No, a Disco Ball

In an interview in this morning’s USA Today, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is back to unbridled hyping of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). As has been her custom, her answers are popping with utterly unsubstantiated rhetoric, perhaps the most outrageous of which is her insistence that NCLB has somehow brilliantly illuminated heretofore widespread but invisible failure in public schooling. She says, for instance, that before NCLB the nation took “the ostrich approach” to our schools, but with the law we’re at last “shining a bright spotlight on under-achievement.”

Oh, come on! Americans have known about their awful schools for decades. I mean, did everyone think everything was hunky-dory in Detroit, Newark, Washington, DC, New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, and on and on until, suddenly, NCLB came along and revealed that – gasp! – the schools in those and many other places were actually dangerous, dilapidated dungeons of ignorance? Of course not! And didn’t A Nation At Risk put Americans in a tizzy about their schools back in 1983? Oh, and wasn’t Rudolph Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read a best-seller all the way back in the 1950s?

And what about that NCLB spotlight? At best, it’s a disco ball – it shines light, but light designed to dazzle much more than illuminate and confuse much more than clarify. So, while NCLB requires all states to bring kids to something called “proficiency” – enabling federal politicians to boast about their steely determination to educate all children – it leaves it to the state and local school officials who’s feet are supposedly being held to the fire to define proficiency and write the standards and tests. The result, as a recent study from Spellings’ own department has shown, has been that state officials and federal education fans have been able to point to rising state test scores to “prove” that NCLB is working, but the state test results themselves have essentially been lies, calling scores “proficient” that the feds themselves would call “basic” or “below basic.”

That sure is one wacky spotlight! What we need right now, especially with reauthorization of NCLB expected to begin when Congress returns from vacation next week, is not to shine a spotlight on our schools, but on both NCLB and all the damning evidence of Washington’s failures through decades of federal education policy. Then we’ll see that far from offering a solution to our education problems, Washington is a very big part of them. And don’t worry: All those troubles in the schools we’ve seemingly known about forever will almost certainly still be there when we move the spotlight off of Washington, and back onto them.