A bet over No Child Left Behind
Diane Ravitch is a glass half-empty kind of gal, while I suffer from excessive Panglossian tendencies. In the spring of 2007, we made a bet. The payoff is dinner at the River Café, at the foot of Brooklyn Heights, overlooking New York harbor and the Manhattan skyline, tucked neatly under the lights of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Four and a half years ago, we surveyed the damage being done to American education by NCLB, the “No Child Left Behind” iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act:
- conversion of struggling elementary schools into test-prep factories;
- narrowing of curriculum so that disadvantaged children who most need enrichment would be denied lessons in social studies, the sciences, the arts and music, even recess and exercise, so that every available minute of the school day could be devoted to drill for tests of basic skills in math and reading;
- demoralization of the best teachers, now prohibited from engaging children in discovery and instead required to follow pre-set instructional scripts aligned with low-quality tests;
- and the boredom and terror of young children who no longer looked forward to school but instead anticipated another day of rote exercises and practice testing designed to increase scores by a point or two.
Diane morosely predicted that, despite this evident disaster, NCLB would certainly be reauthorized with its destructive testing and accountability provisions intact. After all, she moaned, it had the support of elites from both parties, the Washington think tanks, the big foundations, and the editorial boards of the New York Times, Washington Post, and other influential media outlets. No serious opposition was visible. How could the law not be continued? Indeed, she worried, its supporters were so removed from the reality of classrooms, so impervious to evidence, they could well decide to intensify requirements that schools chase phony test score gains to the exclusion of all else.
I smugly responded, “not a chance.” The NCLB accountability system is so self-evidently calamitous that its principles will never survive congressional reauthorization. Don’t pay attention to elite opinion, I said. The internal contradictions of a law that orders all children nationwide to perform above-average are so explosive that any attempts to “fix” them (as policymakers were then vowing to do) would never be able to claim a congressional majority, no matter how obstinate NCLB’s supporters might be.
For example, I said to Diane, consider the law’s absurd demand to prohibit the normal variability of human ability so that all children, from the unusually gifted to the mentally retarded, must achieve above the same “challenging” level of proficiency by 2014. The only way states could fulfill this requirement would be to define “challenging proficiency” at such a low level that even the least talented of students could meet it. NCLB enthusiasts would then cry “foul” and insist that a reauthorized law allow Congress to dictate a national proficiency standard. But this, in turn, would make the law unacceptable to supporters who had gone along in 2002 only because they felt assured that federal intrusion into state control of education would be limited. Or if, instead, NCLB proponents attempted to mollify critics by giving schools more flexibility – for example, by permitting them to escape condemnation for not meeting impossible academic benchmarks by citing other measures, like attendance rates or parent satisfaction – the NCLB enthusiasts would balk at this backdoor way of “leaving children behind.”
There is no way out of this impasse, I assured Diane. NCLB will limp along past its 2007 expiration date, with no possible map for reauthorization, with temporary annual continuing resolutions while proponents fruitlessly attempt to conceive of ways to climb out of the holes into which they had dug themselves. Eventually, I told Diane, by 2016 we’ll still be requiring all children to be proficient by 2014, and declaring virtually every school in the country to be failing. At some point, I predicted, some Secretary of Education will have no choice but to issue waivers from the law’s requirements to every state in the country while the law itself remained on the books, an embarrassing monument to policy foolishness.
Everything I predicted has now come to pass, and I should be able to call Diane’s hand and collect my dinner at the River Café. But I’m afraid I must concede. I won the bet on technical points, but Diane won on the merits. The glass really is half-empty, maybe more so.
What I had not anticipated was that a Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan, it turned out to be) would use his authority to grant waivers to states (now all of them) unable to meet NCLB’s requirements, conditioning the waivers on states’ agreements to adopt accountability conditions that are even more absurd, more unworkable, more fanciful than those in the law itself. Mr. Duncan’s philosophy has been revealed: if a policy fails, the solution should be to do more of it.
So the secretary is now kicking the ball down the road. States will be excused from making all children proficient by 2014 if they agree instead to make all children “college-ready” by 2020. If NCLB’s testing obsession didn’t suffice to distinguish good schools from failing ones, states can be excused from loss of funds if they instead use student test scores to distinguish good teachers from bad ones. Without any reauthorization of NCLB, Mr. Duncan will now use his waiver authority to demand, in effect, even more test-prep, more drill, more unbalanced curricula, more misidentification of success and failure, more demoralization of good teachers, and more needless stress for young children.
The Obama administration is presenting its waiver proposal as the grant of new “flexibility” to states. Yes, perhaps. If states agree to implement Mr. Duncan’s favored reforms of evaluating teachers by student test scores and expanding charter schools, and if states promise to meet even more impossible “college ready” standards established by the federal government, the secretary will let them figure out on their own how to do it.
Some Republicans have complained. The secretary, they say, cannot do an end run around Congress by implementing his own more extreme version of No Child Left Behind, when he has been unsuccessful in getting Congress to enact these very same proposals into the law itself. But these critics, most of whom supported NCLB in 2002, have only themselves to blame. They initially wrote into the law the right of a secretary to issue waivers based only on his or her own personal fantasies about what constitutes a state pledge to “increase (sic) the quality of instruction … and … improve academic achievement” – to be precise, in NCLB‘s Title IX, Part D, Sections 9401(b)(1)(i) and (ii).
And Arne Duncan has gotten away with this before. Here, Democrats should be ashamed. In Feb. 2009, when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the ARRA, or “stimulus” bill) was enacted, Republicans charged that the law had little to do with job creation or economic growth, but was only a subterfuge for the Obama administration to make social policy without congressional debate. Mostly, the Republican charge had no merit but in the case of education policy, it hits the mark. The secretary has been distributing $5 billion in ARRA grants only to states that entered and won his “Race to the Top” competition by promising to raise standards even higher than those unachievable under NCLB. These so-called stimulus funds are not distributed to states with the highest unemployment rates but to those that outbid others by promising to establish data systems to evaluate teachers based on students’ math and reading scores, be most ruthless in firing teachers and principals in schools with low scores, and replace them with the most rapid expansion of charter schools.
The Duncan policies, like NCLB, will eventually implode. But the damage being done to American public education has now gone on for so long that it will have enduring effects. Schools will not soon be able to implement a holistic education to disadvantaged children. Disillusioned and demoralized teachers who have abandoned the profession or have retired are now being rapidly replaced by a new generation of drill sergeants, well-trained in the techniques of “data-driven instruction.” This cannot easily be undone.
Some state education officials have murmured intents to refuse the Duncan waiver conditions, and dare him then to withhold federal education dollars. But there is little indication that these officials will follow through, or that others will join the resistance. Most states will meekly apply for the Duncan waivers. Courage is in short supply among education and policy leaders.
So Diane, start perusing the menu. My victory on points is to no avail. I owe you dinner.