Schools and Politics: Fiddling with No Child Left Behind

Summary: How are we to evaluate the new Obama waivers to No Child Left Behind? Political expediency or a necessary tweak to a flawed endgame? Hard to tell.

While we labor on day to day in our schools with our real students, there are political battles ongoing in the nation’s capitol that will ultimately affect our work environment and direction.  Unfortunately, the rationale, particulars, and any good works of these battles may be clear only to full time and true policy wonks. Few of us in schools themselves have the time to become knowledgeable enough to determine which positions hold promise, and which serve other agendas or would simply be ineffective.

The history and drama of No Child Left Behind, the most immediate and recent example, boring or irrelevant or opaque to most people, even many educators, nonetheless keeps drawing me back.

The latest episode is the announcement by the Obama administration that it will grant “waivers” from aspects of NCLB to states who meet certain criteria in their own more local plans for school improvement.

The mandate of NCLB and its consequence across the states is a study in social change, in this case exercised by force of law from one pole of federal power, Congress, as administered by the executive branch. I have been one who has grudgingly admitted that NCLB has forced changes that wouldn’t have happened without the stick held high, though I prefer grass roots change that can better be sculpted to the contours of the local environment.

Unfortunately, the goals of NCLB, namely that all students, including various minority groups that have historically lagged in achievement, shall meet standard in reading, writing, and math by 2014, have simply not been realized, despite progress. Moreover, it is widely thought (hopefully not group think) that Congress should tinker with the law to address its inadequacies, but, yes – THAT Congress. In the congressional vacuum, the Obama folk have stepped in administratively and granted waivers from the expectations of NCLB to states that

“put forward plans showing they will prepare children for college and careers, set new targets for improving achievement among all students, reward the best-performing schools and focus help on the ones doing the worst,”

according to reporting by Kimberling Hefling and Ben Feller of the Associated Press, as carried in the Seattle Times, and echoed elsewhere, including the Huffington Press (2/9/12)

Obama is quoted in these articles as saying to the states, “If you’re willing to set higher, more honest standards than the ones set by NCLB, then we’re going to give you the flexibility to meet those standards.” While governor types on the NCLB hot seat welcome the new “flexibility”, civil rights and education groups in their comments worry that “states would be getting a pass on aggressively helping poor and minority children.”

Here I return to my earlier comment about being a wonk. The devil is in the details. One need be a closely tuned policy type to evaluate the competing claims.

So which is it? Seemingly the states on waivers would set their own standards and measures of compliance, as well as sanctions for low performing schools, but how much of this is political gobbledygook that steers all elected types away from the embarrassing reality that as many as half of the nation’s schools will “fail” in one phase or another of NCLB accounting in the near future? Let us punt it down the road until forced to another, later accounting, most likely when someone else is in office?

Do the new Obama rules represent progress, or a cop out? A creative adaptation to an ill conceived endgame, or a dodge of political expediency? I would have to make myself an expert in the details of both the NCLB and the new Obama rules in order to mediate in my own thinking between experts on multiple sides, often who disagree.

If this sounds like Obama bashing, it is not. More, it is frustration with the realities of school reform, and its complex currents, eddies, and depth. How and can one legislate from the nation’s capitol in such a fashion as to affect positively each of the multiplicity of byways and unique local conditions that typify our nation’s schools?

If No Child Left Behind has been shown to fall short through both a Republican and a Democratic administration, then what will work? How would NCLB be tweaked in order to more effectively stay the course? And then, of course, if wonks in the hierarchy determine strategy with a decent chance of success, then how is it that Republicans will finally reach across the aisle and with Democrats come to a consensus and revive what is currently a dysfunctional process? A President cannot alter legislation; Congress must do so.

The dilemma still begs the old question — does change occur more effectively begun at the grass roots level, or from a level of power? Most likely, the answer is not either/or, but from an historical synchronicity of leadership and grass roots that responds to the same deep cultural imperatives. If NCLB has been effective, perhaps it has been because it has stimulated already nascent action on the grass roots level, often effectively, if not enough so.

Perhaps the caution here is that we stay the course. The error of NCLB has been to mandate too much change too soon in the sleepy and inertia laden burgs. The feds should keep up the pressure; the professionals deep in the schools should continue the incremental process of refining what works with their real students.

Meanwhile, the conversation should continue about the dangers of teaching to the test, even though that has been the key to what success the NCLB has wrought. How do we also quantify and measure the birth of critical and creative thinking in our students? What place in the hierarchy of mandates should the preparation of voting citizens be given? How will we justify to the voting public the additional staffing that will be needed to bring the variety of at risk students along for an equal ride? Etc.

I worry that decisions will continue to be made at the federal policy level in ways that workers on the grass roots level simply cannot evaluate without a commitment to following the policy discussions, just as the shift in policy implicit in the new Obama rules remains opaque to me in my school at this juncture. In other words, one is compelled to become more of a wonk, or submit to a faith that those in the many layers above us in the hierarchy know what they are doing. That’s a tough swallow, the latter option, and one that subtly diminishes the professional identity of school folk, I believe.

The other consequence of this disconnect I fear is that policy tends to be developed in isolation from the realities we face in schools, and so runs the danger of being ill molded to the target.

Hopefully, there exist middle level men and women to who effectively explain the grass roots to the powers who design policy, and evaluate policy options in a way geared to how they will play on the ground level. This could be one definition of your basic friendly wonk.

For now, along with tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of other practitioners, I burrow down into the work immediately in front of me, and wonder how and if the consequences of these changes far from the front lines in which I work will ultimately change my professional environment.

It must have been like this to the ancient Greeks who watched as their gods machinated their way across the proverbial heavens. Vitally concerned with the outcome, but seemingly powerless to affect it, we mortals await the next events that may constrain or may liberate our professional options.

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