No Excuse Left Behind

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 debtwhy 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.

17 thoughts on “No Excuse Left Behind

  1. But Barbara, what is it that people desperately want George to represent? Frequently, after reading your blog, I check out a few blogs of the opposition to see what they have to say. By and large, these folks just blow off the concerns you raise. I can’t understand their thinking; I wish I could.

    Is it the desire to think that we have elected an omnipotent leader and so we don’t have to do anything until the next election (especially think)? Are we confusing the position of the President with the fallible person holding the office? Is he something like the Pope now (he does have the ear of God, we’ve been told :))

    I think it is more than this, but I can’t get a grasp on it.

  2. what is it that people desperately want George to represent?

    I don’t know for sure, but there’s no question they see something in him that just ain’t there.

  3. Oh, I wanted to add: I’m an elementary teacher, now working for a private school which, at this point, doesn’t have to comply with the insane requirements of the public school systems in the state (which happens to be Georgia). But last year, I worked in a public charter school in New Mexico. I can’t tell you how much time we had to put in to make sure we were in compliance, so that we could remain open and funded. How much time we had to give over to preparing young children to take standardized tests. I learned a lot, but some of it was that I didn’t want to be involved with all this stuff – I just wanted to teach. So I reluctantly left.

  4. Bush creates a low bar. His supporters like seeing a low bar, because they can’t see getting over a high bar, so an actual presidential bar set that low is very encouraging. In Hunting of the Snark, the crew is delighted to see the map that the Bellman brings:

    He had bought a large map representing the sea,
    Without the least vestige of land:
    And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
    A map they could all understand.

    This is what Bush means to his base, a map (of the human heart? of the soul?) they can finally all understand.

  5. while the NCLB act hasn’t produced a windfall for the military industrial complex it has provided funding for one of Dubya’s less stellar sibs – Neil Bush is pushing educational software (helped along with family money and influence) that purports to help students prepare for the testing NCLB mandates (remember the motto of the evil firm – Omni Consumer Products – that was the real villian in “RoboCop” – ‘GOOD BUSINESS IS WHERE YOU FIND IT’)

    Is America a great country or what?

  6. why does anyone still support this clown?

    My belief is that when Bush throws out a “God bless America”, it’s like a magic spell that sucks the brains out of peoples heads. They lose their ability to reason and become like mindless lemmings intoxicated by stupidity. That expression validates people through a tribal mentality and they subconciously bond with the clown, hence the continued support.

  7. The dead-enders who are still supporting Bush represent the worst of our species. Where we see slime ball; they see Messiah. The bushies want to use nukes in Iran so that Israel won’t have to. The human species has always been deceitful and arrogant but never more so than now.

  8. Bush, his family and his handlers excel at creating an image. Your post noted how a typical Bush program is largely about PR. They understand how critical image is to ruling, and given their obsessiveness about power, that’s their focus.

    There are at least two or three types of Bush followers, and they somewhat overlap:

    1) the ones who believe the Christian imagery and are thankful that a “godly” man is in the White House.

    2) the ones who like having a strong, authoritarian father figure, and believe the imagery – and actual Bush persona – relating to this.

    3) forgetting about image, the ones who are making piles of money, or have positioned themselves well from this arrangement.

    Because these people basically like the guy – or his image – for the reasons listed, they’re willing to overlook a lot. It’s sort of similar to the way people fall in love – they’re infatuated with an image, not the real person. And Bush and the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy are very skilled at keeping this image alive and well.

    The VWRC gives Bush followers the psychological safety of a group, but also feeds their fears and hatreds about the anti-group, in effect punishing those who dare stray from the groupmind. As such, this has some of the characteristics of a religious cult.

    Flipping the mirror around, I liked Bill Clinton, and overlooked a lot of his sins, because I mostly liked what he was trying to do, was from the same basic ideology, and I appreciated his skill as a politician, in the face of difficult opposition. The difference is, unlike Bush and the VWRC, there was no group pressure to blindly accept Clinton, no punishment from a cult if you said negative things about the man or abandoned him.

  9. The difference is, unlike Bush and the VWRC, there was no group pressure to blindly accept Clinton, no punishment from a cult if you said negative things about the man or abandoned him.

    You’ve probably noticed that all righties make a knee-jerk assumption that we lefties are Clinton worshippers. In fact, I’ve never met a Clinton worshipper. Every liberal or Democrat I’ve ever met was wildly ambivalent about the Big Dog, as am I.

  10. Just give it a little more time and they will figure out a way to fit this into the defense budget. NCLB in Iraq. And a windfall for Neil – bid competition is not in Bush’s vocabulary – he’s a shoo-in. Barbara should be so proud!

  11. The diehard Bush fans are those who cannot face the cleansing process of feeling shame…… shame is unpleasant, even acrid, but is the one emotion that, when allowed to flush the system, opens a portal into the relief of being in reality.
    Without shame, those diehards become enslaved by image, hardening into fools, ghouls, and unwitting tools.

  12. Bush and education in the same topic…OMG the that does not happen often so I am compelled to comment:
    About “No child left behind”(Bush’s own seem to be the exception)…I swear I recall a PBS story (newshour) that said , at the time that a dozen states had already “opted out” of NCLB and the funding that came with it, and that other states were considering it or working on doing it themselves.
    As I can recall the same story pointed to some who were upset by the action of the states that were rejecting NCLB and I was expecting to hear an agrument about EDUCATION, but instead those upset were upset not over education, but rather by a provision of NCLB that gave greater control of student records to the military for recruiting purposes, Including the childs home and or personal cell phone numbers.Their concern was about how states “opting out” of no child left behind would affect that provision.
    NCLB aside , once again Maha I tend to agree with you that the goal here is to end public education or at least federal funding of it(which would end it IMHO).I think those in power see it as a social program rather than an investment in the future.I think it is money they see as taken out of the pocket of halliburton and bectel, taken out of the money they want to spend on wars and torture junkets.
    Yes the less effective the public education system is, the easier it becomes for righties to make the case that it should be done away with all together,, so it is in their best interest to help it fail
    I think the question the American people should be asking themselves is : Who wins if public education ends?Follow the money….

  13. There’s not a thing about NCLB that makes a lick of sense. If a school fails, they take the funding away. And the school is going to then succeed… how?

    If that weren’t bad enough, the greatest complaint I’ve heard from both my teacher friends and from the college professors I work with is that the standardized testing is killing education. Not only are they typically biased, but teachers end up “teaching to the test,” meaning it’s all rote and no critical thinking. I’ve spoken to many college science professors who are horrified by how little science their students know. College-level textbooks are being rewritten to include more of the basic stuff that should have been covered in high school but isn’t (isn’t taught or isn’t being absorbed because learning under this structure means students remember things long enough to take the exam and then promptly forget them).

    I can see testing as having some value for determining whether individual students should advance or be held back, but not as a criteria on which to base school funding. And, it seems to me, maybe we should be putting some of that money spent on vouchers and charter schools towards, oh, I don’t know, fixing existing schools?

    Colleges are shifting away from using the SAT as a criteria for admission because they know standardized test scores do not necessarily indicate whether a student will do well. Maybe that’s a lesson the administration should think about.

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