Sunday, October 30, 2011


Halloween is supposed to be hokey and scary, but this year’s event is multiplied by the even scarier real-world status of the rewrite of NCLB and its continued distortion of reality and learning.

Originally this week’s SQUINTS intended to cover three topics:  The whys surrounding NCLB and its Obama/Duncan reform rendition; the validity of arguments offered for present K-12 “reform” strategies; and why we know so little about our K-12 public schools.  But, tilt, reading the Sunday national news was so depressing that the global strategy was abandoned.

Think ghouls and goblins are scary?  Consider some of this weekend’s offerings:  Our civilization may end with a terminal cough rather than a bang or a heat stroke, because of total unpreparedness for bioterrorism; our two political parties present us with either “generic knowledge” or “procedural knowledge,” but generally can’t get them together; thanks to the Supreme Court ruling that corporations are people, political funding is turning into a corporately dominated cabal that eclipses the Republican party’s spending—total corporatocracy in the making; the punch line of an editorial on lobbying of Congress – “Our Congress today is a forum for legalized bribery;” and finally, our political future could be defined by more cholesterol saturated pizza, cancer-causing smoking, and the Koch brothers.  

Finally, for a Halloween tinged vignette of how NCLB has impacted real K-12 teaching and education, check out the dilemma of teacher Linda Rief.  

So adding even more evidence of political and bureaucratic overkill and chaos – like eye of newt – in one batch to the metaphorical Halloween eve’s witch’s cauldron was too much, hence, one question at a time.

NCLB 2001.

There are numerous players in the K-12 reform and testing game, pulling in frequently opposite directions.  That by itself makes very complex the effort that launched with 1983’s “A Nation at Risk,” but was delayed by former President Reagan’s naivety and ideologies.  To his credit Mr. Bush pushed for the upgrade of 1965’s ESEA Act to what became NCLB in 2001.

The nation sees but fails to register much of the roots for reform:  A public education establishment that was put on a pedestal for too long, allowing entrenched thinking, perpetual levies, power building and a culture of entitlement to form like dry rot; the rise and single-mindedness of teachers’ unions operating with about the same level of social responsibility we currently attribute to Wall Street; the obsolescence and intransigence of schools of education that struggled to rise above their position on the bottom rung of the academic totem pole; and a combination of state and local education oversight that became stylized or diminished over decades.

These issues are not ones that yield easily to any fix, certainly not in a time horizon less than generations.  But the 2001 NCLB put a hard temporal goal on the table, to move from the then levels of selected proficiencies to “all groups [reaching] proficiency in twelve years.”  In a smarter world, this goal juxtaposed against the mass of US public K-12 education, and facing the institutional barriers in place, was just short of insanity.  Except for that critical dimension, the short form of NCLB was pretty rational; the original executive summary can be read here.

But the curse of our society seems to be a dual capacity to simultaneously oversimplify complexity, and to bureaucratically make good intentions even more complex and opaque.  Add in that oversimplification reducing subtlety to elevated hard targets that overtake common sense.  That is what happened to NCLB in its translation from concept to application by the US Department of Education, a dozen-year odyssey that actually creates momentary sympathy for the view of some Republican presidential candidates that the US DOE should be eliminated. 

What evolved:  Average Yearly Progress (AYP) became a hardened threat to schools’ existence and rational progress when the best extant schools were likely to find it most difficult to meet that criterion; standardized testing was reduced to a caricature of the real thing by allowing states to set their own test standards, and the outsourced tests themselves became sterile short term memory exercises; that testing and subsequent state manipulation of results created school “grading” stupidity that effectively blocked any creativity in improving pedagogies; and most of the support for Local Education Agencies (LEA) defined by the Act either had its intended dollars absorbed by the states, or perverted turning into ways to either beat on those systems for compliance or create more administrative and records compliance bureaucracy.  That environment spawned, not unexpectedly, cheating, teaching to the tests, and an environment where local systems were paranoid about missing any target and even further motivated to block transparency of their performances.

A good summary of the NCLB journey is available in Wikipedia, and an example of the original good intentions are visible here.  A small sample of what happened to NCLB between concept and putting boots on the school grounds can be viewed here and here.  The good intentions hit the fan when it finally became clear, raising severe questions of governmental intellect and foresight, that 100 percent of  99,000 public K-12 schools would not be able to achieve 100 percent proficiency as defined in NCLB by the 2014 deadline.  Who could have figured?

NCLB round two.

The original NCLB, while blessed by both political parties, was criticized for both inadequate funding and for its evolved reliance on simplistic, allegedly standardized testing.  Recall there was truly nothing standardized about that testing, varying across states (some candidly acknowledging they reduced the rigor of testing to avoid penalties), and suffering from other test design errors that refuted the argument of standardized, therefore, fair assessment.

Starting in 2007, especially with recommendations by the Aspen Commission on NCLB, reforms of the law were proposed.  In 2009 and 2010 the White House proposed multiple changes to correct flaws – including one of the two major ones, getting beyond the narrow testing motif – but retrospectively, Mr. Obama, Mr. Duncan, and the cast of many PhDs that inhabit the US Department of Education and NCER elected to double-down on the punitive strategy that mushroomed within NCLB with simplistic testing. They owe the American parent, K-12 student, and taxpayer the answers to some basic questions because of the overt hypocrisy. 

Precisely when did that army of US DOE educational experts step back and ask:  Are there ways of testing for contextual knowledge, critical thinking, creativity – all of the things that Mr. Obama had and has given lip service, before continuing the standardized testing sledge hammer – that might be created, developed, and employed instead of the present testing?  Never addressed for fairly obvious reasons – political – states continue to be allowed to set their own standards of learning in spite of paper adoption of the proposed common core standards for English, science and math, what is tested, and how rigorously that happens.

And who let a self-serving corporate sector into the multi-billion dollar K-12 testing and scoring business, with psychometricians as test designers who have never graced the front of a classroom, extensive lobbying for more corporate education business, and every reason to ignore educational social responsibility in favor of cranking out even more unproductive testing for dollars?  Mr. Obama’s earlier advocacy of moving away from the lobbying model seems to have evaporated?

Why is Mr. Obama driving down this road?

Repetitively, President Obama is on the record acknowledging that the present model of public K-12 education accountability, with simplistic standardized testing as the cattle prod, is not a realistic model of learning assessment.  Yet tens of billions of tax dollars have been doled out, some with obvious political intent, to install by force a sub-optimal system of K-12 education that eschews critical thought, real learning, and that may well further harm an already deficient public model.  Why this wholly disingenuous strategy?

One thesis that touches all of the bases goes like this.  Our public K-12 model now defies more credible remedies because it is massive, cumbersome because of state variability, already subject to the influences of historical monopoly and a sense of entitlement, loosely and disjointedly controlled, and subject to both political manipulation for ideology and the machinations and power of our teachers’ unions. Add the obsolescence of most schools of education, the rates of change in information and knowledge that has outstripped the capacities and intellect of public systems to absorb them, and frequently misplaced values that dominate local school administration and board oversight.  The only Federal tool available was NCLB.

On the political front the more extremist Republicans in Congress would like to rip out all Federal links to K-12 education, even to the extreme of disassembling the US Department of Education.  To this point a factor impeding that has been that NCLB was originally passed on their watch under Mr. Bush.  (Parenthetically, and prophetically, the latest re-write of NCLB, and its Republican component authorship, has methodically ignored the White House’s calls for more accountability by seeking to reduce states’ responsibility for meeting NCLB requirements, already soft because of control of tests.)  Faced with the potential of declining Department of Education influence in any reform exercise, the White House employed a now familiar pragmatism and chose to use NCLB as its “carrier” for the reform message, hypocritically keeping present testing a basis for change.  “Race to the Top” was added in an attempt to use the only weapon the White House had, $10B, to bribe as many states as possible to run an “educational to-do” list of reductionist activities that “might” in some cases stick to the wall and improve systems’ educational processes.  It is already clear many systems simply took the money and ran, or have pursued the requirements as bureaucratic chores to be executed then go back to business-as-usual.

The other force in the game is the above referenced “corporate reform” model.  This model was pushed by business groups tightly linked to the extreme right of the Republican Party (The Business Roundtable and The US Chamber of Commerce) based on views that a liberal public K-12 establishment needed to be lassoed and forced to make changes that would produce more pragmatic versions of learning.  The corporate model in ignorance sees K-12 teaching as a production model, to be assessed by so-called value-added from longitudinal comparative standardized test scores.  And, by the way, that testing was a source of new and profitable corporate business with a built-in stick that could force school systems to ante up public funds for tests and their scoring; if or when systems failed, enter the charter school using public dollars, conservative nirvana. 

The White House has produced via its rendition of NCLB and even a bureaucratic RttT some of the change its ideologies sought.  It may have been pragmatically the only option given conservative capacities in the present Congress to block more thoughtful and strategic changes in public systems.  But the larger question is:  Was going for impact on public K-12 primarily within the then assumed two Presidential terms, worth the price of possibly severely, strategically damaging future US public K-12 education?  Increasingly the assertions of critics of public education are that while there have been improvements our systems are again flat lined.


Is this the best the US can do; beat on public education to try to improve the worst systems by threat, and trick out an improvement in national education standing by testing that produces statistics mirroring simplistic short run gains?  When the CEO of a major US corporation, traditionally reflecting the best of a national breed of hard goods manufacturing, recently stated that they need to retrain virtually every new hire because our education system has failed, more than multiple-choice tests needs to be on the agenda.

There is genuine threat that another generation or two of children educated as NCLB has now warped the model, not truly educated to even recognize genuine learning, may thrust the US beyond the limit where self-discovery and self-healing of our public K-12 systems can happen.  The Obama Administration might have done less damage by grounding NCLB, letting a financially wastrel and bureaucratic RttT stay in the hangar, executing a long term strategy it actually articulated of working with the states to upgrade their incentives, competence, and resources to mediate their local systems.

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