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Your editor thought that this week’s effort by Dan Willingham and the Core Knowledge crowd to tout curriculum reform as the silver bullet for overhauling American public education would be the height of education’s silly season. But the efforts by education traditionalists and even some school reformers seem to take leave of intellectual rigor just to be provocative keep coming.

One spectacular example is the “odd couple” piece on the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal role in education (and, supposedly, how to “rescue” school reform) offered up yesterday by American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess and Stanford’s resident education traditionalist, Linda Darling-Hammond. Declaring that the current debate over the federal role in education is stuck between Republicans arguing as to whether the feds should be involved at all, and sparring between reform-minded Democrats and the teachers’ unions who have, until now, been the leading activists within that party, Hess and Darling-Hammond argue for abandoning the No Child Left Behind Act (which Senate Democrats, congressional Republicans, and President Obama are already trying to do) because, as far as they are concerned, the federal role in education doesn’t work. From where they sit, “the federal government is simply not well situated to make schools and teachers improve” and does little more than add bureaucracy. As far as the twosome are concerned, the feds should simply stick to four areas, including encouraging transparency, overseeing school research, ensuring basic civil rights for poor and minority children, and promoting innovation through competitive grants.

The piece — along with Hess and Darling-Hammond — has already garnered well-deserved criticism from Bellwether Education’s Andy Rotherham on his Eduwonk site for essentially talking out of both sides of their respective mouths — espeically in declaring at different times in different pieces that No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions are both overly prescriptive and “vague”. (Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute has his own criticisms and I’ll leave it at that.) The fact that neither Hess nor Darling-Hammond realize (or want to admit) that No Child has been beneficial as a civil rights law and in promoting education research and transparency makes their argument especially senseless.

But in many ways, the schizophrenic nature of the overall argument advanced by Hess and Darling-Hammond isn’t shocking. Like her equally thoughtful fellow-traveler, Pedro Noguera, Darling-Hammond is someone who genuinely realizes that American public education is need of systemic reform (and whose criticisms of teacher training are largely honest and on-target), but unwilling to challenge either the thinking and practices of her fellow education traditionalists or her own worldview. As for Hess? These days, contrary to his declarations, he seems more concerned with needless playing the contrarian than offering a coherent approach to systemic reform. Certainly foolish consistency is Walt Waldo Emerson’s hobgoblin of little minds, one can all hold two contradictory thoughts within the same mind, and contrarianism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But these days, the otherwise admirable Hess has a habit of stretching the limits of intellectual inconsistency.

As a result, Hess and Darling-Hammond have put together a piece with flawed narratives about the role of No Child in expanding bureaucratic morass, the Republican debate over federal education policy and, the benefits of No Child  in spurring systemic reform.

For one, Hess and Darling-Hammond seem to solely blame No Child for growth in the bureaucratic nature of school activities. That’s rather simplistic. Even before the passage of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the first iteration of No Child, in 1965, bureaucracies were growing largely because of the expanding role of states in governing school systems (including the passage of laws that forced districts to bargain with National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates) and the consolidation of school districts from smaller operations into massive bureaucracies. Thanks to the efforts of the NEA and AFT to make teaching more-comfortable for its members and further expansions of state education governance (including the use of categorical programs in providing state funding to districts), those bureaucracies expanded further. Between 1949-50 and 1969-70, the number of administrators and other staff increased by 94 percent; it increased by another 68 percent between 1969-1970 and 2001-2002.

Since the passage of No Child, the percentage of school bureaucrats increased by only 24 percent by the 2008-2009 school year. Which makes sense. For one thing, No Child didn’t so much expand the federal role in education as it signaled the reality that states, not school districts, control the direction of education. Given that school districts, as local governments, are merely tools of state control, and that states have been expanding their role in governing schools since the 1950s, this has always been implied. (The fact that most of the growth in education over that period has been driven by the increase in the number of teachers in the workforce, and the accompaniment of paperwork and expensive compensation costs, by the way, also doesn’t factor into either Hess’ or Darling-Hammond’s thinking.)

Another problem with the piece? Hess and Darling-Hammond oversimplify the debate within Republican circles over the federal role in education and in spurring systemic reform. Movement conservatives, who are generally supportive of expanding school choice and even holding schools accountable for spending, are largely rebelling against the against the excesses of Dubya’s presidency (and his legacy, on education, as the Democrats’ favorite Republican). This is why the current GOP field has essentially abandoned discussions about school reform except tossing out bromides about wanting to end the U.S. Department of Education.

Even those statements can’t be taken seriously: Both Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, for example, were strong supporters of No Child during their respective tenures as governors of Massachusetts and Texas; and Romney, despite his protests, has praised the work of President Barack Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan — at least, until Perry made it a campaign weapon.

As for the rest of the Republican side: Even as House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline pushes to abolish No Child’s accountability provisions, he also champions increasing the $11 billion the federal government ladles out to special education programs, essentially supporting the perpetuation of an educational ghetto that has helped fuel the nation’s education crisis by labeling illiterate but otherwise capable young men as “learning disabled”. While Kline and some of his colleagues on Education and the Workforce push for tearing apart No Child, the law still has strong defenders, especially among governors such as Indiana’s Mitch Daniels (who, along with his colleagues, have successfully used the law to push through reforms at the state level), former education secretary Margaret Spellings (who has championed the law from her perch at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), and House Speaker John Boehner (who teamed up with Bush, congressional Democrat education point man George Miller, and Ted Kennedy to pass the law in the first place). In fact, it is this opposition from those Republicans that is a reason why Kline hasn’t been able to pull apart No Child.

In essence, there is far less divide among Republicans over the federal role — especially among those who hold congressional seats, and thus, must make sure that the school districts in their communities continue getting some of that dough — than Darling-Hammond or Hess (the latter being  the education czar for one of the leading think tanks within the conservative movement and Republican Party elite) want to admit. Save for libertarians such as the folks over at Cato’s education shop (who are alone even among libertarian think tanks in opposing a federal role in education) most conservative and Republican school reformers think that the federal role in education has real value (even if it neither lucrative from a fundraising or public discussion perspective, to admit it publicly).

Among other Republican camps, the issue isn’t the federal role (at least in terms of the cash that comes from the coffers), but the fact that the federal government is finally requiring suburban districts to admit they are poorly educating children, especially kids from poor and minority households. Like Democrat colleagues who stick to their NEA- and AFT-provided talking points, they don’t want to admit the need to abandon a failed, amoral vision of American public education.

Which gets to the biggest problem of Hess’ and Darling-Hammond’s piece: Their unwillingness to admit that No Child has been the most-critical element in spurring the first successful national efforts at systemic reform and in amplifying initiatives that began before its passage with the work of Southern governors, big-city leaders such as former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist and school superintendent Howard Fuller, and the grassroots efforts of reformers such as Wendy Kopp at Teach For America.

No Child has been the single-biggest advance in education policy, both at the federal level and among states and local governments, since the Defense Education Act of 1958. For the first time in the history of American public education, No Child set clear national goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics; it finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality. The law also made it clear to states and suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children; and it focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations.

Through its Adequate Yearly Progress measures, the low quality of education across the nation’s public schools — including urban districts and in suburbia — was exposed while it gave researchers the impetus to look at the nation’s high school graduation rates (and present in clear, stark terms the high school dropout crisis). As stated earlier, No Child fully signaled the primary role of states in education governance. Without No Child, there is no Race to the Top, no teacher quality reform movement, no discussion about value-added assessment and no real national focus on stemming achievement gaps.

Proof of the imperfect success of No Child in spurring systemic reform can be seen in the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The percentage of all fourth-graders reading Below Basic proficiency declined from 39 percent in 2002 to 33 percent in 2011; the percentage of black students who were functionally illiterate declined from 60 percent to 51 percent during that period, while the percentage of poor and minority kids reading Below Basic declined from 54 percent to 48 percent. To quantify this overall (based on federal enrollment data and Dropout Nation‘s projections of fourth-grade enrollment for 2010-2011), it is likely that 217,432 fewer fourth-graders were functionally illiterate — and likely to drop out — in 2011 than in the year after No Child was passed.

(Some will attempt to use long-term NAEP data to argue that little has happened. But given that most states didn’t participate in NAEP until 1996, any data from NAEP extending from before 1996, and really, before 2001, when all states were required under No Child to participate in the exam is essentially invalid because it is incomplete.)

Certainly No Child has not been an absolute success — and no one should dare suggest it. The AYP provisions needed to be tightened up in order to ensure that states didn’t game the system. But the problem lies not with the law itself, but with the U.S. Department of Education’s implementation of AYP (which now has been used by Duncan and Obama to declare that they need to scrap accountability altogether). No Child’s Highly Qualified Teacher provision was a rather wishy-washy element that didn’t require the use of student test data in measuring teacher quality (focusing instead on certification and other qualifications that have no positive correlation to student achievement) and allowed states and school districts to simply allow laggard teachers to keep their jobs at the expense of students and taxpayers alike. No Child also never took aim at the low quality of teacher training at university schools of education, which train most of the nation’s teachers; it also never addressed the critical role of chronic truancy in spurring the nation’s education crisis, allowing states to dodge the problem.

Nor should No Child be the end all of the federal role of systemic reform. If anything, we need more federal accountability efforts, not fewer. It has been proven that reform-minded state leaders need a strong federal hand (along with active grassroots efforts and reform-minded players working statehouses) to help them cut through the political barriers for systemic reform. The federal Race to the Top effort, which has pushed states such as New York to allow for the expansion of charter schools and require the use of student test data in evaluating teachers, has proven the importance of making competitive grants an important part of federal education funding. Forcing states to finally push for systemic reforms of their ed schools, an effort already underway in Indiana and Louisiana, must be part of any federal reform effort.

As seen in today’s NAEP results for big cities — especially those such as New York and Boston — the early reforms spurred by No Child that led to strong gains are starting to slow. One of reasons lies with the fact these early reforms just touch the surface of the underlying issues of low teacher quality, lack of school choice, limits on Parent Power, and shoddy curricula that are at the heart of the nation’s education crisis. It would make sense to launch a new version of Race to the Top that targets reform-minded school districts and allows them to be transformed into the educational equivalent of enterprise zones in which they can be freed from tenure laws and other state policies that protect laggard teachers and their unions at the expense of children — and will be required to enact Parent Trigger laws, expand school choice, and ensure that all kids are taught rigorous, college preparatory curricula.

But No Child, for its imperfections, has been successful in spurring the first of many needed steps for systemic reform on a national level. And for Hess and Darling-Hammond to merely argue that No Child has merely been a lesson in “humility” about the federal role in education is the height of intellectual disingenuousness.