Friday, October 15, 2004

The NCLB union card

Isn't it more than a little passing strange that the majority of the discussion of the third presidential debate has involved trivia? Most notably, all anyone seems to want to talk about is Kerry daring to bring up poor Mary Cheney.

(And yes, I think it's now fair to say, per Atrios, that -- considering the fact that I haven't yet seen the Bush "not concerned about him" video played a single time on any major media outlet post-debate -- the "liberal media" is indeed 100 percent in the tank for Bush.)

But there was something Bush said that night which really strikes at a deeper problem regarding the Republican agenda where it's taking us. Asked to respond to a question about his incredibly poor job-creation performance, he ignored the issue and instead diverted it thus:
Listen, the No Child Left Behind Act is really a jobs act when you think about it. The No Child Left Behind Act says, "We'll raise standards. We'll increase federal spending. But in return for extra spending, we now want people to measure -- states and local jurisdictions to measure to show us whether or not a child can read or write or add and subtract."

Bush continued this line of thought a little while later, when asked what he would say to a laid-off worker whose job had been shipped overseas:
I'd say, Bob, I've got policies to continue to grow our economy and create the jobs of the 21st century. And here's some help for you to go get an education. Here's some help for you to go to a community college.

We've expanded trade adjustment assistance. We want to help pay for you to gain the skills necessary to fill the jobs of the 21st century.

You know, there's a lot of talk about how to keep the economy growing. We talk about fiscal matters. But perhaps the best way to keep jobs here in America and to keep this economy growing is to make sure our education system works.

I went to Washington to solve problems. And I saw a problem in the public education system in America. They were just shuffling too many kids through the system, year after year, grade after grade, without learning the basics.

And so we said: Let's raise the standards. We're spending more money, but let's raise the standards and measure early and solve problems now, before it's too late.

No, education is how to help the person who's lost a job. Education is how to make sure we've got a workforce that's productive and competitive.

What little discussion there has been of these remarks has focused, perhaps rightly, on how out of touch they make Bush appear when it comes to the lives of working people. A 55-year-old worker isn't interested in going back to school to learn a new skill so he can start up another career. He just wants his job back. Bush's remarks reflect someone who sees workers and jobs as portable commodities, and has no sense whatsoever of the pain inflicted by policies that eviscerate the nation's manufacturing capacity.

But even more telling, I think, are what these remarks say about Bush's view of education.

To people like Bush, the value of education lies solely in its ability to provide a steady supply of workers. Education isn't a matter of improving our lives, making us better citizens capable of thinking for themselves, inspiring us to reach the maximum of our human capacities; it's a union card, a system designed to churn out as many trained workers as possible.

This view of education, in fact, is pronounced among conservatives in general. And it's directly reflected in Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program.

Consider, if you will, the areas of accomplishment that are tested under NCLB: reading, math, science, and English. All of these areas are those which are viewed by business interests as those most essential to training a viable workforce. All other areas of education -- particularly the arts, civics, history, geography, and social studies -- are relegated to minor status.

Now, it's unquestionable that one of the important functions of education is indeed to prepare young citizens for entry into the workforce, and to provide them the tools to be fully capable participants in the economy. But that isn't its sole purpose, either.

Education is supposed to make better citizens of us by giving us the tools to understand how our world works. It is, above all, supposed to help us to find our own special gifts and enable them, making our society both more creative and inventive and making us more fulfilled individually.

NCLB not only ignores those aspects of education, but by giving work-related skills primacy, it crowds them out, sometimes altogether.

Under the NCLB, schools have been forced to alter their entire approaches to education so that the emphasis is now placed on students passing these limited-scope tests. School districts have been forced to divert resources into providing training for the tests, and almost uniformly the resources lost have been in the areas of providing a robust education for all students from all walks of life and interests.

The damage to schools has ranged from the NCLB approach harming special education to gutting programs for gifted students. It has also induced schools to calculate "success" Enron style, by cooking their books.

Michael Winerip detailed in the New York Times how NCLB's arbitrary rating system is creating chaos in the schools:
The law allows students at schools labeled failing to transfer out. In Chicago, 19,000 applied for transfers, but Mr. Duncan approved just 1,100. In Los Angeles, there were 229 transfers. Joi Mecks, a Chicago schools spokeswoman, said: "If this law was going to cause overcrowding, we were not going to do it. Everyone knows 40 in a class is not sound educationally."

And yet, that is precisely what has happened in New York City. The mayor and the chancellor -- who have been quite restrained in their comments about the law -- said yes to all 8,000 federal transfer requests, contributing to the worst overcrowding of city schools in years.

Now it turns out that about a third of the 8,000 transfers -- children often traveling over an hour to attend crowded schools -- have been moved from one school labeled failing under the law to another failing school.

If this seems like a scam to you, that's because it almost certainly is. NCLB is in essence a policy that plasters a business approach to education onto our school system, suffocating out its broader effects in creating independent human beings capable of critical thinking. It produces drones, not a healthy society.

Stan Karp of Rethinking Schools laid out exactly why the NCLB is a hoax:
1. The massive increase in testing that NCLB will impose on schools will hurt their educational performance, not improve it.

2. The funding for NCLB does not come anywhere near the levels that would be needed to reach even the narrow and dubious goal of producing 100% passing rates on state tests for all students by 2014.

3. The mandate that NCLB imposes on schools to eliminate inequality in test scores among all student groups within 12 years is a mandate that is placed on no other social institution, and reflects the hypocrisy at the heart of the law.

4. The sanctions that NCLB imposes on schools that don't meet its test score targets will hurt poor schools and poor communities most.

5. The transfer and choice provisions of NCLB will create chaos and produce greater inequality within the public system without increasing the capacity of receiving schools to deliver better educational services.

6. These same transfer and choice provisions will not give low-income parents any more control over school bureaucracies than food stamps give them over the supermarkets.

7. The provisions about using scientifically-based instructional practices are neither scientifically valid nor educationally sound and will harmfully impact classrooms in what may be the single most important instructional area, the teaching of reading.

8. The supplemental tutorial provisions of NCLB will channel public funds to private companies for ideological and political reasons, not sound educational ones.

9. NCLB is part of a larger political and ideological effort to privatize social programs, reduce the public sector, and ultimately replace local control of institutions like schools with marketplace reforms that substitute commercial relations between customers for democratic relations between citizens.

10. NCLB moves control over curriculum and instructional issues away from teachers, classrooms, schools and local districts where it should be, and puts it in the hands of state and federal education bureaucracies and politicians. It represents the single biggest assault on local control of schools in the history of federal education policy. ...

11. NCLB includes provisions that try to push prayer, military recruiters, and homophobia into schools while pushing multiculturalism, teacher innovation, and creative curriculum reform out.

Kerim at Keywords laid out last year where this policy is taking us. And Jeanne d'Arc, I think, summed up eloquently the deeper meaning of NCLB, and the price we will all pay for this policy:
Its purpose is to label public schools as failures, so that we can entirely privatize education.

... This makes me so mad. Access to a decent, free education ought to be one of the most fundamental rights in any democracy, and that's sliding through our fingers. And we're using a lot of phony language about kids' and parents' rights, and choice, and excellence to move in the direction of expensively attained mediocrity. It ought to be a scandal.

In the end, the core problem of NCLB is that it relies entirely on tests. But there is one essential element in education -- an element that truly gives American citizens a competitive advantage -- which can never be adequately gauged by mass rote tests: creativity. NCLB, in fact, appears designed to quash out creativity altogether.

The result may provide a more pliable, conformist and religion-bound workforce. No doubt such a thought is appealing inside corporate boardrooms. But it will, in the end, be the death of what makes America great.

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