The Mis-Education of NCLB

The dust from this week’s NCLB coverage in WaPo has finally settled. The ultimate impact on the reathorization is yet to be seen (though it is clear that the right and left flanks in domestic policy may make history by joining forced in an effort to weaken NCL, but the rhetorical jabs are being thrown at a rapid pace.

The current issues for debate — local control, national standards, the unfortunate souls stuck in upper-middle-class communities, and funding (or lack thereof). While this is a far cry from a decade ago, whent the Republican Party platform called for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, putting such parameters around a debate on national education policy is dangerous — for the future of the law, for our ability to make meaningful change, and for the futures of all the kids in our classrooms throughout the nation.

Let’s take a look at these issues, and how they affect true education reform:

Local Control — This is a debate that has been raging since ED was first separated from the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Critics of federal education policy often latch themselves to this beacon, successfully rallying the support of community decisionmakers and parent advocates who want to keep Washington out of their schools (and out of their lives altogether). It is a fantastic rhetorical tool, getting right to the heart of personalizing the debate and effectively engaging all of the influencers involved in public education. But does it help the greater good? It depends on whether decisionmaking is based on what is safe and easy and what is proven effective. Local control works if they are adhering to what the research says, and putting to use programs and approaches that are proven effective in schools and communities like theirs. But local control does not work if it is merely used as a mask for avoiding hard decisions and doing what is politically easy and expedient (particularly for a local school board) instead of what is right, statistically effective, and potentially more difficult to stomach.

National Standards — The critics of national standards often use the same rhetorical tools that those advocating local control utilize. And they do so with same results. Do we really want bureaucrats in Washington, many of whom haven’t set foot in a classroom since their own school days, to make decisions on what is best for our schools, for our classes, and for our kids? After all, local communities should be the ones deciding what is best for their schools, particularly since they are the ones funding those schools. Again, effective messaging (when used effectively). But it was far more effective in the 1950s, when only a third of high school students were even thinking about college and even those who dropped out of school managed to find a decent-paying job in their hometown. Like it or not, we now live in a global economy. Such realization seems to have impacted just about every segment of our economy, save for education. Whether a student is attending a one-room schoolhouse in South Dakota, a trailer-based school in Louisiana, a classroom multiplex in Northern New Jersey, or a new campus in Southern California, all of those students will compete against each other (and similar students in a more widely diverse collection of schools across the globe) for jobs, careers, and a future. National standards guarantee that our students can compete in that global workforce. They ensure that a student in Mississippi is learning just as much as a student in Connecticut. And it provides a common, easily understood tool to measure the effectiveness of schools, districts, and states. Heck, we apply national standards to our hospitals, to a day care centers, even to our automotive service centers (thank you, ASE). Why not apply them to our schools? Defending local rights is great for policymakers, but it is far more rhetorically stronger to pledge to do everything possible to ensure that all students deserve access to high-quality effective education and meaningful career opportunities, regardless of their hometown of socioeconomic basis.

The Upper Middle Class — The Washington Post gave strong voice to one of the reddest of red herrings when it comes to opposing NCLB. The argument, as I understand it, is that NCLB is hurting those schools that have historically done well, particularly those in upper-middle-class neighborhoods. That the requirements of NCLB are severely burdening these successful schools, and, in many cases, we are labeling these schools as failing because their 99.9% success rates don’t provide adequate room for the improvements NCLB calls for. HA! If we have schools that are doing everything right, using the most effective curriculum available, employing highly qualified and effective teachers, and posting student achievement numbers that demonstrate all students are performing at or above grade level, we should be screaming it from the rooftops. The congressmen and governors who represent those schools should be demanding our nation model its schools after those unmitigated successes. Case studies and books and epic poems should be written on how those schools are achieving at such remarkable levels, and how they are able to do it on $6K or $7K a student. Those are the schools that should be the rhetorical basis for any and ALL discussions on education reform, NCLB, and the future of our great nation.

In reality, there are a great many schools that are doing a great many things right. Those successes should be promoted and advocated, but often are not. That is a shame. Equally as true, virtually every school district and every school has real room for improvement. More than a third of our fourth-graders aren’t reading at grade level. More than half of our classroom teachers are expected to leave the classroom (either by retirement or attrition) in the next five years. Student performance on international standards — such as TIMSS and PISA — show the United States just isn’t as smart, comparatively, as it used to be. We even are seeing a decrease in international demand for U.S.-based higher education. Public education is a process that should be continually assessed and improved. We can’t simply declare “mission accomplished” and set the schools in some form of hardened carbonite to lead and inspire for generations. That’s how we got into the problems we now have; we refused to adapt and improve for the times. For those who are truly committed to ongoing and meaningful improvement of our schools, we must talk about regular assessment, regular improvement, continued research, and increased expectations. Only through ongoing discussion of these issues can we bring about ongoing improvements. We’ve been stuck in the educational muck for decades now, before the release of a Nation at Risk, because we aren’t prepared for reform. We believe we are doing the best we can, and aren’t willing to be bold in both actions and words. That is the thinking that causes critics to hide behind the decent schools, pleading for us to leave them alone. NCLB is meant to rise the tide for all schools. Those who are cresting at the top of the wave should be inspiring and helping others, not turning their success into a weapon to puncture the hulls of those schools just pushing away from the docks.

Funding — At the end of the day, money is going to drive the NCLB reauthorization debate. And it should. NCLB 1.0 was about establishing the policies and identifying the research for improving our classrooms.
It was the beta test of national education reform, if you will. Reauthorization, or NCLB 2.0, is now about fulfilling the promise of the original law, ensuring that priorities are supported, financially, politically, and rhetorically. If HQT requires additional funding to ensure that effective, successful teachers are getting into the schools that need it the most, then we should do what is necessary to make it happen. If additional money is needed to support Reading First to ensure effective monitoring and administration of this important endeavor, then make the necessary deposits. Think about the flip side. Many NCLB critics are now claiming the law is good, but it is underfunded. Is the solution, then, to deny our schools meaningful improvement because we don’t want to pay for it? Of course not. The federal government pays less than 10 cents of every local school dollar. But it carries a big stick when it comes to policy and the funding of key programs — Title I, Title II, etc. Supporters of NCLB should be clear — “we’ll make funding available for NCLB as long as the states and localities are implementing programs with fidelity, are measuring the effectiveness of their reforms, and are providing the policy and rhetorical support to these initiatives and their goals.” There is no greater investment we, as a nation, can make than one in our schools and, thus, the future of our nation. Let’s see one congressman or senator stand up and say they are opposed to providing the adequate funding to improve our schools. That will be the true communications challenge.

What do we learn from all four of these rhetorical streams? They all bear the same communications challenges:
* Focus on the positive — NCLB should be about the cities, the schools, and the students who have benefited from an improved law and a more effective classroom education. This isn’t about who is wronged or who may not have gotten their “share” of the pie. NCLB is about improving the quality of education for all, and giving every child — regardless of race, geographic, or socioeconomic standing — the ability to succeed.

* Broaden the debate — At the end of the day, this should not be a discussion limited to members of Congress and mid-level bureaucrats at ED. NCLB is about giving voice to the principals, teachers, parents, business leaders, and community activists the law is intended to impact. And please, don’t substitute the national membership organizations for these voices. We want to hear from real school administrators, not the AASA. We need to hear from those first-grade teachers using RF strategies, not from the NEA. Let’s give actual voice to the people.

* Look forward — It is easy for critics to point to the past five years and focus on what has gone wrong. The IG reports on RF alone provide more than enough ammo for critics to bog down this process. Instead, we shoul define a rhetorical framework around where we are heading. How do we build on the successes of the past five years? What have we learned from the stumbles? What will we do to improve the law and improve our schools? Just as education reform itself needs to be a process of continual assessment and improvement, so must the debate on NCLB.

* Set the personalities aside — The early debate on NCLB has been a growing cacaphony of warring camps. This should not be a triangle cage match of Team Paige versus Spellings & Co. versus the Gang of Neysayers (NEA/AASA/AFT). I know it is tough for many of the individuals who have been in the NCLB trenches for the past six-plus years, but this isn’t about them. This is about the kids. This is how we improve their classrooms. This is how we help rise all boats and prepare all children for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.

It is going to be far harder to pass NCLB reauthorization this year than it was getting the law through the first time in 2002. The critics and opponents are organized and well-funded. The Administration has taken mis-step after mis-step in implementing and defending its law. And even those responsible for its initial passage are now some of the most vocal critics against it. Despite all of this, NCLB can be reauthorized IF its supporters focus on the positive and on those affected by it. At the end of the day, we all want a better tomorrow for our kids. NCLB needs be a positioned as a catalyst, not an obstacle, for achieving that dream.

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