campaign, whenever a Democrat complained that NCLB was underfunded, the Bush campaign accused that individual of being against education.
But an op-ed in today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer by Elaine Garan says there are, um, more problems.
In the past year alone, the revolt has included suits filed by the state of Connecticut and the National Education Association, as well as state legislation in Utah, Virginia and other states seeking to trump the federal law.
Dissatisfaction covers a wide range of issues, from complaints that it is underfunded to allegations that it is unconstitutional. There are objections to the inequities of standardized testing and its restrictions on the curriculum, and to the unfair penalization of teachers and schools for factors outside their control. There also have been serious questions about flaws in the scientific research determining the programs schools can use, as well as alleged conflicts of interest surrounding the awarding of grants for the law’s Reading First initiative.
Naturally, Bush Administration officials have not been working with states and educators to see how the Act could be improved. That is not the Bush style. The Bush style is to use a combination of bullying and bullshitting to keep naysayers in line and prop up allegiance to the holy NCLB exactly as it is. “The Bush administration has expended enormous time and energy scrambling to put out brush fires of resistance and keep angry states and districts under control” writes Garan.
And then came Katrina.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings initially expressed unwillingness to grant waivers to schools affected by Katrina. For weeks, schools waited in limbo until she reluctantly agreed to allow automatic one-year waivers from accountability standards — but only for those Gulf Coast schools that were destroyed or severely damaged. In effect, the secretary’s compassionate flexibility amounted to this: Schools that no longer exist and have no students to teach, much less test, will not be punished [for] failure to meet their “adequate yearly progress” targets.
Further, schools that have taken in the traumatized student refugees of Katrina will not receive automatic exemptions from federal punishment if they miss their standards.
(Can somebody explain the point of this? If not to destroy public schools? That’s the only plausible explanation.)
A news google of “No Child Left Behind” showed other interesting consequences. Thanks to the budget demands of NCLB, schools are cutting Gifted and Talented programs. Teacher certification requirements are causing hardships for rural schools. Because NCLB emphasizes math and reading standardized test scores, educators complain they are being forced to shortchange science, history, and other subjects to make time to “teach to the test.” (More here.)
More than a quarter of the nation’s schools failed to meet standards this year, says the Department of Education. But here’s another kicker — the Act requires schools to bring students up to a certain level of proficiency, but leaves to the states to decide what that “proficiency” is. Therefore, the Act rewards states with lower standards and punishes states with higher standards. Several states are considering lowering standards so as not to incur the draconian NCLB punishments for failure.
In spite of all this, the Bush Administration is proud of NCLB and proclaims it is “working.”
Conclusion: The NCLB is a big, expensive mess, yet it remains one of the Administration’s finest domestic policy achievements. How can that be?
From the Administration’s perspective, what’s not to like? NCLB is a wonderful program. The title of the Act is both catchy and warm/fuzzy at the same time. It provides an excuse for the President to get his picture taken with children (more warm/fuzzy). And even though in the long run it is unlikely to result in better educated children, I’m sure eventually some numbers will be creatively crunched, or cooked, to make it look as if something is being achieved, which to the Bushies is all that really matters.
The only flaw that I can see is that NCLB hasn’t resulted in any big defense industry contracts, but give ’em time.
And through it all we see the Bushie modus operandi — create a stupid program; refuse to work with anyone outside the bubble to improve the program; instead, campaign relentlessly to punish anyone who badmouths the program; and even if it fails, declare the program a great success and exploit for its PR value.
Now, given that in more than five years the Bush Administration has failed to achieve anything substantive — this includes job and economic growth — don’t forget the debt — why does anyone still support this clown?
There is no rational answer to that question. Clearly, people who still support Bush do so because they want to. He represents something to them that they desire, desperately. And they’ve invested too much of their egos into supporting him to let go without serious existential angst. So they continue to make one excuse after another for the ongoing catastrophe that is the Bush Administration.
A die-hard Bushie cannot be reasoned with. However, Bush’s falling poll numbers tell us there are more reachable people out there than I used to think possible. Truly, a couple of years ago I figured the absolute basement of Bush support would settle out at no lower than 40 percent, but we’ve pushed it lower than that.
The day may come we can leave Bush and his minions behind. Let’s hope.