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Excellence in Failure or Education for All?

One enforces standardized tests, the other promises a federal trust fund; one pushes shame, the other promotes equality. Contrast and compare the Bush and Kerry approaches to education in America.
 
 
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Mark Spring, an educator of ten years, helped organize the “Rally for Children Left Behind.” The 2004 election “is not just about defending the country, it’s about being the country,” he says, explaining one of the reasons why he and many other educators and concerned Ohio citizens held the rally at the Ohio Statehouse earlier this month. Above all, Spring says, they were motivated by the belief that public education – the backbone of democratic society – is being eroded by the No Child Left Behind Act.

“All across the state of Ohio, more than 3,000 teachers have been lost under Bush,” Spring attests. “That’s one of the net results of No Child Left Behind.” The act was passed in 2001.

“One of the main goals of the act is to decrease class size, to have fewer students per teacher,” Spring continues, “but my question, and the question that we all had as rally speakers, was, 'How can you do that with thousands of fewer teachers?'”

The answer, according to Spring, is that this promise is simply not being kept, especially in the poorer districts. As many suggested would happen, wealthier schools are doing fine under NCLB, while the poorer schools are taking a huge hit. All across the nation, teachers and parents are growing weary of the many adverse consequences that seem imminent in Bush’s education system. The long-term impacts of these inequalities is one of their main concerns.

“What we wanted to do with our rally, and what I think Kerry is starting to try to do, is blast through the rhetorical firewall that the Bush team has erected as a defense against the criticisms that were inevitable,” says Spring.

NCLB is the hub of George W. Bush’s platform on education. Interestingly, it also appears to be one of the president’s weakest points as he vies for reelection. John Kerry’s job, if he is to successfully blast through Bush’s “rhetorical firewall” on this key issue, is complex. On one hand, he and Edwards seem compelled to respond to the opportunity for reform that the No Child Left Behind Act represents by promising to make sure it has full funding. (In 2004, NCLB was under-funded by more than $26 billion. The Bush administration’s 2005 budget allocates $24.9 billion to elementary and secondary education, more than $9 billion less than NCLB authorizes.) On the other hand, though, it might make more sense at this point to drop Bush’s Orwellian rhetoric completely and make it entirely clear that Kerry and Edwards offer a responsible and viable alternative for America’s educational system.

Essentially, NCLB requires every state to implement standardized testing, or, to use Bush’s preferred term, “assessments,” which has had a drastic effect on not just schools’ budgets, but their cultures as well. All students in grades K through 12 are to be tested at regular intervals throughout their elementary and secondary educational career. NCLB also goes a step further, however, and extends the concept of assessments to schools themselves, which the Bush platform persistently euphemizes as “demanding accountability.” This means that schools can now also “fail.” And since NCLB “demands accountability in exchange for the record levels of federal spending now going to K-12 public education,” it follows that any school that “fails” its assessment will have its funds cut. But perhaps the worst consequence is that any curriculum which doesn’t produce direct results in the “assessments” mandated by NCLB is now seen as trivial. Schools with little funding for programs in non-core academics are slashing spending on arts and physical education classes even further, in order to focus on the preparation for and administration of tests that are mandated but not fully funded at the federal level. In short, NCLB contributes to a de facto monoculture, as schools are forced to commit a majority of their resources to militant preparation for their many “assessments.”

What happens to students whose schools “fail?” Under NCLB, vouchers would be made available to students who test well. But the money for these vouchers comes from the tax money that would have gone to the public school system. So the Bush administration is actually channeling federal funds away from public schools and into private educational institutions. And these vouchers aren’t offered in the interest of fairness, either: Bush’s voucher system will disproportionately punish children from poor families, since federal vouchers aren’t likely to be enough to cover all of the costs of private schooling, and children from poor families who live in poor communities are the most likely to go to a school that can’t meet their educational needs.

This flatly contradicts the rhetoric of “leaving no child behind.” Which begs the question: Does the Bush administration simply have other priorities, or is there another agenda behind these “reforms?” It seems eminently possible that conservatives like those in the Bush administration actually want to shape American education to reflect their values. When examined closely, NCLB can be seen as an effort to privatize education and get far more students attending private and religious schools where they’re more likely to be taught conservative values. In any case, the act certainly tends to make our educational system reflect the disparity of the distribution of wealth in our society. The cause of these effects is not merely negligence, but the conservative view of education as a primary means for disciplining children (and the schools they go to) through shame and punishment. (Bush’s education secretary, Rod Paige, has actually called “shame” the “strongest weapon for reform.” He also once called a union representing elementary and secondary school teachers a “terrorist organization,” but that’s another story. Or is it?) This is why the monoculture promoted by NCLB-mandated assessments is no unforeseen accident: it is designed to deprive poor communities of the means for providing their future citizens with rich, meaningful educations. In the conservative world view, this is just tough love.

“Solutions for problems of No Child Left Behind” are offered by one Kerry campaign press release. The challenging candidate has delivered a promise to “ensure that No Child Left Behind works for schools, states, and teachers by rewarding those who meet higher standards and rewarding schools that turn around and improve” in stump speeches. While it might be too late to divorce himself from Bush’s language completely, John Kerry’s vision for America’s education system is based on an entirely different set of values. His education plan for America is built on sustainable ideals aimed at expanding public education and providing the highest standards possible for cultivating America’s younger generation. Notice, for instance, that even while using the phrase No Child Left Behind, Kerry’s platform concentrates on rewarding schools and students for their successes, as opposed to punishing them for their shortcomings. Accordingly, rather than cut funding from schools that don’t perform at “accountable” levels, Kerry proposes to “offer extra help to schools that are falling short, rather than leaving troubled students behind” when he is president.

While Bush sees education as a means for teaching children discipline through punishment and fear of failure, Kerry sees education as a means for extending opportunity. The Kerry-Edwards National Education Trust Fund is a good example. This fund would be set up to “ensure that new education programs authorized by Congress will be funded on a mandatory basis.” Creating a fund designated solely for America’s public educational system would mean broader prosperity, since all public schools would be guaranteed resources. This is the responsible thing for a democratic government to do, and yet Bush has taxed schools with his unrealistic expectations.

Many policies and programs that Kerry proposes would help integrate America’s educational system and the communities of which they are a part. A Kerry administration would make “early education available and affordable for every American child,” just as the Early Learning Opportunities Act of 2000 proposed. This would provide equal access to educational resources at the most crucial time in children’s mental development, which “gets kids ready for school, and in later years cuts crime and increases job productivity,” as Kerry points out.

His administration will also allow the federal government to issue $24.8 billion in school modernization bonds “to help states and school districts repair and build modern schools.” This, coupled with the promise to recruit 500,000 teachers over the next four years, means Kerry knows how necessary it is to provide enough teachers and suitable public educational facilities to all communities.

The implementation of Kerry’s “School’s Open ‘Til Six” initiative would not only give students after-hours tutoring, but would also provide a safe and nurturing after-school environment. Naturally, “School’s Open ‘Til Six” is also designed to help parents of students. This program would contribute directly to many Americans’ quality of life, in the short- as well as long-term. Schools and communities should work together in raising our young; Kerry understands that and has promised to provide for that need when he is president.

Kerry’s success on Nov. 2 depends on whether or not he can demonstrate to voters that he is truly committed to these principles and not merely crafting rhetoric. Bush’s record—especially on education—speaks for itself.NCLB has created havoc in communities all across America, manifesting in the phenomenon of "excellent failures": schools that perform at the top of their state's standards but are deemed failures according to the federal standards handed down in NCLB. We can't predict the consequences such confusion and mistrust will have on the future of education, but we can choose this November to reinvest in our public schools and control the damage.

Mark Spring doubts that NCLB, and the way it has been implemented by the Bush administration, will provide for a democratic education. He doesn’t believe it guides young people to be what we all have a right to be: adequately equipped citizens of the U.S. “We [the organizers of “Rally for Children Left Behind”] don’t believe that shame is the best way to motivate people,” he says. “A challenge — which is what the No Child Left Behind Act is and should be — a challenge shouldn’t feel like a threat. It should feel like a shared opportunity.”