The great mystery of education policy today is why the Obama administration is embracing the Bush program. I recently wrote in Education Week (June 10) that it is time to kill the Bush-era No Child Left Behind program. The overwhelming majority of teachers agree with me. Those who educate our kids know that NCLB is a failed program that is not improving our schools but rather turning them into test-prep factories and dumbing down our kids. Bush's main advisor Sandy Kress reacted with outrage on the website of Education Week, and Tom Vander Ark on Huffington Post called me an "edu-curmudgeon" for speaking plain truth.
Let me say it again: It is time to kill the Bush-era No Child Left Behind program. This is a program in which the federal government requires every state to test every student from grade 3-8 in reading and math every year. If states do not make "adequate yearly progress" towards 100% proficiency by 2014, then the schools face a series of increasingly onerous sanctions, ending with their being closed down. Vander Ark thinks that this punitive approach to school improvement is swell. I don't.
If judged solely by test scores, the only coin that the NCLB crowd understands, the law has been a dud. Kids today are making less progress on national and international tests than they did during the Clinton administration years.
While our kids focus endlessly on preparing to take their state tests in reading and math, they are not learning science, history, geography, foreign language, the arts, or anything else but how to find the right bubble on a standardized test.
A California study in Science magazine predicted that by 2014, nearly 100% of all elementary schools would be deemed failures because of NCLB. This would unleash a flood of sanctions: closed schools, fired staffs, public schools handed over to private management (a remedy that has recently been proved ineffective in Philadelphia, among other places), and public schools handed over to state control (another ineffective remedy).
Now Secretary Arne Duncan promises to close 5,000 low-performing schools. The thought of closing 5,000 schools thrills today's so-called "reformers," although none of them has any idea how to make them better. Where will Duncan find 5,000 new principals? Is there an army of great teachers waiting to staff those 5,000 schools?
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965--which is the original law onto which No Child Left Behind was grafted--had none of these punitive features. It was premised on the belief that the federal government could help schools by sending more money. In fact, the federal government never sent much money, never more than 10% of overall spending, and often much less than that. No one today could visit a typical inner-city school and complain that its biggest problem was that it got too much federal money.
But with this leverage, the new mandarins of education want to control all of American education. For some reason, first the Bush people and now the Obama people believe they know exactly how to fix American education. (Chicago, their model, is one of the lowest-performing cities in the nation on national tests, and Texas was never a national model for academic excellence.) Their answer starts with testing and ends with data and more testing. If children were widgets, they might be right; but children are not widgets, they are individuals. If reading and math were all that mattered in school, they might be right, but basic skills are not the be-all and end-all of being educated.
A recent study by Common Core (Why We're Behind: What Top-Performing Nations Teach Their Students But We Don't) shows that the top-ranking nations do not spend endless hours preparing for tests of basic skills. Instead, in nations such as Finland and Japan, there is a balanced curriculum of science, history, geography, the arts, foreign languages, civics, and other studies. Meanwhile our children are learning to guess the right answer on a multiple-choice test!
The amazing thing about American education today is that the Obama people--who promised revolutionary change--have no ideas other than to tighten the grip of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program on the teachers and children of the United States.