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White House Education Advisors Talk the Talk -- But Can They Walk the Walk When it Comes to Dismantling NCLB?

In a meeting with community activists, reps from the U.S. Dept. of Ed shared their displeasure with current policy measures. But will they actually do anything to change them?
 
 
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So there we were at the White House. Forty “education leaders” from Pennsylvania invited to meet with President Obama’s senior policy advisors as well as top staff at the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). The room contained district superintendents, school board members, principals, college presidents, education professors, representatives from a host of education associations, a super-PAC school privatizer, educational consultants, and various non-profit directors. And one elephant.

This elephant in the room fittingly started as a Republican beast, but has gained so much traction with Democrats over the past decade that it could just as well have been a donkey lurking there in the corner. Whatever its animal form, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was casting a pretty big shadow and it was time to talk about the consequences of labeling our public schools as failures, high stakes testing, and the demonization of teachers.

And so during the first discussion session, I stood to address Roberto Rodriguez, the President’s senior policy advisor on education. I reminded him of what I had told him back in March, when I implored the White House to stop participating in the national narrative of failing public schools. (See “What I Told the White House.”) And then I gave him the view from the ground here in Pennsylvania where our grassroots movement has been fighting massive budget cuts, to let him know what it looks like when our country stops believing that public education is a public good. When it chooses to cut teachers, tutoring programs, nurses, special ed, school buses, music, art, foreign languages, and even Kindergarten.

NCLB has created a culture of punishment and fear, with student “achievement” measured by highly problematic standardized tests that don’t begin to assess real learning, and teachers evaluated on those test scores and little else. It has narrowed the focus in our schools to reading and math, jettisoned real education in favor of high stakes testing resulting in a plague of cheating scandals, and nurtured a system of “teaching to the test” on top of weeks of school time spent on test taking and nothing else. NCLB set a pie in the sky target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed.

All this supposed failure and blaming has served as convenient cover to gut public education in states like Pennsylvania, where Governor Corbett and the Republican controlled legislature acted as fast as they could to slash $1 billion from public schools, install voucher-like tax credit programs, and privatize struggling districts, handing their schools over to corporations run by their largest campaign donors. But they had plenty of help from the other side of the aisle, because faced with the relentless media barrage of the failing-narrative, far too many people have lost confidence in public education as a pillar of our democracy.

And this has been happening all across the United States, with the backing of mountains of ultra-right superPAC money and ALEC-inspired legislation as well as major new foundation players including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation. This is truly a national battle, and we can’t win this fight isolated in our trenches. We need tone-changing leadership from the top.

My report from the grassroots met with a rousing round of applause from attendees and was followed by a series of equally urgent remarks. Larry Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition warned that President Obama’s policies have looked nearly identical to Republicans on education (with the exception of vouchers, which he does not support) and that he may backfire at the polls with teachers and educators. Feinberg sits on the Haverford school board, a wealthy district near Philadelphia, and reminded the President’s staff that middle-class students in well-resourced schools actually score at the top on international tests. We are ignoring poverty while adding ever more testing, which will drastically expand yet again this year in his district and many others. Similarly, Susan Gobreski of Education Voters PA argued that we ought to have a new national narrative of equity, and that we have choices and need to help the public see that we can make different ones.

For their part, the White House advisors and senior USDE staff seemed to agree. Roberto Rodriguez emphasized that we “need more investment in public education, not less” with a focus on early childhood education, curriculum, wrap around programs, and parent engagement. He reported on the 300,000 teaching jobs lost in recent years, noting the economic implications for the U.S. and warned that sequestration – which will happen if congress does not head off looming mandatory budget cuts this fall – will mean billions of dollars cut to Title I, special ed, higher ed, and other student programs.

Massie Ritsch, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the USDE, talked about the fact that NCLB will be up for renewal next year, and that we here at the community level need to keep talking about “the lunacy that this law has allowed to perpetuate.” Yes, those were his actual words. Think about that. Of those Americans who say they are very familiar with NCLB, nearly half now say that the law has made things worse in this country (and only 28% say it’s better). (See “What the Polls Say.”) And here was the top brass at the USDE agreeing, calling the fallout from this federal law “lunacy.”

Deborah Delisle, USDE Assistant Secretary noted that 30 states have now applied for NCLB waivers to gain some flexibility in dealing with its ever more stringent requirements. However, Pennsylvania is not one of them. Many in the room expressed serious frustration with Governor Corbett’s apparent preference to have our schools labeled failures and refusal to seek relief through the waiver program. And it was readily apparent that the PA Department of Education declined to send anyone to this White House forum, which was hardly a meeting of Corbett’s political foes (after all, Students First PA was there: that’s the group that funnels superPAC millions to the campaigns of legislators who promise to deliver vouchers and give away public funds to private and religious schools through tax credit schemes.)

Delisle also commented on the polarizing effect that NCLB has had on our nation. It has created a climate in which those who embrace the corporate-marketplace-inspired reform mantra of choice, competition, and test-based accountability smear professional educators and public school advocates as “defenders of the status quo” who only care about union perks and not children. But this educational “reform” movement of the past decade has been a bit like the king’s new clothes. A wide swath of America has lined the parade route – Republican and Democrat alike – loudly cheering for the king’s beautiful new royal robes of privatization, but there’s nothing there covering his privates.

This “reform” movement is premised on a false idea that American schools have been in steady decline for the past forty years, which is not supported by the evidence. Despite ample data to the contrary, these reformers continue to insist that our students are falling further and further behind their international peers and promote the NCLB inspired narrative of failing public education. (For an excellent analysis of the data, see Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.) What’s more, they accuse those who point out the obvious – that privatization is not working, that charter schools and tax credits are draining our public coffers of desperately needed resources, that we have to address the astonishing high rate of child poverty – of being satisfied with the persistent racial achievement gap and using poverty as an excuse.

We are at a cross-roads with public education in our country. If we are going to get serious about making sure that every student has the opportunity to attend a great public school – “A school,” as Assistant Secretary Deborah Delisle said, “that every one of us would send our child to” – then we have to get serious about restoring this country’s belief in the public good of public education. It’s time to name the elephant in the room, have a serious conversation about overhauling NCLB, and make the choice to adequately and equitably fund our public schools.

 

Jessie B. Ramey is the ACLS New Faculty Fellow in Women's Studies and History at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of Child Care in Black and White: Working Parents and the History of Orphanages (University of Illinois Press, 2012). She is the founder of the public education advocacy Web site Yinzercation.