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Don't Need No Stinkin' Ejacation

By David Cogswell
Opinion | September 15, 2010

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The Kansas City Star reports that of 1,855 Kansas Public Schools, 255 failed to meet their AYP (adequate yearly progress) targets set by the No Child Left Behind act, George W. Bush's signature education program. Failure to meet the targets means that schools will lose their funding under the provisions of the law. If a school does not perform under these standards, they are punished by having their money cut off. Presumably the schools will do a better job educating the kids with less money.

The Byzantine logic of this program is to scare schools into doing a better job at the risk of losing their funding. Losing funding means people losing their jobs as well as schools losing the resources they need to operate. Conservative logic may say that this system will scare schools into performing better, but once a school fails to meet the target and starts losing funds, it is hard to make a case that it will lead to an improvement. A school that is losing funding based on poor performance is on a slippery slope. How can it recover if it has less support than when it initially failed to meet its targets? It's like sudden death. If you miss once, you are out.

The result, if not the intent of this law is to write off any school that fails to meet the target as a lost cause and thereby relieve the government, or the taxpayers, of having to support the school. As with many conservative principles, it has a certain primitive, vicious logic, but as a principle by which to organize public education, its a manifest failure. It seems evident upon casual observation that the spirit of the law is not to improve education, but to cut education costs.

The No Child Left Behind Act is a fraud, one of the many Bush-Rovian exercises in Orwellian doublespeak. As someone pointed out, No Child Left Behind really means "many kids left behind, but hopefully not mine." It's a masked attack on education. Eliminating public education, at least on a federal level, has long been a goal of Republicans.

Ronald Reagan made it a campaign pledge to abolish the federal department of education, but he couldn't fulfill the pledge because of Democratic opposition in the House of Representatives. In 1996, Republicans were still overtly trying to eliminate the department of education. Then they changed their tack. Under Bush, with master conman Karl Rove directing the political show, Republicans adopted a doublespeak approach. If they couldn't get unpopular policies through, they just named them the opposite of what they really were and then shoved them through before people noticed. Since they couldn't overtly wipe out the department of education, they cooked up a swindle that would pretend to be offering help to schools, when in fact it was stabbing them in the back.

Now that schools have been subjected to this two-faced tyranny for a number of years, they have had to adapt. They have had to become increasingly preoccupied with teaching kids how to pass SAT tests, spending more and more time on tactics and strategies to maximize scores on the tests. Education has become a national SAT competition. Though called "intelligence tests" these tests are based on the most primitive kinds of mental operations. True-false, multiple choice, and questions based on memorization measure only a sliver of intelligence at best, and it's questionable if they measure much of anything objectively. These are basic stimulus-response exercises that have been elevated to the status of being the principle activity of education.

Higher levels of analytical, critical or creative thinking are being de-emphasized and we are turning our children into trained laboratory rodents seeking pellets by pushing levers. And that's fine with Republicans. An effectively dumbed-down population, punch-drunk with relentless whacky propaganda from Fox News seems to suit Republicans fine.


David, politics is an exact science. It is exactly designed to confuse the issues.

When Kansas came up with 'QPA', I expanded that acronym to read 'Quite Profound Abstrusness'. Specialized tests designed to confuse the issues. If I couldn't pass the spelling quiz, when I was in school, it meant I hadn't studied. It may have indicated that I had failed to listen, failed to even open the book, perhaps my parents had failed to instil any desire to learn, It didn't necessarily mean the teacher hadn't tried. There is certainly differences in teachers ability to control classroom activities, but the QPA program didn't offer any constructive program to help teachers develop expertise.

The federal program 'No Child Left Behind' is about as successful and beneficial as QPA. It diffused the issues and shifted resources. But there is very little evidence that it has any measure of improving students ability to cope with the real world.


I think we should make some things clear. Your argument that NCLB is a republican attack on education is a difficult one to make. NCLB was a bill co-authored by Ted Kennedy and passed with overwhelming bipartisan support (384-48 in the House, and 91-8 in the Senate.) Of the nay votes 40 out of 53 were Republicans that I can only assume didn't think the bill went far enough. Also, it takes multiple years of not meeting AYP for punitive action to be taken and that is coupled with requiring consistently failing schools to take actions to improve. Many people did have legitimate problems with those choices such as restructuring into a charter school, and requiring them to allow students to transfer to more successful district schools. Arguments have been made that they amount to abandoning failing schools, but the fact is throwing more money at failing schools hasn't worked. So Congress tried something else. Unfortunately, recent research has shown that the real difference in student achievement boils down to effective teachers and staff. The simple fact is that we don't have enough of them.
NCLB has serious problems. For instance at fully funded levels it was a significant improvement in funding for education, however it was never fully funded. The goal of 100 percent proficiency is a statistical impossibility. And it is true that when you start to take away money that can't help. But there are almost as many misconceptions about NCLB as there are about Obama's healthcare bill. People need to stop screaming how the law is bad, start realizing it does some good things and start thinking about how to improve it. In the next year President Obama is supposed to take up the reauthorization of the ESEA and hopefully we can have a real discussion about what is right and wrong for America's schools.

Thanks for your insights, Matthew. You make some good points and you obviously have a lot of specific knowledge about this law and its implementation that I and other readers could learn from. I was aware that Kennedy was a co-sponsor and that the bill passed with a lot of bipartisan support, though I don't find the Democrat-Republican, conservative-liberal paradigm very helpful these days in sorting out issues. Neither party seems to be the champion of the people versus the corporate interests much these days, and you can hardly blame them. They rely on those huge corporate donations to stay in the game.

Perhaps I too quickly assume bad faith on the part of the Bush-Rove-Cheney group, but they so flagrantly and cynically lied and abused the public trust over and over that it's hard not to always hold them in suspicion. And it's hard to ignore the fact that the result of the law looks like a stealth version of the Republicans' anti-Department of Education agenda through all those years. The fact that they underfunded it also supports that suspicion. That was another of their favorite tactics: to get the good publicity of supporting a law, and then to quietly undermine it later by not funding it. You may have more insights to share with us on the mechanics of how that funding was withheld.

Ultimately you're right that the important thing now is to try to figure out what will be most beneficial set of policies. But criticizing the existing law is not a bad place to start in that endeavor.

Criticizing the existing law is important. I think your article sent me off a little because I often had the argument with 2 of my college roommates and the good parts of the law (such as an increase in Title I funding, and stricter rules to ensure teachers understand the subjects they teach) often got overlooked in favor of it's obvious problems. A thorough examination of those problems is important because your fear of Republicans anti-Dept. of Ed. agenda is only going to become more real with a possible takeover of either chamber of Congress. With the gaining momentum of the "Tea Party" movement, abolishing the Dept. of Ed. is something we hear in candidates platforms more often.
About the fact that both parties tend to work for corporations more than people, I completely agree. If you can find it, Matt Taibbi wrote a great piece in Rolling Stone about the financial reform Congress passed. It's truly disturbing to know what our elected officials really care about.

David--What I find most interesting is that the very people who should be on the front lines of reforming education, teachers, are hardly ever asked to contribute. I taught for 35+ years, every grade K-college. I will scream it to the rooftops: Money does make a difference. I repeat: Money does make a difference. Students who live in affluent areas do better than those from poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Students in affluent areas have more school resources at their disposal, generally come from families with better education, and believe in the value of education. Those from proverty-stricken homes go to schools with few resources, have few resources at home, and often come to school hungry, dirty, and lacking sleep. They have parents who are already pushed to the limit trying to make ends meet.

Some school districts can't even afford to pay staff to keep the schools clean and maintained. When I hear or read the phrase, "Throwing money at schools," I know the person who uttered that phrase has likely spent no time in a classroom.

I know what works to make kids and schools successful. Money helps. Giving good teachers what they need to do their jobs helps. Giving kids a stable home life and barring that a stable school life helps. Punishing schools by taking money away won't help. Punishing teachers by firing them won't help.

The most important thing would be for the so-called education "experts" to consult with the real experts, teachers. The second most important thing would be to remember that education is not a business. Students are not parts on an assembly line. Teachers aren't line workers. What we get back from educating our children may not pay off for years after they've graduated. Pay off it will, though, for all of us.

I don't think I was very clear. First, I said "throwing money at FAILING schools doesn't help." I have spent time in classrooms as an autism and special ed. para and teaching preschool. My point was that I don't believe money is the biggest factor in education. I believe teachers and paras and other school staff who are fiercely committed to their students (people like you) are the real difference in student success. I have a number of friends who are classroom teachers and I'm proud to say none of them are in it for the money. I didn't mean that schools without the money to provide adequate facilities couldn't use more money. I meant that the biggest problem is attracting talented people to the districts most in need.

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