Opinion: Education should be given back to statesIt is no particular secret that I have been opposed to the federal No Child Left Behind legislation from its inception a little more than 10 years ago.
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent
It is no particular secret that I have been opposed to the federal No Child Left Behind legislation from its inception a little more than 10 years ago.
If, at this point, you’re noting that my opposition has had the same effect as a chipmunk breaking wind in a hurricane, I can’t really disagree with you. In fact, nothing has had much of an impact on the legislation. Not the fact that it meant the federal government was trampling all over states’ constitutionally exclusive role in education, my essential reason for opposing the law. Not the fact that by making testing high-stakes in many states (not including South Dakota), thousands of otherwise educational professionals across the country have been cheating like Bernie Madoff on speed. Not the fact that the Republicans, who should have known better, sponsored and retained that law which trampled on federalism, normally a concept near and dear to their hearts, for seven long years. Not the fact that Democrats who vilified the law for almost all of those years have been in charge in Washington for most of the last two years. Seemingly the law’s very name — No Child Left Behind — has been just so good a slogan that it has become the third rail in education law, the equivalent of Social Security in domestic spending. It can’t be touched.
Because when nothing else could move national and state leaders to confront the difficulties inherent in the law, reality now steps in. In the next three years, as NCLB requirements move to become 100 percent of students demonstrating proficiency in math and reading, President Obama is now saying what lots of others have been too afraid to say, that 80 percent of schools will soon be considered failing schools. And actually, he’s wrong. It will, in fact, be more than 80 percent.
The reason for this encroaching assessment Armageddon is simply the fact it isn’t possible for all schools to have all their students proficient each and every year. That’s like bowling a perfect game every time you put on those borrowed redand-green shoes. It’s like pitching a perfect game every time you take to the mound or doing the crossword in ink every Sunday and never regretting it. It simply can’t be done.
Don’t get me wrong. Though I have argued against NCLB for years, solely because it is a federal intrusion where only states should tread, the truth is the law has some very positive impacts. It has produced a renewed, necessary focus on ensuring that all — all — students need to be functionally literate and numerate and that averaging out lower achieving students with higher performers, as we used to do with tests like the SAT and ITBS, ignores and even conceals the dirty little secret of some students’ lower performance.
It has restored — oddly necessary in some places — the should-have-always-beenobvious understanding that reading and math really are top priority subjects that, if not mastered, leave all the other subjects out of reach anyway. (Try to adequately learn American history, for example, if you can’t read.) It has created a goldmine of student achievement data across the country that will provide educational researchers the data they need to reach conclusions about what really does work to boost student achievement and what doesn’t.
But now reality breaks into the educational Eden of NCLB and forces things to change. What good will it do anybody to label 80 percentplus of schools in need of improvement because of a standard virtually impossible for any school with a heterogeneous student population to meet? In truth, none. But that isn’t the long-term fight anyway. Rather, the next tussle will be over what to do about it.
Will the federal government see this as a clarion call to invoke new rules and regulations and spend oceans of new money on schools? (My sarcasm bleeds through a bit on this one as federal funding is notoriously less generous than it pretends, forces schools to frequently incur accompanying large, innovative and ludicrous new expenses, and usually begins declining precipitously in any new program within three years of its birth.) That is, of course, my fear.
But there is another solution. With the data and the experience NCLB has provided, schools and the states responsible for them can now take it from here as the United States Constitution and the state constitutions essentially require. Return education to the wonderful 50 experimental laboratories that are our states and let them and local decision-makers decide how next to proceed in the best interests of their students. There, successes in one state can be shared with others and a true bottom-up approach can ensue in American education. The reality of NCLB’s errant expectations is here. Let’s use that reality not to send education down some new, byzantine maze of federal bureaucratic, top-down machinations. Rather, let’s use that reality to bring education home where it has always belonged and where it can best thrive.