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“Welcome to Lake Wobegone where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.”
National media recently reported two major stories regarding education under the weight of No Child Left Behind without drawing the obvious connection between them.
First came the revelation that an estimated 200 administrators and teachers in the Atlanta school district were engaged in cheating to achieve higher scores on standardized testing. Second came a projection by the Department of Education that an astonishing 82% of public schools could fail to meet proficiency targets for the coming year.
The standards of NCLB are constantly moving. To avoid failure a school must record improved test results in reading and math for all its students and in eight subgroups until all students (100%) are considered proficient by 2014. Failure to meet standards by the slightest margin in one subgroup in one academic area is failure overall.
Imagine you’re a carpet seller. You make a decent living by selling 3-5 carpets a week. One day your employer decides he needs to clear out his inventory. He implements a No Carpet Left Behind program that requires you to boost your sales by one carpet a week. You work extra hard and boost your sales to seven carpets but no matter what you do you cannot get beyond that number. You’ve tapped the market. By the fifth week you’re a three-time loser and your job is in jeopardy. You realize your boss wants you to fail and there’s no way out.
Failure to honor the dictates of NCLB threatens federal funding. First year failure to meet test results labels your school “in need of improvement”. Second year failure allows parents to transfer their children to other schools. Continued failure, regardless of circumstances, could result in school closure and staff replacement. Teachers and principles could find themselves unemployed and tarred by the scandal of failure.
After five years of NCLB failure schools can offer control to a state that wants nothing to do with them or (here is the key!) can be handed over to private contractors.
When the overwhelming majority of struggling schools are in poor districts, why would any teacher or administrator want to work there? Those who are able to find other positions get out as soon as they can. Those left behind face mounting pressure under impossible conditions. Funding cuts and growing class sizes are not considered in the NCLB formula for success. Educators work hard and long to fight back prescribed failure.
Is it any wonder that a school district in hard economic times fought back against the sanctions of failure in the only way they could?
You cannot pass a law that two equals one. Neither can you mandate that every child will be above average but that is exactly what NCLB pretends to do. The designers and supporters of NCLB were never in fact interested in improving the public schools. They could have seen to it that all students have a chance to succeed by being graded according to their ability. They could have funded special needs and trade schools to develop employable skills. They could have expanded preschool programs and guaranteed reasonable class sizes.
They did none of these because their real goal was to crush public education and open the door to privatization of the schools.
The NCLB crowd invaded our schools like preachers among the heathens. Every child can learn, they preached, to which every teacher replied: Of course but every student cannot test above the thirty-third percentile. It is a statistical impossibility. Why? The normal population curve (shaped like a bell) does not bend to rhetoric or political will. It does not care how impassioned the preacher’s sermon. No matter what the measurement, there will always be students at the bottom, students at the top and 68% in the middle. Like gravity or pi it is not negotiable. It does not vary.
The NCLB promoters were fundamentally dishonest. Knowing that the law was a prescription for failure, their intent from inception was mass closure of public schools. It would provide NCLB politicians a convenient scapegoat: blame the teachers. Better yet, blame the teachers union. Their design from day one was for a profit-based, corporate sponsored private school system that they could control.
Why else would they not subject private schools to the same testing requirements and standards as public schools in order to qualify for public funds? How did they figure that punishing schools would improve them when punishment as a means of educating was discredited decades ago? They knew from the start that the schools would fail.
Private schools, while receiving services for special needs from public school employees, can boost the bottom line by refusing to accept lower performing students. Indeed, that is exactly how Texas achieved its vaunted educational success while George W. Bush was governor: by eliminating the bottom of the sample. They forced low-achieving students to drop out and failed to report the drop out rate. Like the Atlanta school district, Texas cheated to claim success and as a result their governor became president and Texas education became a model for the nation. How is it that our discerning press never figured that out until after Bush the younger was in the White House?
Have you ever wondered what a corporate textbook would look like? Would there be any mention of Exxon-Valdez or the Deep Water Horizon oil spill? How would they treat the rise of the labor movement? How would they regard global climate change?
I guess we all know the answers to these questions.
Education is far too important to be trusted to profit-motivated corporations yet here we are on the edge of a bold new world: Private schools, private armies, privatization of Medicare and Social Security.
Who would have imagined that the worst president in modern history could have accomplished so much in so little time? Of course, he could not have done it alone. Nothing on the rightwing corporate wish list, including NCLB, could have been accomplished without Democratic cooperation.
Who are we kidding? Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a slick, fast talking man of knowledge but they all serve the same master.
Jack Random is the author of Jazzman Chronicles (Crow Dog Press) and Ghost Dance Insurrection (Dry Bones Press.)