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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Obama all hype no substance about changing NCLB

From the Daily Censored

by Adam Bessie

If you’re a casual observer of the education debate, today might seem monumental: George W. Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which created a system of extensive high-stakes testing for students and schools nearly a decade ago, is finally being “revamped” by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, according to a report in the Washington Post, and across the national press. Obama and Duncan’s move to waive the “cornerstone requirements” of NCLB, most notably ending the impossible “2014 deadline that all students be proficient in math and language arts (Education Week Blog)”, might just feel like the end of an era: finally, the failed experiment in draconian testing and scripted classrooms, which bored students and stifled teachers, has come to an end.

Yet, NCLB has not been revamped, but rather, rebranded.

In trade for letting individual states opt out of NCLB, they must submit to the provisions of the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top (RttT), a program which George H.W. Bush’s assistant secretary of education – and former NCLB advocate – Diane Ravitch described as “Bush’s Third Term in Office in Education.” Though the “cornerstone requirements” have been waived, Sam Dillon of the New York Times reports that many of NCLB’s “fundamental features would remain in effect,” including the extensive testing in reading and math.

In other words, pick whichever flavor of high-stakes testing you most prefer.

“[The education reformers’] answer starts with testing and ends with data and more testing. If children were widgets, they might be right; but children are not widgets, they are individuals. If reading and math were all that mattered in school, they might be right, but basic skills are not the be-all and end-all of being educated,” Ravitch wrote over two years ago, though she might well have been commenting today: even with the NCLB waivers, students are still widgets, teachers line-workers, and schools factories, part of what Obama and Duncan call the “cradle to career pipeline,” as if education is a purely economic commodity, our children raw material to be processed into productive workers (to be placed themselves in factories to create more widgets).

Fundamentally, Race to the Top has the same free-market soul as No Child Left Behind – heck, even the names have the same competitive metaphor, as if education were a race, one with winners and losers. And certainly, the policies of both RttT and NCLB reflect this competitive spirit, as “winning” schools receive funds, and “losing” schools are punished, simulating the “free market.”

“[There is] no fundamental change away from bureaucratic and market paradigms” that we saw under NCLB, claimed associate professor Paul Thomas, who has just completed a book analyzing the current education reform movement Ignoring Poverty: The Corporate Takeover of US Education (Full disclosure: I wrote the preface for his book).

Indeed, states which choose to opt out of NCLB and into RttT must then implement policies which actually appear to ramp up the free-market reforms: these states must invest in charter schools, based on the economic – not educational – theory that “competition” and “choice” will improve the quality of education; further, these states will need to create “accountability systems” which tie teacher evaluation to student tests scores, so “good teachers” and “bad teachers” can be identified, labeled, sorted, and processed – like widgets themselves.

And much like NCLB, RttT ignores one of the most powerful variables on student achievement of all – poverty. A recent study by the New York City Independent Budget Office of NYC students found that “as family income decreases, so does school attendance;” students from lower income households lost a full week of instruction. And not surprisingly, “the students who do better on these tests are those who attend school more frequently.” The authors conclude “Student test scores in grades three through eight are also clearly related to poverty.” And at a time when nearly 1 in 5 children lives in poverty, when we struggle amidst the Great Recession that is driving more students into impoverished circumstances and out of the classroom, it’s shocking that Obama education reform policy does not address poverty, nor even acknowledge its existence – rather, it embraces the very free-market, corporate mindset that collapsed the economy in the first place.

Today, as Obama and Duncan make their full court press to sell the end of the NCLB era, and their new brand of education reform, don’t believe the hype: any real reform of our nation’s schools will treat students as individuals, rather than testable widgets, will not hold teachers to account for the ills of society, and will acknowledge and confront poverty, rather than write it off.

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