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Money & Finance Opinion

Does a Lack of Political Will Make NCLB’s “100/2014" Impossible?

October 21, 2007 3 min read
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There are three potential reasons the 100/2014 goal might be impossible:

The first is that the goal lacks realism in some existential, absolute sense. As noted Friday, that argument would have more credibility if its makers were achieving 90% and the year were 2012, instead of 60, 70 or 80% today.

The real protest gets to the second possible reason. Opponents of 100/2014 would like to conflate their inability to reach the lower targets with the impossibility of the higher. The fight against 100/2014 is not about the higher goal for students. That’s a diversion. The underlying issue is what must happen to adult interests if the public school system is to get anywhere near the vicinity of 100/2014 and the stability of the balance of political power among adult stakeholders if those changes are made.

The second reason it might be impossible to achieve 100 percent student proficiency by 2014 amounts to a lack of political will.

Here’s what the industry ought to be saying....Political Will. None of the innovations required by NCLB were welcomed by state education agencies, school districts’ boards or superintendents, or the teachers unions. The law was challenged as an unfunded mandate in the courts. Its standards, testing measures and rules about student populations were manipulated to assure the maximum number of schools made Adequate Yeartly Progress, rather than identify real student needs. Supplemental Education Service provisions were undermined through active and passive resistance. Restructuring has been something of a joke.

It’s just not credible to argue that states, districts and unions were motivated to resist NCLB implementation from “Day One” in 2001 because they believed it’s impossible to make every student proficient.

A far more plausible explanation is that incentives to resist arose from how NCLB moved power in k-12 education from the states to the federal government; from school districts to parents; and from a market based on arbitrary relationships between administrators, publishers and local consultants, to one driven by objective measures of performance favoring evaluation-based products, services and programs.

It is equally reasonable to argue that if what it takes to move in the direction of 100/2014 is a decentralization of authority from states to districts to schools, and greater reliance on a review of outputs rather than a control of inputs, institutions threatened by the change will resist. State agencies, school boards and superintendents, and teachers unions, whose power has been based on central control of inputs with virtually no accountability for outcomes have not been eager to give up power or favorable rules.

States are used to regulating down to the classroom. They are not used to answering to Washington for performance. School boards are used to political interference in their own individual schools, but not to seeing a spotlight placed on schools that serve the mainstream well but minorities quite poorly. Superintendents are comfortable with sole command of a multi-million/billion enterprise, but not portfolio management of independent schools. Teachers unions’ influence over school systems disintegrates if they cannot exercise the privilege of seniority over assignment and pay grade.

Any leader of any of these institutions looking at what it will take to radically improve student performance can only be worried about what it means for their organization and the adults they represent. The vast majority can only be expected to balk, and do what they can to slow things down. And that’s what they’ve done.

Bottom Line: It is simply impossible to meet the individualized needs of student subgroups - precisely what is required to get in the vicinity of 100/2014, without giving schools a kind of authority that undermines the power of public education’s traditional adult stakeholders. Institutions resist this kind of assault with everything they have; state education agencies, school districts and teachers unions are no different.

Tomorrow: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Not exactly. Public education lacks the capacity to approach 100/2014. Both the traditional k-12 education industry and its new “school improvement” rival share some blame.

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