Beating a (Near) Dead Horse

It’s been a heckuva week for No Child Left Behind.  Exhibit One is Alfie Kohn’s Opposing View in the May 31 USA Today (http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2007/05/opposing_view_t.html?csp=34) calling for the immediate demolition of NCLB.  His reasoning — an emphasis on testing and a flawed study by the Teacher Network that Eduflack had some real issues with the first time around (http://blog.eduflack.com/2007/04/03/teach-your-children-well.aspx)

This sort of attack has been waged on NCLB since its inception, and this is hardly Kohn’s first foray into the debate.  Perhaps one of the most prominent opponents of testing, he has railed the law for the past five years in his crusade against strict accountability, perpetuating the myth that NCLB was created as some sort of conspiracy to privatize our nation’s public schools.  While he spins a gripping tale, Kohn is hardly an impartial observer in this fight. 

Exhibit Two is the recent survey from Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University earlier this week stating that a majority of Americans want to either revise or eliminate NCLB. (http://www.scrippsnews.com/node/23421)

This should be no surprise to anyone.  Do what our friends at This Week in Education did and take a look at media coverage of NCLB.  It is virtually all negative.  States suing the federal government.  Scandals and congressional hearings on potential conflicts of interest.  State and local officials bemoaning AYP and student achievement goals.  Urban legends of teachers being fired en masse because they fail to meet NCLB standards.  If that’s all you see, even the most ardent of NCLB supporters would grow sour on the law.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  The largest problem that NCLB reauthorization faces is one of PR and marketing.  Secretary Spellings and President Bush have let the opponents of NCLB dictate the terms of the debate for far too long.  As a result, NCLB is tagged with all negatives — anti-teacher, unfunded mandate, conflicts of interest, too strictly enforced, and requiring too much from our teachers, schools, and kids.  I can probably count on one hand the number of news articles from the past few months that focused on some of the positives — increased student performance, quality teachers in the classroom, effective instruction, and a level educational playing field.

NCLB is not going to win by playing defense.  Opposition to the law is growing because we are giving supporters nothing to hold onto.  We are failing to provide a rock-solid foundation of mission and results on which to stand.  We simply aren’t giving NCLB supporters the results they need to be proud of the law and its results.

What is there to be proud of?  What should advocates be talking about?
* Decision-making is now supposed to be based on the research.  Only proven-effective methods of instruction should be used in our classrooms.  We do what works.  No exceptions.
* Our teachers are set up for success.  We now make sure that teachers have the background knowledge, pedagogy, and skill to lead a classroom.  Those that don’t have access to huge pools of professional development funding.  As a result, teachers are both qualified and effective.
* Student achievement is on the rise.  We are just now starting to see the effects of Reading First and SBRR.  And in those schools and districts where it has been implemented with fidelity, we can see gains in student reading scores.  Students can learn to read with effective, proven instruction.
* Data collection is a priority.  We can’t improve without good numbers highlighting our strengths and weaknesses.  NCLB has ensured that schools, districts, and states are now collecting the data we need to effectively assess instruction.  We’re effectively disaggregating that data.  And we’re now able to apply the proper interventions to further improve instruction in our schools.
* We simply expect more.  For decades, we have taught to the lowest common denominator, worried that we were asking or expecting too much from our teachers and our students.  Today, we have raised expectations.  We talk about rigor and achievement.  And as a result, we give virtually every student an opportunity to succeed in both school and in life.

If we really want to shift the debate on NCLB, and begin talking about the issues that are truly important to the success of our schools and our nation, we should focus on the 800-pound gorilla in the room — national standards.  Yes, it will raise the ire of those on both the left and the right.  But at the end of the day, state growth models state-by-state negotiations of standards simply aren’t going to cut it.  If the United States is to truly compete — both educationally and academically — with the likes of China, India, and rising countries in the Middle East — we need to adopt serious national standards or benchmarks.  It is the only way we can ensure that the brand — American education — means the same in rural Alabama, South Central LA, Washington, DC, and the North Shore of Massachusetts.

Let’s see a presidential candidate, any presidential candidate, take that issue on.  Break from the educational norms and expectations and start speaking on a bold idea that could make a real difference.  Go on, I dare ya!

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