Federal Opinion

Empowering Those at the Bottom Beats Punishing Them From the Top

By Carl A. Cohn — April 24, 2007 6 min read
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Some education historians argue that American cycles of school reform have been preoccupied with either the declining wit or the deteriorating character of students. This current “wit” cycle of reform, ushered in by the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, is now approaching a quarter-century in duration. It shows no obvious signs of winding down. Barely a day passes without another critique of public education that repackages the concerns of A Nation at Risk about the negative impact of public schools on the minds of our children.

—Jonathan Bouw


Sometimes, however, a body appears deceptively strong just before death. During my 38 years in public education, I have witnessed enough cyclical changes to suspect that the strength of this current cycle of reform has passed its peak, and that the body now suffers from a terminal illness.

This is the legacy of the No Child Left Behind Act. Beginning with the legislation’s title, federal lawmakers succeeded in codifying the good intentions and misconceptions of a generation of education reformers. For the past five years, those of us on the front lines of education have lived in a world governed by the law’s idealistic goals of achieving 100 percent proficiency for all students and eliminating the achievement gap.

As a school superintendent, I understand the symbolic power of high aspirations. I am responsible for inspiring those engaged in the difficult work of improving public education. Yet I am also keenly aware of the danger of asking educators to achieve impossible, nebulous goals. While initially inspiring, such goals eventually become debilitating.

This is where I am with No Child Left Behind: Rather than supporting my efforts to improve student achievement, the law’s unreasonable mandates and dependence on punishment are among my largest obstacles.

Since the No Child Left Behind law’s passage, educators willing to occupy this middle ground of praising its principles while pointing out its practical flaws have been guaranteed the educational equivalent of a “swiftboating.” Their motives are questioned. They are attacked as pro-union or anti-accountability and criticized for placing the needs of adults ahead of the needs of children.

Two years ago, I came out of retirement to become the superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District in California. I inherited a district in which the driving philosophy over the previous six years had, similarly, been to attack the credibility of any educator who spoke out against a top-down education reform model. These attacks allowed those in charge to portray themselves as the defenders of children, to justify any means to promote their model of improving student achievement, and to view their critics through the same apocalyptic lens of good and evil that has characterized many of our recent national debates.

If the goal of establishing impossible targets is to exaggerate and overidentify failure in public education to provide a rationale for untested theories of reform, then the law has been a spectacular success.

At any level of governance, this perspective is counterproductive. In San Diego, it produced a climate of conflict that is only now beginning to improve. On a national level, it has had a chilling effect on open discussion and prevented a genuine national debate on the goals of the No Child Left Behind legislation.

Now that I have reached my 60s, I have become far more outspoken when I encounter unreasonable targets and frustrating micromanagement from afar. As the former longtime superintendent of a district (Long Beach, Calif.) that succeeded in improving student achievement and reducing the achievement gap between minority and white students, I understand the enormity of the task and the impracticality of the progress required by this federal law.

I believe there is a place where no child is left behind, where all children achieve grade-level proficiency and there is no achievement gap. It is called heaven. As a former seminary student, I have a strong suspicion that it will not be achieved on earth for all of this nation’s children by the law’s target date of 2014 without divine intervention. It is even more unlikely to be achieved when this earth for many children living in our urban neighborhoods is far closer to hell. This is not a defeatist attitude or an excuse to avoid making the hard decisions necessary to address educational inequities. It is a fact. Acknowledging it and establishing ambitious, yet reasonable, targets and methods for determining progress will not diminish the desire of education leaders to improve student achievement. It will empower us.

If, on the other hand, the goal of establishing impossible targets is to exaggerate and overidentify failure in public education in order to provide a rationale for untested theories of reform, then the No Child Left Behind law has been a spectacular success.

If a given set of parents knew that their child would be labeled a failure for missing just one of 19 targets, they would call the system unfair. If we punished their child on the basis of such a contrived failure, it would be grounds for a lawsuit. If we then told the parents that, in the name of accountability, we were going to find that child other, better parents, I would fear for my personal safety.

Yet, the No Child Left Behind Act applies the same logic to public school systems. If one of my district’s schools misses just one of 19 federally mandated targets, I must label it a failing school. Once this school is labeled a failure, I am required to sanction it. These sanctions include offering untested private tutoring to all students, regardless of their performance or whether the services have any benefit; busing students to other schools, regardless of whether those schools are better; and closing, restructuring, or transforming the school into a charter school, regardless of whether that process will improve it.

Some states have avoided this chain of events by establishing such low standards that any school can achieve the state’s easy targets. But when a state such as California, with an accountability system that predated the No Child Left Behind law, establishes high-quality standards of performance, achieving all of No Child Left Behind’s targets on the federal government’s timeline becomes impossible. In this Alice-in-Wonderland context, enforcing the federal accountability system becomes an exercise in absurdity, where nearly all urban public schools are subjected to the same shout of “Off with his head!”

In my lifetime, I have experienced the large-scale application of so many theories of school reform. Each of these theories—from class-size reduction to whole-language reading instruction—has failed to live up to the expectations of reformers. In some cases, they have caused extensive harm. The lesson of these failures is that there are no quick fixes or perfect educational theories. School reform is a slow, steady, labor-intensive process. It is heavily dependent on harnessing the talents of individuals such as Erin Gruwell, the Long Beach teacher currently portrayed in the movie “Freedom Writers,” for transforming the lives of at-risk students, rather than punishing them for noncompliance with bureaucratic mandates and destroying their initiative.

Whether a school is public, private, or charter, ground-level solutions, such as high-quality leadership, staff collaboration, committed teachers, and clean and safe environments, have the best chance of success. These solutions are not easily quantified. They cannot be experimented on by researchers or mandated by the federal government. Their success is dependent upon empowering those at the bottom, not punishing them from the top.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week as Empowering Those at the Bottom Beats Punishing Them From the Top


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