Federal Opinion

Try Again, Secretary Duncan, It’s Not Too Late

By Diane Ravitch — March 23, 2010 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Deborah,

The big event of early March was the release of President Obama’s plan to revise No Child Left Behind. Although NCLB continues to have its defenders, the Obama administration rightly views it as a “toxic” brand. Perhaps if the Obama team had given more thought to why it became toxic, their own plan would be far better. While the administration has tried to distance itself from NCLB, the assumptions of its proposal continue to be firmly rooted in NCLB’s philosophy of “measure and punish.”

NCLB’s overemphasis on basic skills testing was harmful to schools across the nation, its results have been meager, and its utopian goal of 100 percent proficiency unleashed unrealistic expectations. No school district or state could hope to meet the law’s utopian goal (except by dumbing down standards and tests). But the failure to meet this goal has unfairly stigmatized public education in the United States, setting the stage for privatization. The privatizers and their apologists lick their chops as they watch one school after another fail, but those of us who understand the importance of public education in our democracy must speak up, resist, and stop the advance of this movement to destroy a vital public institution. I say this not to defend the status quo, but to insist that we need real reform and improvement, not a blunderbuss that blasts apart our nation’s public school system.

Most educators hoped that the Obama administration would launch a fresh start and rethink the federal role in education. That has not happened. It may yet be possible, if the administration can be persuaded to remove the noxious elements of the proposed legislation. I give the administration credit for trying to do the right thing. They have dropped the deadline of 2014, which was not surprising, since no one expects that the deadline can be reached. They have eliminated the complex calculation of AYP (adequate yearly progress), which put some very good schools on the “failing” list. Some of the micromanagement that characterizes NCLB will disappear, for which we must give thanks to Secretary Arne Duncan.

But the federal role continues to be muscular, in fact, probably even more muscular than NCLB, if you happen to be one of the 5,000 schools in the bottom five percent. Muscular, as in tough, mean-spirited, and bullying.

All students in grades 3-8 across the United States will still be required by federal law to take annual tests in reading and math. Those in the upper 95 percent will more or less be left alone, and some may get cash rewards for progress. The administration says it wants to reward “growth,” not just compare cohorts, but to reward “growth,” there should be two tests a year for everyone, not just one. Since one of this administration’s signal initiatives is to grade teachers by their students’ test scores, students should be tested in September and again in May or June to see what part of their academic gains may be attributed to a specific teacher. It is hard to see how anyone can calculate “growth” by testing only once a year. So the proposal may bring even more testing than at present, with bigger stakes for teachers.

Most troublesome to me, however, are the draconian “remedies” that will be imposed on the 5,000 schools at the bottom in test scores. These schools must be “transformed” or “turned around” or closed. Their principals may be fired, their staffs may be fired, they may be turned over to state control, they may be turned into charter schools or private management organizations.

Although it is certainly possible to “turn around” a low-performing school, none of the administration’s remedies have proven successful on any large scale. In effect, the administration is threatening a death sentence to 5,000 schools this year (and thousands more next year?) because the schools have low scores on tests of basic skills. You can be sure that the next 10,000 schools up the list will double the time for test prep to try to escape that giant sucking sound that could devour them, too.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage states to create teams of expert educators to visit each low-performing school and find out why it is low-performing? One school may be overloaded with students who don’t speak or read English; another may have disproportionate numbers of students with disabilities; another may be struggling because the district office assigned it huge numbers of students in 9th grade who were reading on a 4th-grade level. Why not analyze why the school is in difficulty and try to solve its problems? Wouldn’t it make more sense to send help instead of an execution squad?

If this plan is enacted as proposed, it will eventually become just as toxic as NCLB. Only we won’t know it for another five years or so after the evidence of devastated schools and communities has accumulated.

It’s not too late, Secretary Duncan, turn back and offer a helping hand, not a death sentence. Send help, not a firing squad.


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.