School & District Management Opinion

The Gap of All Gaps: How ESEA/NCLB Reauthorization Makes the ‘Purpose Gap’ More Visible and More Painful

By Nancy Flanagan — February 03, 2015 3 min read
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After stalling out for several years and even appearing out of gas, the engines have been revved back up for a rapid race to reauthorize the foundational law guiding K-12 education in the U.S.

But most Americans have no idea.

And for the last several years I thought this “influence gap"—the chasm that exists between federal policymakers/influencers and ordinary students, teachers, and parents was the one we should most focus on closing. Whether you see an “achievement gap” or an “opportunity gap,” it was (and still is) clear that there’s a giant disconnect between educational architects and the people living in standardized housing.

But as I reviewed every page of the draft bill Senator Lamar Alexander has put forward for discussion and hearings and digested the array of responses and reactions to the renewed effort to reshape/repeal/replace/remodel No Child Left Behind, a different gap has my full attention.

The purpose of education in the United States in 2015 is not clear or shared despite all pretension otherwise.

The arguments over what should be a new ESEA are being made on many sides. Here’s Secretary Duncan. Here’s Diane Ravitch. Here’s Michael Petrilli. And here’s what some civil rights groups are saying.

The limited vision of the bill itself can be easily summarized by an oft-repeated paragraph within it:

The Secretary shall not have the authority to mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision over any of the challenging State academic standards adopted or implemented by a State.

I find it easy to get agitated and to want to agitate around the ways massive changes to the less visible structures and policies that impact the experiences of students, teachers, and schools are again (see RTTT and common core) to be made with very little public attention and input.

I also can’t help but cheer on any public process that even gives the illusion of some democratic engagement around the law rather than simply moving on as if reauthorization could not happen and policy being dictated by whoever could most influence the Administration.

But I just can’t be satisfied, 13 years into the lessons of NCLB, with a national conversation about educational policy that revolves around testing, states’ rights, and teacher quality and certification.

Not when India, soon to be the world’s most populous country, is developing its educational policy like this. The contrast helps make visible the alarming lack of educational vision and engagement in our country.

Yes, we need to limit overtesting.

Yes, we need to end profiteering.

Yes, we need Congressional reauthorization, no matter how incremental.

But I want to shout out the severe limitations of this bill and the harm not having a national sense of educational vision and purpose will do.

The world has changed a great deal in 50 years.

And it’s time our national imagination caught up.

The good news is that an honest reckoning and re-visioning of the purpose of education is beginning to happen in schools and communities and systems across the country (rich and poor, urban and rural). Ordinary parents, students, organizers, educators, and community leaders are beginning to understand that slogans and tropes are not enough.

Career and college ready is not enough.

“Success” is not enough.

A High Quality education for each and every child is not enough.

Returning to full funding with orchestras is not enough.

Now, all signs suggest a “not enough” bill also titled the “Each Child Ready for College or Career Act” will rapidly move through the U.S. Senate by the end of February and be put on the president’s desk for signing.

At about that moment, the media will cover the story and, not unlike common core, the public will get caught up to speed after the damage is done.

A missed opportunity for a real national conversation and reimagining of education will have passed by again. Maybe we’ll be ready next time.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.