The Issue Left Behind

The Issue Left Behind

Why the candidates won’t talk about education.


Ask any educator about the No Child Left Behind Act and first you’ll probably hear, “I agree with what the law is trying to do,” because who doesn’t want children–all children–to learn more? Then, however, you usually hear a glum “but,” followed by a long list of troubles with the law, passed by an enthusiastic, bipartisan Congress in 2001. When the Harvard Civil Rights Project conducted a survey in Virginia and California about the “but” this spring, they found teachers far more likely to say the law is damaging instruction and driving educators out than they are to say it is helping kids.

In May, two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s superintendents signed a statement protesting the law’s rigidity, and seven in ten Connecticut superintendents said the law’s sanctions harm struggling schools instead of helping them, according to a survey released last week. National organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of English and the NAACP, echo the concerns. State legislators have not been shy in expressing opposition either, and both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, even those in the Bush Administration, privately acknowledge serious apprehensions. “I’ve never seen this kind of consensus,” said Bruce Hunter, director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators.

How is it, then, that the man who signed the law has managed to cast himself as the Education President? And why has his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, been unable to wrest that mantle away from him?

“There seems to have been an opportunity to draw discontent that hasn’t been fully exploited,” is how Governor Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat and former chair of the Education Commission of the States, puts it. “I think there was probably more of an expectation earlier in the year that education would play a bigger role in the national campaigns.”

The truth is that Bush and Kerry express no vast divergence on the fundamental elements of No Child Left Behind, the most comprehensive school reform in decades, which stemmed from the already growing “standards” movement and which Kerry called “groundbreaking” at the time Bush signed it. Kerry has not challenged the fundamentals of the law: that teacher qualifications should be judged by strict rules, that only academic programs and methods that have been scientifically researched should be promoted and that schools should be judged by ever-increasing test-score targets and face consequences for continuing to miss them. The candidate’s education agenda includes such uncontroversial measures as teacher recruitment and dropout reduction, but when it comes to No Child Left Behind, Kerry mainly just charges that Bush ought to have provided the full funding that he promised.

Last month a coalition that includes the National Education Association, and the Campaign for America’s Future conducted a massive mobilization, in which people at nearly 4,000 “house parties” across the country gathered to call on Congress to increase school funding and in general begin to speak up on national education issues. But Bush still has control of the topic. His themes of “standards” and accountability” resonate with Americans who have heard, ad nauseam yet with only flimsy documentation, about how their country’s public schools are failing. A message of change is appealing, particularly a message that says we’re not going to neglect poor and minority children anymore. (Never mind that the most impressive test-score increases and dropout-rate decreases of the “Houston miracle,” part of the Texas reforms on which No Child Left Behind is based and that propelled Rod Paige to the job of Education Secretary, were largely a sham, accomplished by keeping bad students from taking the test or shooing them out the door altogether.)

Rarely has federal education rhetoric had such great impact on the schoolhouse. Aside from policy requiring equitable education of all children–black children, disabled children–education decisions have remained mainly local and state matters. When Ronald Reagan extolled the virtues of school prayer, school systems did not rush out and buy Bibles, and when Bill Clinton praised school uniforms as a possible panacea for violence and truancy, there was no run on plaid skirts. But since the passage of No Child Left Behind, three rounds of annual testing later, the daily rhythms of school have been wholly recalibrated. Some teachers have been replaced by “data specialists,” who study spreadsheets in a futile attempt to determine why students haven’t passed the tests. In the rush to prepare for reading and math exams, children are denied not just recess and music but also social studies and science. They write stilted, empty essays to impress graders who search for the proper transition words and not for a point. Beloved longtime teachers get letters in the mail that tell them they have gone from experienced to unqualified, literally overnight, with a rewriting of the rules.

And classroom methods long believed to work are tossed out in favor of those that a few selected groups have “scientifically” tested and approved, which often force teachers to read from scripts the entire class period. (Who’s determining what’s approved? In the case of Bush’s multibillion-dollar reading grants, a panel that includes many people with ties to various commercial curriculums but very few actual teachers and no experts in children’s literature, according to one analysis.)

You won’t hear these concerns in the national conversation on education, nor in Kerry’s campaign. While Kerry differs strongly from Bush on the high-profile, small-impact issue of school vouchers (he is against, the President for), his record indicates–and aides confirm–that his support for the basics underlying No Child Left Behind is longstanding and firm. In the candidate’s home state of Massachusetts, a demanding accountability movement has long been in place. In the primary season Kerry offered some tentative criticism of the law, suggesting, for example, that it could turn schools into “testing factories”–the language as well of the National Education Association. Since then, though, he has muted his criticism, as one Bush adviser pointed out approvingly.

Even if a candidate did have big problems with No Child Left Behind, it would be risky to speak out against it. “You’ve got a lot of elected officials out there who do not want to look like they don’t support an education policy,” said Scott Young, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislators. “This is almost a lose-lose situation for any education official.”

The tacticians on the right have again masterfully shaped the debate, the same way they suggest that voting against Bush is equivalent to taking up arms for Al Qaeda, or informing teenagers about condoms is equivalent to giving them oral sex lessons. “The true purpose” of last month’s mobilization, said John Boehner, the Ohio Republican, was to “lower education standards.”

“The minute you begin to criticize the law, people think you don’t care about improving student achievement,” said Patti Harrington, state schools superintendent in Utah. Or, worse, they say you’re racist. The law’s accountability provisions focus on the scores of not just students in general but also those in various racial and ethnic groups. If enough children in one group fail the test, their entire school fails. When the Pennsylvania superintendents announced their protest–in particular, saying that special education students and children who don’t speak English should get extra help on tests–the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Ron Tomalis, counselor to Education Secretary Rod Paige, said it was “a bit of an irony on this day in particular that we would hear those statements.” It was the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

Until the debate is radically reframed, politicians will continue to gain from saying little, and to offer more additions than subtractions, as Kerry has done. And despite his modest education agenda, Kerry still won the endorsement of the NEA, which doesn’t like the law but even more doesn’t like a Republican in office.

School reform, at any rate, is a complicated conversation to have. Educationese is famously impenetrable, and the specifics of No Child Left Behind are no exception. Bring up problems with “adequate yearly progress” and “confidence intervals” and “high objective uniform standard of evaluation” and even the most active PTA mom will zone out. And general public opinion on the law, and on testing, is not clear. A June survey by the Educational Testing Service showed that the share of parents who give US public schools a grade of “A” or “B” has dropped significantly from 2001, from 43 percent to 22 percent. Perhaps they don’t like what the law has done to the schools, or perhaps the law helped illuminate the schools’ faults. Or maybe it has nothing to do with No Child Left Behind at all. After all, the public is split evenly on whether the law is a good one, and one in five people, according to a recent survey, say they do not know enough about it to form an opinion.

And how will they ever? The media dutifully report the scores and adopt the terminology and message of the reform movement, with little critical perspective. Teachers and principals have not let parents know what has changed, and what is being lost, in their children’s schooling. When I spent last May at a Montgomery County, Maryland, elementary school, most parents didn’t know, for example, that their third-graders had done one science experiment all year because they were cramming in reading. While educators are supposed to teach students to question and think critically, they are not encouraged to do the same.

“I have worked so hard to get teachers to speak out,” said Susan Ohanian, a teacher and activist against the standards movement and coauthor of Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? “They are so frightened, and I think unreasonably so.” (One teacher I met at the Maryland school didn’t think her newfound fear was unreasonable: After she had written the school board complaining that a “scientifically based” reading curriculum would crowd out a popular bilingual program, the community superintendent–her boss’s boss–scolded her for doing so.)

Paige said last month that when it comes to determining whether No Child Left Behind is working, “the debate is over,” and even some of the law’s harshest opponents reluctantly concede that because its foundations are so entrenched, the secretary might be right. But Bruce Hunter of the superintendents association suggests that not only is the debate ongoing, it will get very loud, very soon. He calls the brewing revolt a “slow-motion insurrection.”

“The academic community is willing to come out of hiding and fess up in public,” he said. “The whole idea of standards-based reform,” he said, “is going to be questioned.”

Republicans who disagree with the federal intrusion into education, who have said they’re waiting to complain until after the election, will likely speak up. The Government Accountability Office last month called on the Education Department to clean up its sloppy guidance and oversight on No Child Left Behind. Local politicians who are being blamed for decisions made in Washington as the law’s realities come clear will be heard from as well. Few schools have yet suffered from the law’s many sanctions, such as potential state or private takeover and teaching staffs being disbanded, which kick in after a few years, but with the test-score targets increasing every year, they will–even the wealthy ones. “People haven’t really felt the impact of the challenges of implementing the laws yet,” said Reginald Felton, a lobbyist with the National School Boards Association. “Only with more and more real-life stories and problems will there be significant change.”

Still, the political momentum remains on the side of No Child Left Behind. However underfunded the law may be, the money it does offer gives the Feds financial leverage over disgruntled and cash-strapped states. States that originally introduced bills to reject No Child Left Behind have been visited by Education Department representatives. They remind lawmakers that opting out means losing federal money, on average 7 percent of education funding, and they often work with the states to tweak the rules to suit them. In every case, lawmakers backed off their threats.

Take Utah, for example. “Utahans are pretty well coalesced in their concerns about No Child Left Behind,” said Superintendent Harrington. But $107 million, she said, “is a loss we couldn’t bear.”

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