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.

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.