Education is always about politics–in the best and worst senses. In the best sense what happens in our schools is an expression of our beliefs and values, what we want the next generation to be like. But education is also political in the partisan sense–as politicians of all stripes seek to rally their troops around schooling practices, to tie other political agendas into our agendas for schools. Social promotion, bilingual education, phonics, “new math”–all are issues that resonate with different audiences for reasons other than those that directly concern teachers, parents and kids. Phonics is seen as “right-wing authoritarianism,” social promotion as “permissive liberalism” (and depicted as the scourge of New York City schools, despite the fact that almost half the city’s children have been entering high school at least a year over-age for decades) and so forth. Reality often gets lost, and kids suffer in ways neither opponents nor proponents had in mind.
So along comes No Child Left Behind, and from right to left, everyone climbs aboard. It was, after all, an extension of a policy idea hatched under Bush Senior, pursued under Clinton and replicated in many states–the premise of which is that frequent testing will solve educational problems. And in fact the focus on “results,” not “opportunities,” echoes older liberal, not conservative, themes. Yet had anyone read the bill with care, it would have been hard not to fault it on almost every ground, except perhaps the high aspirations embedded in the title.
NCLB proposes to accomplish a statistical impossibility (that all children score in the top twenty-fifth percentile); it raises false expectations; it’s built on an illusion that tests alone can–and should–measure worthwhile standards; that schools can do it all; that progress comes in steady increments; that penalties will motivate children and teachers; that lack of money is a mere excuse; that a single nationwide system is part of the American dream; and, finally, that schools can do it all. The law literally dictates the books we are allowed to use on a national basis, not to mention the pedagogy for teaching literacy and, coming soon, math. Before long, until eighth grade, little else will get taught at all.
Yet virtually no high-powered public figures, nor any important leaders of either party (including John Kerry), have done more than demur from this or that aspect of this preposterous bill. Meanwhile, those closest to the action (teachers, principals and superintendents organizations, as well as local school boards) are in almost unanimous opposition–but quietly, as they are fearful of being seen as whiners, a defensive coalition of self-interests.
What is inexcusable is not just the “achievement gap” on tests but the gaps you can see with your own eyes: the gaps in graduation rates, which have been disguised for years by the very folks who support NCLB; the real dropout rates; the attendance data; the condition of buildings and playgrounds; and more. When we know of solutions that are promising, we’re told: too expensive; utopian. It’s easy for those with money to say it doesn’t take money to educate all children well–they can always fall back on rich-family-sponsored education after school, on weekends and during the summer, or choose to spend two or three times as much just on the school day itself, as wealthy communities do.