At Least 82 Percent of Education Is Politics

The big schooling story is U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s assertion that this year 82 percent of public schools could be identified as failing under No Child Left Behind. That’s a huge percentage, and also hugely disputed. But the real story here, as always, is that government control of schooling is all about politics, not education.

Start with the 82 percent figure. It’s a consequence of NCLB’s demand that all students be “proficient” in mathematics and reading by 2014. That’s a severely reality-challenged goal, especially if proficient is supposed to mean having mastered fairly tough material. But the law largely wasn’t driven by reality – it was driven by politicians wanting voters to see them as uncompromising on bad schools.

Now the controversy. People who track NCLB results – including many Democrats – say the 82 percent figure is ridiculously inflated. Reports the Washington Post:

“I find it hard to believe,” said Jack Jennings, a former Democratic congressional aide who is president of the Center on Education Policy, an independent think tank that tracks the law. “I think they really stretched it for dramatic effect.”

And why the possible prioritization of “dramatic effect” over “reality”? Because the Obama administration is pushing to get the law rewritten along lines it likes, and might very well feel the need to scare the bejeepers out of the public to get momentum behind it:

Charles Barone, a former congressional aide who helped draft the 2002 law, called Duncan’s projection “fiction.” Barone tracks federal policy for a group called Democrats for Education Reform, which is generally in accord with Obama’s policies on education changes.

“He’s creating a bogeyman that doesn’t exist,” Barone said of Duncan. “Our fear is that they are taking it to a new level of actually manufacturing a new statistic - a ‘Chicken Little’ statistic that is not true - just to get a law passed. It severely threatens their credibility.”

But hold on! With only about 37 percent of schools identified as failing last year, the leap to 82 percent certainly does seem improbable. But quietly evading the spirit of NCLB – actually improving educational outcomes – some states backloaded their improvement goals to very late in the full-proficiency game, betting NCLB would be gutted by 2014 and they’d never be held accountable. So some states really might be on the verge of having to pay the piper big time, and the failure rate perhaps could be set to rise dramatically. But you’d have to know a lot about the political machincations in every state to figure that out. 

Indeed, that’s been the biggest problem with NCLB all along. It talks tough about proficiency, but leaves it to states to write their own standards, tests, and proficiency definitions. Again, it makes perfect political – but not educational – sense. Many of the federal politicians who voted for NCLB also know Americans cherish “local control” of education, so they wanted to appear to be both zealous protectors of local control and no-excuses enforcers of excellence. The result has been an endless stream of conflicting, confusing information – like the 82 percent figure – that few parents could ever hope to have the time or ability to sort through. And yet, as reported by the Post:

many educators agree that the law’s focus on standardized testing and minority achievement gaps shined a critical spotlight on problems that public schools have long sought to avoid.

A “critical spotlight”? NCLB is more like a deranged disco ball, randomly shooting out bits of light that make it impossible to ever know what’s really going on.

And the befuddling hits just keep on coming. At the same time the Obama administration is pushing national curricular standards that have little concrete content, as well as tests to accompany those standards that won’t be available until 2014, Duncan is decrying the “one-size-fits-all” nature of NCLB. Reports CNN:

“By mandating and prescribing one-size-fits-all solutions, No Child Left Behind took away the ability of local and state educators to tailor solutions to the unique needs of their students,” Duncan said calling the concept “fundamentally flawed.”

So at the same time he’s championing the ultimate one-size-fits-all solution – national curriculum standards – he is attacking NCLB for eroding local and state control. Of course, if you want to get political credit for fixing American education you first have to demonize what’s there, even if your solution comes out of basically the same mold. Don’t, though, think national standards coupled with as-yet-unseen national tests will solve our problems by ending state obfuscation. If the administration gets its way, the games will all just be played in Washington.

Trying to understand what’s really going on in education is enough to make you pull your hair out. But that’s what you get when you put government – meaning self-interested politicians – in charge.