Selling Our Children

A Daily Kos diarist named teacherken discusses a new book by Linda Perlstein, Tested, on the massive ripoff known as No Child Left Behind:

… in a discussion about how companies are profiting from No Child Left Behind, Perlstein recounts [elementary school principal Ernestine] McKnight’s experience at attending a presentation at a principals’ conference of a vendor who had been brought into her school during the 2005-2006 year using the success of Tyler Heights in its promotion. She was furious because they were implying they were responsible for the success in 2004-2005:

    Like these guys had anything to do with third-grade math proficiency jumping 24 points? Fourth-grade reading jumping 49? p. 195

She was too polite to make a public scene, even when the vendors pointed her out to the audience. This anecdote is presented at the end of a section where Perlstein has explored the costs of NCLB in transfers of funds to the private sector, starting with the gross costs in the billions, tracing through the connections of individuals like Neil Bush and people who had helped promote in implement NCLB in the government like Sandy Kress and Gene Hickok to the individual consultants and firms McKnight had had to hire under pressure from the school system. Thus the elements of distortion and possible corruption are placed in a context beyond that of the mere numbers of dollars.

This reminded me of the article about NCLB in the current issue of Harper’s. I checked to see if it is online yet. Sorta; in PDF form. There’s always interesting stuff in Harper’s but they do make it hard to share it online. The article, “The Big Enchilada,” is by Jonathan Kozol. Here’s a chunk of it, at least (emphasis added).

The next and more ambitious stage in the introduction of the private market and its values into public schools did not become possible until the voucher advocates made the well-timed marketing decision to renounce the terminology of “vouchers” and to forgo temporarily their efforts to assume the outright ownership of schools. They settled instead for the management of schools that technically remained within the public sector. Newly created corporations, which characteristically adopted such academically impressive names as “Nobel Learning” or “Edison Schools,” began convincing officials in minority districts– first Miami, later Chicago, then Baltimore, Philadelphia, and many other cities–to contract with them to operate at first a few, then larger numbers, of their schools. At present, forty-one Philadelphia public schools are being run by Edison and another profit-making firm, along with a handful of nonprofit private groups. Almost simultaneously, as states were pressured to test and measure children more relentlessly, to institute the same “goal-setting” mechanisms that are used in private industry, the testing affiliates of some of our largest textbook publishers, as well as the major test-prep companies (The Princeton Review and Kaplan, for example), began to move into our public schools, primarily in urban areas. By 2005, the schools were generating $2.8 billion a year for the testing industry.

In both these areas–testing services and the management of schools–the encroachment of the private sector on public education has been mightily assisted by provisions that the Bush Administration managed to insert into the No Child Left Behind Act. Among the various “sanctions” that this highly controversial law imposes upon low performing schools are two provisions that have opened up these schools to interventions by private corporations on a scale that we have never before seen in the United States. The first of these provisions stipulates that if a school receiving federal funds under what is known as “Title I,” the nation’s largest program of assistance for low-income students, fails to raise its test scores by a fixed percentage within three years, it must then use a portion of its funds to purchase what the government describes as “supplemental services.” These services must be provided outside of the normal school day and, among other options, by a so called third-party provider.

Although such “services” are defined somewhat ambiguously, most low-income districts have interpreted the term to mean that they must force these schools to institute test-preparation regimens geared explicitly toward raising scores on state exams. Increasingly, too, schools have been pressured into contracts with private corporations that provide these services. Meanwhile, the test-prep companies are actively promoting their success in raising scores to principals who live in terror of the more alarming second stage of federal sanctions they will otherwise incur.

If, despite their expensive test-prep programs, low-performing schools fail to pump up test scores fast enough to meet specific goals within five years, school boards are obliged to shut them down and dismiss their faculties and principals. Such schools will then be either operated directly by the state or reconstituted under an “alternative governance arrangement.”

Although the provider of such “governance” might be a nonprofit corporation (one that operates a chain of semi-private charter schools, for instance), it is the profit-making firms, with their superb promotional machinery, that are best positioned to obtain these valuable contracts. It is this prospect–and the even more appealing notion that companies that start by managing these schools might at some future point achieve the right, through changes in state laws, to own the schools as well–that helps explain why EMOs like Edison, which has yet to tum a profit, nonetheless attract vast sums of venture capital. The “big enchilada” represented by the corporate invasion of public schools, even if it takes place only in progressive stages, is sufficiently enticing to investors to keep the money flowing in anticipation of a time when private corporations will not merely nibble at the edges of the public system but will devour it altogether.

No Child Left Behind, with its draconian emphasis on high-stakes testing as the sole determinant of failure or success within a given school, was signed into law in 2002. The warning period for the first wave of low performing schools is now coming to an end. Thousands of schools that exclusively serve black and Hispanic children have failed to meet their federally mandated goals.

All of these schools, under the stipulations of No Child Left Behind, will soon be ripe for picking by private corporations. Progressive citizens who say they believe in public education, as well as the erstwhile liberal Democratic leadership in the U.S. House and Senate, have failed to recognize and confront this looming crisis. Meanwhile, the richly funded and well-oiled juggernaut of privatization continues to move forward, carving out increasingly large pieces of the public system. If those of us who profess to value public schools and the principle of democratic access they uphold cannot find the courage or the motivation to fight in their defense, we may soon wake up to find that they have been replaced by wholly owned subsidiaries of McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wal-Mart. Some $490 billion (4 percent of GNP) is spent on education yearly in the United States. It will be an act of social suicide if liberals blithely continue to dismiss the opportunities this vast amount of money represents for corporate predation.

At Daily Kos, Teacherken writes,

Schools in which students arrive at school with strong language skills, from upper middle class backgrounds, do not have to worry so much about their scores. In fact, unless they are designated as a Title I school (with a significant number of economically poor students) they have little to fear from the sanctions of failing to make AYP.

This isn’t just about allowing Neil Bush and others in the private sector education industry to make tons of money. It could lead to outright corporate takeover of schools teaching mostly minority and immigrant children. No doubt those children will be well-prepared for “careers” in the food service, custodial and retail sectors.

9 thoughts on “Selling Our Children

  1. NCLB is a program/policy with no postive goals. NCLB is a program used to show failure. For example it does not address drop out rates or something basic as how to improve the reading skills of any child.

  2. See if you can find out, in your state, how the “failure” standard is set. What score constitutes a failing score on a high stakes test? How was that score arrived at?

    You’ll find that the scores are set so that a certain percentage will be “passing”. Check it out.

  3. My point is that setting the passage rates for what constitutes “failing” helps determine the perception of success/failure in the public’s mind. It usually seems that poor/minority schools are the ones that receive that distinction… The effect of testing is to label poor minority schools as failing so that, as Kozol says, they are ripe for the plucking by privatization advocates.

    Often there seems to be very little transparency in how these passing rates are determined, and they seem arbitrary at best.

  4. I’m not not sure what your point is. Yes, poor and minority schools are set up to fail, but are you saying that you have data showing that poor and minority schools are graded differently from other schools?

  5. It is not that poor and minority schools are graded differently. The whole testing system is a set-up. Cut scores are set arbitrarily so that “politically acceptable failure rates” are enforced throughout the system. This means that the failure rates are high enough to justify the expense of the tests, but not so high as to invite marches on state capitals from the suburbs. It also means that scores are set to reinforce “desirable” district profiles so that the Detroits look low enough in comparison with the Gross Pointes. Only a few state tests are standardized, which means that all of the others are home made with arbitrary cut points. It also means that comparisons from non-standardized tests from year to year (AYP) and from district to district are thoroughly inappropriate from a psychometric perspective. The whole thing is a wasteful high stakes game with real human costs.

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  7. odave,

    I’m sorry that maha doesn’t seem to “get” what you’re saying. I am spring-loaded to agree with you; but I’m desperately searching for documentation/evidence on exactly the issues you bring up…


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