Federal Opinion

Obama and Duncan Launch NCLB 2.0

By Diane Ravitch — December 08, 2009 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

We promised to keep a close watch on what is happening at the federal level, and now it begins to get interesting. And a bit scary, if you care about the future of public education.

The U.S. Department of Education announced its plan to spend at least $3.5 billion to push local officials around the country to close failing schools and reopen them with new teachers and principals. At this time of fiscal crisis and budget cuts, districts are desperate for federal dollars. To qualify for these dollars, districts must do one of four things: 1) fire the principal and at least half the staff and reopen the school with new staff; 2) turn the school over to a charter operator or other private managers; 3) close the school and send the students to higher-achieving schools in the district; or 4) replace only the principal and take other steps to change the school.

Sounds just like the sanctions in NCLB. The Obama-Duncan plan might as well be called “NCLB 2.0.”

Arne Duncan is certainly familiar with school turnarounds. He closed down a number of schools in Chicago. Studies done by Chicago think tanks have shown that most of the brand-new, turned-around schools enrolled few of the students who previously attended “failing” schools. The Consortium on Chicago School Research produced a report revealing what happened to students when their “failing” school was closed: 80 percent of the students enrolled in low-performing schools transferred to other low-performing schools. There is no evidence that the turnaround strategy in Chicago has produced positive results. Catalyst, the first-rate independent group that covers education issues in Chicago, reported in September that high school test scores in Chicago were stagnant, even in the highly-touted transformation schools.

Charter school organizers and management companies must be licking their chops, waiting to scoop up the new federal dollars and new opportunities for market expansion. The charter movement began as an effort to strengthen public education, but it has turned into a movement to get rid of public sector unions and to turn public schools into private schools funded by public dollars.

Is the charter movement up to the challenge? According to a thoughtful report by Tom Toch, the best charter management organizations are already overstretched. They don’t have the financial resources to grow (but the federal dollars will solve that problem), but more importantly, they have a high rate of turnover among principals and teachers. Not every teacher can sustain that 60-65 hour work week that is expected of charter teachers. Tom wrote the original report (a draft of which was printed on Dean Millot’s blog), but defenders of the charter movement at Ed Sector edited the report so heavily that Tom took his name off the report before it was released. Is the charter movement so fragile that it must muzzle the voice of a friendly critic?

For more on the new face of the charter movement, see “Scholarly Investments” in the Dec. 5 issue of The New York Times. (Registration required.) There we learn about the aggressive hedge-fund managers—millionaires and billionaires—who are thrilled to have their own school. One gets the sense that these guys—whose innovative investment strategies helped to bring our economy down—see the public schools as charities, in which they can “leverage” public funding while playing the role of do-gooders. One of the m/billionaires says he likes the cash flow associated with charters. He gets to put his name on a privately managed school paid for with public dollars. Will the entrepreneurs stick with their new investments, or will they dump them like a penny stock if the scores don’t rise enough to satisfy their board members? If they get bored with “their” school, will they look for other forms of amusement?

I wonder about the students in the 5,000 schools that Obama and Duncan want to close. Will they be shuffled off to other low-performing schools, as they have been in both Chicago and New York City?

I wonder, too, about who will work in the 5,000 brand-new schools? Are there 5,000 super principals waiting in the wings to lead them? Where will they find the tens of thousands of “great” teachers who will staff them? Or will they play musical chairs with the principals and teachers from the schools that were closed?

What we are witnessing now is the culmination of the plans of the education entrepreneurs who are driving national education policy at the highest levels. They are not educators. They do not understand how to help or support a school, so their first instinct is to close it down and start over. I think that is called creative destruction. Just watch: It will be coming soon to a school near you.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.