-- a Gerald Bracey Report on the Condition of Education
THE NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ACT:
Gerald W. Bracey
Gerald W. Bracey is an Associate of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation and an Associate Professor at George Mason University. His most recent books are The War on America's Public Schools (Allyn & Bacon, 2002) and Put to the Test: An Educator's and Consumer's Guide to Standardized Testing (Revised edition, Phi Delta Kappa International, 2002). The opinions are his own.
The No Child Left Behind Act is a trap. It is the grand scheme of the school privatizers. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) sets up public schools for the final knock down.
Paranoia? I don't think so. Consider that the Bush administration is de-regulating every pollution producing industry in sight while cutting Superfund cleanup money. Why would an administration with such a policy perspective turn around and impose many new, straitjacket requirements on schools, requirements that would bankrupt any business? Well, recall that Bush's original proposal provided vouchers to let children attend private schools at taxpayer expense. Congress, chastised by the massive defeats suffered by voucher referenda in California and Michigan in the 2000 election stripped the voucher provisions from the bill. They didn't strip them from Karl Rove's mind.
There are any number of impossible-to-meet provisions in the NCLB, but let's take just two of the most prominent: those for testing and for teacher qualifications. The federal government cannot force NCLB on states, but any state that wants NCLB money must agree to test all children in grades three through eight every year in reading and math and, two years later, science as well. The tests must be based on "challenging" standards and schools must show "Adequate Yearly Progress" (AYP) until, after 12 years, all of the schools' students attain the "proficient" level. The school must demonstrate AYP overall and separately for all major ethnic and socio-economic groups. And pigs will fly.
The massive testing requirements alone will force almost all states to spend massive amounts of money to develop, administer, analyze and report the test results and other data needed for mandatory "report cards" for schools. Most states will have to abandon their own programs labored over for the last decade. Their costs may well exceed what NCLB provides.
The word "proficient" is a trap, too. According to the law, each state will decide how to define it will be but the word already has great currency in education circles as part of NAEP lingo. It is one of the NAEP achievement levels, the others being "below basic," "basic" and "advanced." Not many children get to the proficient level on NAEP tests.
Never mind that the NAEP achievement levels have been rejected by everyone who has ever studied them: UCLA’s Center for Research on Evaluation, Student Standards and Testing, the GAO and the National Academy of Sciences, as well as by individual psychometricians such as Lyle Jones of the University of North Carolina. The principal reason for tossing them out is that they don't accord with anything else. For instance, Jones pointed out that American fourth-graders were third in the world in TIMSS science, yet only 12% were at the proficient level and one percent at the advanced level in the 1996 NAEP science assessment. Similarly, I note that on the 2000 NAEP reading assessment, only 32% of fourth-graders attained proficient or better, but that American 9-year-olds were second in the world among 27 countries in the IEA reading study, How in the World Do Students Read?
Under NCLB, state-level NAEP goes from voluntary to mandatory. All states must participate in the biennial NAEP reading and math assessments to "confirm" their own results. Studies have already shown that a much smaller proportion of students reaches proficient on NAEP than on state-level tests. Because NCLB bill contains incentives for states to start at a low level (to have any prayer of achieving AYP), the discrepancy between the proportion of proficient students on NAEP and on state tests will remain and likely increase.
There is no good reason to use the NAEP achievement levels except to beat schools over the head and that is what will happen. Critics will take the discrepancy between the state results and the NAEP results as evidence that the schools are still failing and that the states are lying to their citizens.
Districts and schools that fail to make AYP--estimates by various states run in the 80-90% range--are subject to increasingly severe--and unworkable--sanctions. Their staffs can be fired, their kids sent to another district, the district abolished. Using the original formulation, the White House's own calculations revealed that had NCLB been in place for a few years, about 90% of the schools in North Carolina and Texas would have been labeled "failing schools." North Carolina and Texas? These are states that have been singled out in recent years for their progress on a variety of tests. If they can't meet the standards, what hope is there for the rest? None--that's the purpose of the law.
When the pre-ordained high failure rate occurs, vouchers and privatization will be touted as the only possible cures. In the last decade, voucher advocates have stopped touting vouchers as a cure-all for the whole nation on market grounds and have started pushing them for poor people on civil rights grounds. Middle class people aren't interested in vouchers because they think their public schools are good (they're right). But with the high failure rates guaranteed by NCLB, even those good schools will fail--51% of the schools North Carolina recognized for "exemplary growth" failed under NCLB. Conservative school critic, Denis Doyle wrote that the NCLB means that the nation is about to be "inundated in a sea of bad news" and that the schools are going to get "pole-axed."
The privatizers will shout, "The school system has proven it is an ossified government monopoly that can't reform itself (former assistant secretary of education and perennial bomb thrower,Chester Finn, shouted precisely this in 1998 in the Wall Street Journal). You've had your chance. We warned you. We gave you 'Nation At Risk' over twenty years ago. Nothing has changed. It's time to apply American business expertise to education." Right, as in Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing, Imclone, WorldCom, the 993 companies that have "adjusted" their accounting reports in the last five years, and the myriad dot.coms that failed because their officers didn't have a clue about how to run a business (how come no one ever criticizes business schools?).
If not yet bankrupt, Chris Whittle and his Edison Schools Inc. will be waiting (Edison closed at $.92 July 1). Recall that Whittle announced his plan for a national system of private schools in 1991 when Bush I was riding high after the Gulf War. So certain was a Bush re-election--coronation, actually--that the most likely Democratic candidates declined to run and left the certain defeat to the Governor of Arkansas.
Recall, too, that Whittle had paid Bush's Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, $125,000 as a consultant while Alexander was Governor of Tennessee (Whittle Communications was headquartered in Knoxville). Alexander also bought $10,000 worth of Whittle Communications stock. He transferred the stock to his wife when he became president of the University of Tennessee (for some reason, his wife also wrote a check to Whittle for the shares. Apparently Whittle never cashed either one of them, but he later bought the stock back for $330,000. Chummy, no?).
Whittle's original grandiose plan prophesied 200 private schools by 1996 and 1000 by 200. He said it would require about $1 billion to create a prototype of his scheme and another $2 to ramp it up to a national scale. Where on earth would he get that kind of money? Whittle disingenuously said from bankers and investors. Three billion from investors who had already lost about $400 million on his earlier adventure, Whittle Communications (which included Channel One)?
Whittle actually needed Bush and Alexander to push their school voucher plan through Congress. Then children could use those vouchers to attend Edison schools.
When the unthinkable happened and Bush lost, Whittle had to fall back on managing a few public schools. Whittle no doubt already has an advertising campaign ready for when the failing grades start arriving. He will then portray the Edison "model" as the only means of consistently achieving AYP, even though evaluations have found Edison achievement results mixed at best and a dozen schools that Edison lists as showing "positive" trends have terminated their contracts.
The testing requirements alone are enough to consign the schools to failure but they take a few years to apply. The requirements for "highly qualified" teachers, though, hit home almost immediately. All current teachers in schools receiving NCLB funds must be "highly qualified" by 2005-2006, as must anyone who is hired after the 2002-2003 school year begins. By "highly qualified," NCLB means those who hold at least a bachelor's degree, have full state certification (or have passed the state's licensing exam), and who have not had any certification requirements waived on "an emergency, provisional, or temporary basis."
Since virtually everyone in the country knows that there is a shortage of teachers with such qualifications and since everyone knows that the shortage is getting worse, especially in the needy cities, we can only assume that the framers of the legislation knew in advance that states could not meet the requirements. They just didn't care.
Even classroom paraprofessionals must have completed two years of college and have an associate's degree or have passed a state test on content and teaching skills. New hires must meet this requirement as of January 8, 2003; existing paraprofessionals have four years to ratchet up their credentials.
Paraprofessionals are low-salaried staff who often come from lower-income neighborhoods. There is no federal money to assist them to their degrees and if they should attain one, they will no doubt find more attractive salaries outside of the school. And better working conditions--NCLB greatly restricts what services they can provide to children. They can't teach, for instance unless, "directly supervised" by a teacher.
Harry Reid, the Democratic whip in the Senate is said to have gathered some education lobbyists together and asked, "How the (expletive) could you have let this happen?" How, indeed? Well, money can be as addictive as crack. How else to explain Democrat George Miller and Ted Kennedy's traitorous collusion in passing the law? Some states are already thinking that their costs--in dollars, not even counting hassle--might well be more than they get from NCLB. All states should look at the lucre-drug that Bush and the NCLB are offering them and just say no.
© 2003 Gerald Bracey
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