Thursday, June 07, 2007

Exit Strategies: Finding the way out of Iraq and NCLB

School is out. I am done with my one credit art class and I am hoping to do a lot more posting from here on out. Thanks to all of you who have been visiting and reading, even though my posting has been sporadic this last year.

The above article appears in this month Rethinking Schools. I believe it is one of the most important articles I have run across in a long time. Read it! A quick excerpt from a very long article:

...speaking to an audience of teachers in New Hampshire last March, Clinton passionately bashed NCLB. "While the children are getting good at filling in all those little bubbles, what exactly are they really learning?" she asked. "How much creativity are we losing? How much of our children's passion is being killed?" She also denounced NCLB's supplemental tutoring sanctions which funnel federal funds to largely unregulated private providers, declaring, "This is Halliburton all over again ...We have these contracts going to these cronies who are chosen largely on a political basis, and we have nothing to show for it."

Tough words. But Clinton voted for the law in 2001. In fact she helped lay the groundwork for it by supporting two decades of summits and business roundtables that enshrined top-down standards and tests as the keys to school improvement. Clinton has blamed all NCLB's failures on mismanagement and underfunding from the Bush Administration, but when not on the stump, she admits she'll vote for reauthorizing it with vague allusion to unspecified "improvements." Maybe Clinton still thinks it "takes a village to raise a child," but so far she's mainly voted for giving them tests.

Similarly, Obama tells his audiences, "No Child Left Behind left the money behind." But he also talks about "the things that were good about No Child Left Behind," like high standards "because U.S. children will have to compete for jobs with students from countries with more rigorous schools." Obama has flirted with vouchers ("I am not close-minded on this issue.") and merit pay, declaring teachers have "got to get more pay, but there's also going to be more accountability...the accountability can't just be based on standardized test performance only, but that has to be part of the mix..."

This is not to minimize the very real differences that are certain to emerge among parties and candidates over education issues including college aid, vouchers, federal funding levels, and other matters. But the overwhelming federal education issue is NCLB and the test-and-punish regime it's imposing from Washington on every school and district in the country. The heart of any "peace proposal" to end this "war on the public schools" must be an end to the federal mandate to test every student every year in every grade from 3 to 8 and once in high school. But so far the presidential candidates don't seem to get it.

NCLB's "escalation" of testing has forced schools to give some 65 million mandated tests on top of the millions they were already giving. When the law was passed in 2002, 19 states gave annual reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8. Today, under federal mandate, all 50 do. Thanks to NCLB, a large, diverse K-8 school now has 240 ways to fail every year. (The number will rise if a proposal to count the new science tests passes.[1])

The tests themselves have become a major obstacle to improving struggling schools. They are not providing useful data for better instruction; they are providing junk data for bad policy or telling us what we already know: that public schools are swamped by the same inequality that exists all around them. Testing every kid every year and measuring the results against benchmarks that no real schools have ever met is not an "accountability" system. It's an enabling instrument for imposing privatizing sanctions and pushing more democratic and promising school improvement strategies to the sidelines. One activist compared NCLB's out-of-control testing plague to the difference between giving a patient a blood test and draining the patient's blood.

If the real goal was tracking the limited range of achievement progress that standardized tests can capture and spotlighting gaps among student groups, states could develop variations of the sampling techniques the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has used for years. (In fact Maryland did this until NCLB's testing requirements killed it.) Often called the "nation's report card," NAEP provides comparative data about schools and groups across states and grade levels without testing every student every year. And while there are limits and problems with NAEP, as there are with all standardized tests, the use of sampling and restrictions on using the data to impose high stakes penalties on individual students and schools suggest ways to avoid the suffocating nightmare that NCLB's adequate yearly progress system has become. (In contrast, there are those who would like to make NAEP a universal national test tied to national curriculum standards, part of what education reporter John Merrow calls a "surge strategy for NCLB" recommended by Republican candidate and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson among others.)

Rolling back NCLB's testing mandates and ending the link between test scores and punitive sanctions are the minimum but mandatory exit strategies for getting out of the NCLB mess. Yet Clinton and Obama have had little specific to say about these crucial details, even though they're both on the Senate Education Committee that's handling NCLB's reauthorization. (So far neither has responded publicly to a February letter sent by ten Democratic Senators to Education Committee Chairman Ted Kennedy declaring that, "We have concluded that the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind in their current form are unsustainable and must be overhauled significantly during the reauthorization process beginning this year." (Obama signed a similar letter in 2006.)

To be sure, other strategies will be needed to tackle the very real problems of struggling schools that NCLB has ignored or made worse. (For some specifics, see the recommendations from the Forum On Educational Accountability.) But as with Iraq, the first step toward a saner policy on NCLB is for would-be leaders to listen to the growing grassroots chorus calling on them to reverse the failing policies that helped create the mess we're in.