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Undue Complaining

A progressive fellow explained to me yesterday that the real reason he doesn't like No Child Left Behind is that it's a long-term stealth plan to destroy the public school system and he's just baffled as to why some liberals don't see it that way. I'm a bit baffled as to why he sees it his way. From where I sit, NCLB is by no means the Be All And End All of federal education policy, but it was a step in the right direction. But its critics, whether earnestly motivated by this fear of public school apocalypse or just by teacher's union self-interest, have taken up the habit of launching some pretty nonsensical attacks on the law. As Eduwonk argues why should liberals be worried that the law does too much to target federal money on the poor students and districts that need the money most? This is what we're supposed to be trying to achieve, remember?

March 24, 2005 | Permalink


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» March 25 Links from Chris Correa
Undue Complaining Yglesias downplays the 'public school apocalypse' critics and says NCLB is a step in the right direction. CEP Study CEP claims NCLB is a "wonderful piece of legislation for identifying problems, but it is a weak act at solvi... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 25, 2005 10:44:28 AM


In five six seven(?) years, when to avoid being labeled a 'failing' school, every public school is required to test 100% of its students at grade level, what will you be thinking then. And Matt, love you as I do, you've never attended a public school a day in your life, right? Is is ad hominem to suggest that the proponent doesn't actually know anything about which he speaks?

Posted by: John Casey | Mar 24, 2005 3:24:16 PM

Because the incentives are for better test scores, and that sucks. In my daughter's school, this leads the mgmt to schedule two math periods for her a day, with the result that she can't do music, which she really likes.

As it is, in math they do all kinds of high-school and beyond sh*t that is completely unnecessary and neglect basic computation. I never took stat until getting ready for grad school, and they had kids doing bar charts and scatter diagrams in elementary school. Pure idiocy.

Posted by: Max Sawicky | Mar 24, 2005 3:32:06 PM

I second the previous emotions. When all is said and done, who is the better determiner (is that a word?) of a child's educational needs, the local school/teacher or the federal government?

Posted by: GAB | Mar 24, 2005 3:34:43 PM

Well, here's one side effect: in order to improve our NCLB scores and keep state funding, our white-bread school system is going to have to jettison the voluntary transfer students we take from the central city district next door. We can't get most of them up to grade level in the 3-4 years we have them, so the easiest way to improve our overall scores will be to start "cutting back" our available slots 25% per year starting next year.

Unintended consequences, eh?

Teaching to tests leads to students who do well on tests. Who makes the tests and what is their purpose? Perhaps - a nation of docile worker bees?


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Mar 24, 2005 3:39:38 PM

Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding of NCLB is that if a school is determined to be failing for something like three consecutive years, that school is punished by losing some portion of its federal funding. To me, this seems like a perfect example of combatting a problem by deliberately making it worse, which is a big part of the Republican Stealth Playbook. See also, Social Security solvency.

Posted by: Drew | Mar 24, 2005 3:45:02 PM

The program is designed so that schools will inevitably fail to meet their standards--all schools. It is designed to help sell vouchers.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Mar 24, 2005 3:51:53 PM

There was a long tradition of liberals supporting flexibility and discretion for local school systems. That was lost in the battle against segregation, and now in the battle for fair funding, but it's still an important principle.

Teachers are professionals. They are poorly paid and disrespected, but they abide by a set of professional standards that are more likely to produce good results than any Republican educational curriculum. It's important to respect their judgment.

Posted by: Dave M | Mar 24, 2005 3:52:57 PM

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding of NCLB is that if a school is determined to be failing for something like three consecutive years, that school is punished by losing some portion of its federal funding."

You're wrong. The law nowhere requires money be taken away from failing schools; in fact, it requires states set aside a portion of funds specifically to spend more to help these schools. This is a matter of fact that can be determined by reading the law. If you disagree with me, read it yourself. It is HR 1 of the 107th Congress

"with the result that she can't do music, which she really likes."

Gee, when I was a kid my parents paid this lady from our church to give me something called piano lessons. Have you ever heard of this?

"Is is ad hominem to suggest that the proponent doesn't actually know anything about which he speaks?"


Posted by: flip | Mar 24, 2005 3:55:03 PM

I generally approve of the manifest purpose of NCLB, to hold our schools accountable for the education of all our children, and I don't see conspiracies in every alley. Still, as we go farther down the NCLB road, I can't help but sympathize with your progressive fellow.

California's standard of proficiency is rather high, and most of our schools are simply not going to move all, or even a large percentage, of our students to that standard, especially not on the NCLB timetable.

Partly that's because formal "proficiency" has become a one-size-fits-all standard that simply isn't appropriate for all students.

Partly it's because our schools really aren't all that good, and should probably be seriously restructured. But the remedies that NCLB mandates for schools that don't meet its proficiency goals (replace the staff, or convert to charter schools, or hire a corporation to run them) are expensive and highly disruptive and on the basis of experience have no prospect of doing much, if any, good.

And that's where the conspiracy talk comes from, I think. NCLB sets a standard that public schools are guaranteed to fail. What's the answer? Privatization. And, it's a no-brainer to predict, private-school vouchers.

I'm not a parent, teacher, or school administrator. I'm frustrated with the state of our schools. I'm even glad of the attention that NCLB draws to the issue. But aside from that, I don't see NCLB as a substantive step at all.

Posted by: Jonathan Lundell | Mar 24, 2005 4:05:06 PM

Flip, go fuck yourself. Not an ad hominem, just go fuck yourself. Music is a valuable part of education. I think that you're wrong about the NCLB facts, too, but I hope someone else has more detail than I do.

My niece's 2nd grade teacher refused to teach her how to spell any words that weren't on the test.

Posted by: John Emerson | Mar 24, 2005 4:11:01 PM


I found an article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A64246-2003Jan1&notFound=true

"Under the federal law, schools deemed failing for two consecutive years must facilitate student transfers to better schools -- even those filled to capacity -- and use public money to provide private tutors for students. If a school continues to be labeled failing, it must have its principal and teachers replaced or be reopened as a charter school."

"Facillitat[ing] student transfers" sounds expensive. It also sounds counter-productive. Sure, you don't want to damn students to stick around in "failing" schools, but you also want to do something positive to help the schools improve. I think the main focus of NCLB is to give parents options of getting their kids out of poor schools, where it should be focused more heavily on improving poor schools. I agree with Jonathan Lundell that the "fixes" conceived by NCLB are not adequate, though I confess to being stumped to propose an alternative.

Posted by: Drew | Mar 24, 2005 4:12:26 PM

In addition to Max's reasoning -- non-tested disciplines get screwed and/or axed -- and to piggyback on Bobo's point, NCLB is designed to get schools and parents "hooked on phonics" and other quick fixes readily provided by the burgeoning education industry.

Posted by: Bragan | Mar 24, 2005 4:14:11 PM

And when all the public schools are handed failing grades (I saw that in Illinois which also tests high schools, the high school in the district next to my high school, which is an upper middle class, high achieving area, failed because one of the demographics screwed up) then the children will be handed vouchers to go to private or charter schools. Of course these schools do not have to comply with NCLB because they are not public schools. Voila, the public schools are destroyed and replaced by schools that are publicly funded but not answerable to the community.

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Mar 24, 2005 4:26:53 PM

Well I attended public schools, and poor, less capable students are often brutally ill-served in them because its just too much effort to actually educate them. Instead they're tracked into do-little classes. If you think this would change with just more money, and no standards or accountability, then you're fucking crazy, to get into the ad hominem spirit of the thread. NCLB may be a blunt tool with significant problems, but it addresses real and severe
failings in our public schools. If liberals don't recognize this and respond only with wailing about "teaching to the test" and less music, then they're in effect abandoning the constituency that should matter most to them: the least advantaged.

Posted by: rd | Mar 24, 2005 4:29:56 PM

Matt, you dont get it.

NCLB is a Bush initiative. Hence it is bad and must be opposed with hysterical rhetoric.

Things like policy details and its effect upon American citizens are immaterial and do not merit consideration.

Just like social security reform.

Posted by: ronb | Mar 24, 2005 4:30:47 PM

What Dave M said:

When I want to know how my kids are doing in school I trust the judgment of their teachers over standardized testing. Increasing funding, for testing not teaching, is nothing to celebrate.

And it has just become a joke; but like right to die, medical marijuana, control of national guard, local control of school curricula, Medicare Rx plan, and virtually every other topic this president touches; federal power is agrandized, and states' diminished. Now some I agree with, and some I don't, but it is rank hypocrisy at this point for Bush supporters to pretend they are republican. Federalists, every man/woman Jack/Jill of them.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 24, 2005 4:30:56 PM

This article makes the case that the law was crafted to destroy public education-

The Daily Howler has also documented this, but I am too lazy to do the search on it.

Posted by: Alice Marshall | Mar 24, 2005 4:32:42 PM

As everyone else says, the problem is that the way the law is structured, it will shortly define almost all public schools as failing, at which point (a) rhetorically, that turns public education generally into a failed system, which looks suspiciously like a precursor to defunding it, and (b) the responses in the bill to the definition of a school as failing will be both financially an administratively unworkable when they apply to the majority of schools in the country.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Mar 24, 2005 4:38:40 PM

If these tests are so helpful to education why aren't parents with children in private schools demanding that their private schools get these tests? Because tests, like military service, is for the little people.

Posted by: Alice Marshall | Mar 24, 2005 4:38:41 PM

From where I sit, NCLB is by no means the Be All And End All of federal education policy, but it was a step in the right direction.

This is the same place you sat when you thought that "anti-gay marriage" initiatives pushed through by anti-gay hysteria with with little substantial analysis and debate on their effects outside of gay marriage would surely be innocuous but for banning gay marriage, right?

If you are going to accuse the people that have actually looked at what the law does and are horrified by it of launching "nonsensical" attacks, it would be a good thing to present the attacks that you think are "nonsensical" and some argument to demonstrate that they actually are "nonsensical".

Posted by: cmdicely | Mar 24, 2005 4:49:32 PM

Ladies, Gentlemen,

My wife went to one of the most disadvantaged local schools up to high school. This was pre-testing. She was always at the top of her class, which was not easy due to the poor social situation.

When she, by her efforts and good luck, got into the local academic high school she found that she was way behind other students who had been lucky enough to go to better schools.

Were her teachers idiots to give her perfect marks ? No. Even teachers are subjective in their evaluations. Often highly subjective. Tests are good at removing subjectivity.

As for curricula and teaching to the test. This is a matter of determining what things are important. As far as I can see basic things like reading and writing and arithmetic come first. If you can't get those right music and art are a foolish extravagance.

The NCLB has some structures that are unrealistic, definitely. These can be modified. Worse is the panicky response among some bureaucracies on the subject. They will calm down.

Mr. Cranky,

Docile Worker Bees ? What foolishness. Even the revolutionary vanguard needs to do math and read and write - first. Art and music are luxuries for the undisciplined bourgeoise that the solidly grounded, focused proletariat shall overthrow, comrade !

Look at it that way if it makes you feel better.

Posted by: luisalegria | Mar 24, 2005 5:01:06 PM

> As everyone else says, the problem is that the way the
> law is structured, it will shortly define almost all
> public schools as failing, at which point (a)
> rhetorically, that turns public education generally into
> a failed system, which looks suspiciously like a
> precursor to defunding it,

Typical Rovian strategy: turn the liberals love of public education and _good_ education against them, by forcing them to classify their own beloved public schools as "failing" and therefore rendering them helpless to protest when the next stage begins: the battle over defunding/terminating them.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Mar 24, 2005 5:03:04 PM

If nothing else, it fails to account for the surly teenager factor. Eventually every student in every group has to pass every evaluation every year or the school gets restructured. I've certainly known plenty of people who would, as a teenager, gladly have failed a test if they knew that they could cause their school's management to get canned. Really hate your principal? Want to get him fired? Get a couple of friends together and write down "a" for every answer.

Posted by: Chris Gwinn | Mar 24, 2005 5:03:44 PM

Lovely, John Emerson.

I don't discount the importance of music to education. I was simply pointing out that, if Mr. Sawicky's daughter is sad about loss of music in school, there are plenty of other avenues by which he may address that problem. Whereas if kids--particularly disadvantaged kids--aren't learning to read or do math in school, then they probably aren't going to learn them. My snarky tone was not productive. In any case, Mr. Sawicky's daughter will probably turn out fine because she has smart, educated folks, though I do understand his frustration with some types of math curricula.

No Child Left Behind does require school districts in which a school has been identified as low-performing to provide children in that school an opportunity to transfer to a better-performing public school, assuming such a school exists and has any capacity. After two years of underperformance, it also requires that those children (or their parents) be allowed to use a share of the school's federal funds for private tutoring to catch them up. These funds are to br prioritized to the lowest performing and poorest children. The combination of funds spent on tutoring or to provide transportation for student transfers cannot exceed 10% of a school's federal Title I funds (remember, most of the schools' funds come from state and local sources, so we're talking say 1% of a school's funds). In addition, the school must devote 10% of its Title I funds to teacher professional development to improve teachers' teaching skills. Any money that does leave the school under tutoring provisions is still be used to help children in the school, in ways that should help improve students' achievement.

Sure, it would be preferrable to fix the schools that are not performing well, but the problem is that no one knows a sure fire way to do that yet, because there's never really been an imperative to do so. Sure, we've been trying to improve urban schools, but if they didn't get better, then things just stayed the same. For anyone who's been in some of DC's lower performing schools, this should be unacceptable.

Posted by: flip | Mar 24, 2005 5:09:37 PM

Ms. Marshall,

Two points -

1. Most private schools that I know of in my area (and thats a dozen plus) do arrange for similar tests. They are useful diagnostics, and as I said before, they do serve as a check on subjectivity.

2. Most kids in private schools would not be much better served by obsessing about tests because on the whole they are getting a very good education. As countless people have observed, its not really the school that determines academic performance, it is the social milieu. These people mostly drive themselves. They are the people who are shooting for the best possible colleges.

To put it bluntly, it is the poor, and more specifically racial minorities, that you really have to worry about. That is the proper target of whatever limited improvements in performance that are possible to effect through the the public schools.

Posted by: luisalegria | Mar 24, 2005 5:10:15 PM

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