No group had greater hopes for President Obama and his promise of change than the nation's teachers. Poll after poll showed that they despised President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) law with its demand for testing, testing, testing. When asked, teachers said that NCLB was driving out everything except reading and math, because they were the only subjects that counted. Science, the arts, history, literature, geography, civics, all gave way to make more time for students to take practice tests in reading and math. In some districts, the time set aside for practice tests consumed hours of every school day.
NCLB was a failure, and not just because teachers didn't like it. Test scores inched up, but no more than they had before NCLB was passed. Scores on college-entrance exams remained stagnant. Just last week, the ACT reported that only 23 percent of the class of 2009 was prepared to earn as much as a C average in college. ACT tests over a million students, not only in reading and math, but also in science and social studies. ACT found that more than three-quarters of this year's graduates -- who were in fifth grade when NCLB was passed -- are not ready for college-level studies.
Part of the problem is that the tests on which so much attention is now lavished are low-level. Students don't have to know much to pass them.
Another part of the problem is that the states have been quietly but decisively lowering their expectations and passing students who know little or nothing. New York State's tests have recently been deconstructed and shown to be a sham. Diana Senechal, a New York City teacher, demonstrated on gothamschools.org a few days ago that she (or anyone) could pass the New York state examinations in the middle school grades by guessing, not even looking at the content of the questions but just answering A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, in order. Frederick Smith, an independent testing expert, determined that virtually every student got enough credit on the written portion of the state tests to be able to guess randomly on the multiple-choice questions and pass.
So, what is the Obama administration now doing? Its $4.3 billion "Race to the Top" fund will supposedly promote "innovation." But this money will be used to promote privatization of public education and insist that states use these same pathetic tests to decide which teachers are doing a good job. With the lure of all that money hanging out there to the states, the administration is requiring that they remove all restrictions on the number of privately-managed charter schools that receive public dollars and that they use test results to evaluate teachers.
This is not change that teachers can believe in. These are exactly the same reforms that President George W. Bush and his Secretary Margaret Spellings would have promoted if they had had a sympathetic Congress. They too wanted more charter schools, more merit pay, more testing, and more "accountability" for teachers based on those same low-level tests. But Congress would never have allowed them to do it.
Now that President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan have become the standard-bearer for the privatization and testing agenda, we hear nothing more about ditching NCLB, except perhaps changing its name. The fundamental features of NCLB remain intact regardless of what they call it.
The real winners here are the edu-entrepreneurs who are running President Obama's so-called "Race to the Top" fund and distributing the billions to other edu-entrepreneurs, who will manage the thousands of new charter schools and make mega-bucks selling test-prep programs to the schools.