No Child Left Behind: A policy failure that is actually a success

Richard Rothstein’s post today on the Educational Policy Institute web site clearly describes how US education policy in recent years (e.g., the No Child Left Behind Act) has destroyed schools as places of learning. There is no doubt NCLB is a failed policy by any standards you want to invoke (see, for example, Larry Stedman’s comprehensive assessment of NCLB in the open-access journal Critical Education or Rothstein’s American Prospect article from 2007).

What has NCLB wrought? At the very least, Rothstein notes:

  • conversion of struggling elementary schools into test-prep factories;
  • narrowing of curriculum so that disadvantaged children who most need enrichment would be denied lessons in social studies, the sciences, the arts and music, even recess and exercise, so that every available minute of the school day could be devoted to drill for tests of basic skills in math and reading;
  • demoralization of the best teachers, now prohibited from engaging children in discovery and instead required to follow pre-set instructional scripts aligned with low-quality tests;
  • and the boredom and terror of young children who no longer looked forward to school but instead anticipated another day of rote exercises and practice testing designed to increase scores by a point or two.

But, NCLB’s failure is not Rothstein’s point today. Rather, his point is how Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan have responded to this massive failure of policy making … by prescribing more of the same.

NCLB’s absurd demand, which “prohibit(s) the normal variability of human ability so that all children, from the unusually gifted to the mentally retarded, must achieve above the same ‘challenging’ level of proficiency by 2014,” can now be waived by the education secretary. But if states are unable to meet NCLB requirements (and none of them can), Obama and Duncan are “conditioning the waivers on states’ agreements to adopt accountability conditions that are even more absurd, more unworkable, more fanciful than those in the law itself.”

States will be excused from making all children proficient by 2014 if they agree instead to make all children “college-ready” by 2020. If NCLB’s testing obsession didn’t suffice to distinguish good schools from failing ones, states can be excused from loss of funds if they instead use student test scores to distinguish good teachers from bad ones. Without any reauthorization of NCLB, Mr. Duncan will now use his waiver authority to demand, in effect, even more test-prep, more drill, more unbalanced curricula, more misidentification of success and failure, more demoralization of good teachers, and more needless stress for young children.

Rothstein believes the Obama administration’s new policies, like NCLB itself,  “will eventually implode.”

But the damage being done to American public education has now gone on for so long that it will have enduring effects. Schools will not soon be able to implement a holistic education to disadvantaged children. Disillusioned and demoralized teachers who have abandoned the profession or have retired are now being rapidly replaced by a new generation of drill sergeants, well-trained in the techniques of “data-driven instruction.” This cannot easily be undone.

Politicians, the ruling class, and the mainstream media are impervious to the mountains of evidence illustrating how NCLB stripped the heart and soul of learning and teaching in US schools and failed in any measure to “increase achievement” (see Stedman’s work).

But is NCLB really a policy failure? Perhaps not. Like the trail of death, destruction, and terror left in the wake of  America’s imperialist wars, educational destruction created by NCLB is just so much collateral damage in an education agenda that is war agenda.