School Beat

by Lisa Schiff on December 8, 2004

The effort to privatize public education just got handed another four years. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is beginning to work its black magic as schools across the country work to mitigate the damage of the standardized testing frenzy. Now there are hints that the Administration will be focusing more intently on secondary education, with the next version of No Child Left Behind.

Supporters of public education must understand what we’re up against and be clear about where we want to go. We must have a solid critique of these policies and we must have a vision of what our public education system should look like. A good place to start is by getting an overarching sense of the significance of and problems with the No Child Left Behind legislation. This legislation is transforming public education by imposing the use of high-stakes standardized testing in new and extreme ways, and by incrementally turning the public education domain into an arena that can be mined for business opportunities.

The anthology Many Children Left Behind (http://www.beacon.org/catalogs/f04/meier_wood.html), published earlier this year by Beacon Press, offers an informative and absorbing set of viewpoints regarding the impact of NCLB from the perspective of teachers, administrators and education researchers, policy analysts and activists. The editors are Deborah Meier and George Wood, who are currently principals of schools in Boston, MA and Stewart, OH, respectively. Having practitioners as editors and contributors may account for the fact that the essays are refreshingly grounded in day-to-day realities-i.e. what these policies mean for students and their teachers.

The book is broken out into three main sections, starting with the classroom level and gradually moving into a discussion of alternatives. Linda Darling-Hammond (a professor of Education at Stanford) describes how the use of standardized tests and the resulting scores from them are damaging to students and schools, by assuming that testing students is the same as addressing identified problems. The imperative for schools to meet increasingly difficult test score targets actually focuses attention on the tests, as opposed to teaching, and can lead to students being kept behind or pushed out, as was discovered to be the case in Texas. Minority students and schools with greater diversity are further punished, as there are additional test targets for each minority sub-group, increasing the possibility of a school being considered failing.

George Wood echoes the negative power of tests, revealing in his essay how the possibility of a given student lowering a school’s test scores is often uncomfortably present in the minds of educators. He further demonstrates how high-stakes tests can circumscribe the learning experience for students by reducing the scope of what is taught and sometimes the complexity as well, especially in the case of scripted curricula, which teachers are supposed to follow to the literal letter.

The second section of Many Children Left Behind, looks at NCLB in a larger context, specifically bringing in the factors of race and poverty that manifest as inequities in the public education system. Stan Karp, a public school teacher and an editor of the journal Rethinking Schools (http://www.rethinkingschools.org/) points out that NCLB’s hyper-focus on test-score inequities between various socio-economic groups completely fails to take into account the historical inequities for these same groups. The realities of such social problems as income disparities and the lack of access to adequate housing and healthcare, are highly correlated to school outcomes, but NCLB pays no attention to these issues.

Deborah Meier then discusses the relationship between democracy and public education, arguing that local control is where we want to head (although that can be a double-edge sword as was just recently seen when a school board in Pennsylvania mandated the teaching of “intelligent design” in addition to evolution). She argues that identification of and solutions to school problems should come from the ground up and proposes methods to implement this at the community level and assess that implementation at a state-level.

Alfie Kohn, a former teacher and now an education analyst and activist, wraps up this section of the book by demonstrating how NCLB substantially pushes forward an agenda of school privatization. By discrediting schools, setting up goals that are impossible to achieve, underfunding mandates to achieve those goals, and by encouraging parents to choose private alternatives, NCLB is a clear effort to dismantle our education system. Not only that, but it provides profitable opportunities for businesses during the processes as well, such as selling curricula, tests, test preparation courses and more.

Armed with the criticisms, we need alternatives, which Monty Neil provides in the closing section of the book. As the Executive Director of FairTest (http://www.fairtest.org/), an organization that is focused on challenging the misuse of standardized tests, he is extremely well positioned to offer a contrasting set of possibilities to our simplistic, national high-stakes testing program. His proposals are based in a spirit of helping schools to improve, as opposed to setting them up for failure and publicly shaming them. As opposed to simply relying on broad, standardized tests, he argues that schools should be evaluated base on the quality of students’ classroom work, the results of precisely targeted tests, and “school quality reviews” that are generated by teams of educators who shadow students, meet with teachers, administrators, parents and others, and review all aspects of the school.

Many Children Left Behind is not a comprehensive analysis of NCLB, but it presents some of the salient arguments against it in a way that education (and social change) activists can use. We can employ these sets of criticisms and the alternatives when we write letters to editors, discuss public schools with friends, family and co-workers and push for legislation that will strengthen our schools for all children.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and the president of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (PPS-SF).

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