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Thompson: Is Our Education Policy Folks Learning?

Bushfoot Given the latest discussion of the coverage of education and the press, Linda Perlstein’s hyperlink to Nick Lemann’s account of the passage of NCLB couldn’t be timelier. But first we should recall Lemann’s greatest scoop, an interview with Karl Rove on "the death of the Democratic Party" scenario where Rove systematically disabled the three key funding sources of Democrats, "trial lawyers, Jews, and labor unions." NCLB was a part of the strategy to "shrink the part of the labor force which belongs to the newer, and more Democratic, public-employee unions."

Lemann’s first article was written after the House had passed a draft of NCLB that embodied "the majestic moral simplicity of the Texas (accountability) system," while "the author of the Senate bill called the language he'd written ... ‘Rube Goldbergesque.’"

Before recounting why the damage done by NCLB was so inevitable, we should recount the law’s great accomplishment,

ending the shameful hiding of low performance by racial and low-income students within overall averages. To their credit, the bipartisan reformers were "blood-committed to disaggregated data. ... Not only producing it, but using it." The tragedy is that the inevitable dynamics of data-driven accountability warped that noble goal by killing the much more promising approach of data-informed decision-making. Sandy Kress, NCLB’s author, issued a warning that is still being lost on "reformers," "‘I worry about these arbitrary systems. ... If we create a system where some schools are very likely to fail, what teachers will go there? What principals?’ ... "To say that we're going to call it a failure if you fail for African-American kids for one year, that we're going to put a big ol' badge on you -- we just don't think that's the right way to go.’"

At his most domineering, Lemann illustrated the blame game mentality of NCLB with the gratuitous jab, "Memo to Scarsdale, New York, where parents have been boycotting state tests: Your kids should learn that stuff, too, after which they can go back to being little geniuses." After praising President Bush, Lemann made the statement that is laughable today, worrying that President Mission Accomplished "has to rely on states and local districts, which have an immense capacity for screwing up."

At his best, Lemann recounted the sausage-making and the predictable results of the law, "when it comes down to the crucial point in the negotiations, the community of people who know and care about what's going on with a bill like this is quite small -- intimate, really. That's because Washington's master narrative -- what gets talked about at parties and on television public-affairs shows -- has to be kept simpler than any bill of this importance can ever be. ..."

"So far, though, headlines about the bill, when they appear at all, tend to be along the lines of "HOUSE PASSES MAJOR OVERHAUL OF SCHOOLS." As soon as people figure out what the bill does, there will be caterwauling throughout the land. Teachers and principals will complain about having to submit their students to torturous drills, instead of true learning, to bring their scores up. Poor and minority districts will get the lowest scores and will complain that they're being anathematized. Rich districts will complain that teachers are "teaching to the test," that their children's education is being dumbed down. All of this has been going on at the state level ever since the standards movement got rolling, and now it will go on nationally."

"How will Bush's education bill turn out?" Lemann asked, "There are a number of ways it could turn out badly. The states could be free to give local districts so much latitude to pick tests that it would be impossible to tell whether students are really learning. Instead of a single trustworthy national benchmark to check against the use of junk tests, there could be several different benchmarks. ... And the list of pitfalls goes on. A national tidal wave of lousy tests, sloppily administered and scored, could lead to a wholesale revolt against educational standards, and a return to the old business of the liberals wanting more money and the conservatives wanting vouchers."

The saddest part of the article were the words of George Miller, a truly committed and knowledgeable liberal, who also knew "it's the euphemisms that kill you in this business. Language is crucial. Words become important."

Theonion And that gets us back to today’s discussion of press coverage, and the challenge of presenting nuance to the public and to policy-makers. We can’t expect educators to be to be conversant in the arcane language of bill-drafting. But neither is it realistic to expect policy folks who have never been in the classroom to have a precise understanding of the "rocket science" that is teaching and learning. Either the press or the edusphere must help bridge that gap.   And that gets us back to Perlstein's conclusion, "I want to read how Obama went from someone whose campaign platform railed against “preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests” to someone whose education reforms measure everything—everything!—in terms of how well students are filling in the bubbles."


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"I want to read how Obama went from someone whose campaign platform railed against “preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests” to someone whose education reforms measure everything—everything!—in terms of how well students are filling in the bubbles."

For that story you have to go back further than the campaign. Try then-Senator Obama's 2005 speech to the Center for American Progress, "Teaching Our Kids in a 21st Century."


The Neo-Libs and the Neo-Cons were and are joined at the hip (and the mouth) regarding elhi education. This helps explain why Secretary Duncan believes that NCLB only needs re-branding and that this could be done through a naming contest.

Incidentally, NCLB can't rightfully be credited for "ending the shameful hiding of low performance by racial and low-income students." This has been openly recognized for at least since the 1960s and was the motivation for the biggest part of the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965. It's not in the kids. It's in the instruction; and instruction, then and now is a black box between "standards" and "standardized tests. Neither tells us anything about the instruction a student has received in the past or should best receive in the future.

"T refute it thus."

That is the answer that the "reformers" can't face when they present their Berkeleyian idealism.

So Dick, when I hope against hope that the adminstration's words have meaning, you strike your cane on the table, and turn "I refute it Thus" on my optimism (or grabbing at straws). You effectively counter my faith in words as something that have meaning by quoting more words. I don't know how to counter.

Your link showed that Obama, back then, had the same range in playing all the notes that Duncan has now.

You are going to really blast my post tomorrow. I just hope you aren't too right.

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