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No Child Left Behind - How It Looks From the Back

July 19, 2007 By David Jennings, Special to Minnesota 2020

David Jennins is Superintendent at Chaska School, District 112

Fifty different states declare standards in reading, math, and science which may vary slightly, but which must all conform to a single set of federal requirements. The federal government then sets a date. Let's say 2014. When the date arrives, 100% of the children in America will meet those standards.100%, regardless of age, race, language barriers, special needs or any other consideration. 100%. Once the final deadline is reached, any school that fails to get any child to the standard on time will be deemed by the feds to be a "failing school."

No Child Left Behind.

Sounds wonderful, doesn't it. I don't know why we didn't think of this before.

Of course, the underlying political context is just as much "through the looking glass" as the rest of the idea. Who can oppose a law called "No Child Left Behind"? It would seem tantamount to saying, "Oh heck, let's just leave at least a few in the dust."

The law is preposterous on its face, but thanks in part to the cruel speciousness of its name, many in the public have fallen for it and, as the polls go, so go many of the politicians. Even the harshest critics of the law quickly qualify their remarks by saying they are not really against the NCLB idea. They support the goal, but "have some concern" about the process. They can't bear the thought of someone reading a quote from them somewhere that suggests they are willing to leave kids behind, as if the imagery is more important than the reality. Maybe in Congress it is.

Many day-to-day practitioners who really do want to serve the needs of all kids see NCLB in a different light. A few are comfortable saying so.

I, for one, believe this particular federal law to be the single worst piece of federal legislation in my adult lifetime, and my adult lifetime dates back to 1966. It is not merely misguided, as some believe. It is, in fact, destructive and I believe intentionally so. It tests kids on the wrong things for the wrong reasons and, if it's not changed, this cruel piece of federal cynicism will end up leaving nearly all children behind.

All kids are not the same. All kids do not learn at the same pace. All kids do not have the same learning opportunities. All states and communities do not have the same resources. All communities do not share the same dreams and expectations for their children.

As for the requirements of the law itself, the specific knowledge and skills being tested in this model are narrow, rigid and far too discrete. The truth is: all the expensive and disruptive testing we now have through NCLB tells us exactly nothing about whether kids have the actual skills the 21st century will demand of them. Simply put, getting right answers means little when we're asking the wrong questions. 

One can only speculate about the motives of the people who brought us this calamity, but this much I know. If the federal government persists in pursuing this course of action, and if the states fail to call their bluff, there are two possible outcomes, and only two. The first is all schools are eventually deemed "failing schools" and public education as we know it is ended. The second is lower standards nationwide, lowered deliberately to a common denominator all schools can actually attain, a standard like say maybe that of Texas. So in option two, educationally speaking, we all become Texas.

Those are the choices. Anyone who tells you there is a third choice under the current law is not telling you the truth.

I know. I know. Some of the authors and some of those who voted for or otherwise supported this travesty actually believe they have done a good thing for kids. They only mean to be helpful. They will tell you anyone opposed to their idea "just doesn't want to be held accountable." They don't ask themselves honestly, "accountable to what?" Even if I detest the insipidity of the plan, I have to admire the sheer audacity and precision with which it has been carried out.

Minnesota 2020 Chuck Green Civic Engagement Fellow Andy Ver Steegh talks with Chaska Superintendent and former Republican House Speaker David Jennings about No Child Left Behind.

How did this happen, you might ask yourself. First they rounded up a few liberals, whose bleeding hearts obscured their vision, people who had seen the system under-serving poor kids for decades. Then they brought in conservatives, whose animus toward teachers' unions makes them suspicious of public education in general and makes them look forward to the day of its collapse. For good measure, they enlisted help from portions of the business community that have something to gain financially from the privatization of a "failed" public school system.

Voila! The coalition is formed. While some of its original members now have second thoughts, it has been, thus far, unstoppable. The NCLB experience is a classic example of the old wisdom about federal programs. They are like war. They are easy to start but, once started, almost impossible to stop.

Of course, there is a troubling footnote to this story of "the making of NCLB." Children are not directly represented in this coalition and never have been, especially the poor children and the immigrant children who are alleged to be chief among the constituencies for whom this law is intended to provide. But what the heck, I'm sure those kids can count on the rest of us to look out for their interests and finally do the right thing.right?

Today's Washington establishment is a bitterly partisan, power-driven and surrealistic bubble in a world of reality. It has failed the country consistently on a whole range of domestic policy matters for some time now, which is why the daily press releases are all about things happening offshore. Simply knowing that, however, is small comfort and is not enough. We are still obligated to wrestle with what to do about it, at least what to do about NCLB and about actually making sure kids are not left behind in 21st century America.

Historically, this matter of education policy was left to individual states. For the first two centuries of the republic, education was deemed none of the federal government's business. This policy decision was driven mostly by regional differences in values and expectations and by the underlying belief of voters that, when it came to their kids, the best decisions were made close to home.

Minnesota's history, during the old format of state control, has been one of leading the nation in terms of the quality of our K-12 education. People who settled here were diverse, but shared a common value of wanting to provide high quality public schools for all kids. That value was reflected in the state's education policy.

Over the years, as we repeatedly found ourselves ranked among the best in the nation on matters of education, and as we were frequently recognized for innovation, our high standards became more than just the right thing to do for our kids, however. They also became a source of public pride.

Sadly, the presumption of state control in education policy matters eroded significantly in the 1970's with the passage of a new federal law called Public Law 94-142. Like NCLB, PL94-142 was done with good intentions and, like NCLB, it involved federal norms and the promise of federal cash. Its stated goal was to improve equity for kids with special needs across the country.

By the end of the '70's, when this new law finally went into full effect, however, the federal expectations of equity turned out to be below what already existed in Minnesota and compliance meant trading in our "Cadillac" program for a "Chevy" from the federal fleet that would cost just as much as the Caddy.

There was an alternative, of course. We could have opted to forego the federal money, which had been promised along with the requirements, and go our own way. Unfortunately, when the time came for choosing, however, we took the federal money. The temptation was too much for us.

Ironically, while the federal government followed through on the compliance part of 94-142 and has been relentless in enforcing the rules, they immediately broke their promise on the money. They promised to pay 40% of the cost of compliance but, in the nearly forty years since that promise was made, they have never come even close, not once. Today, as from the beginning, they pay less than half of the original promise they made.and yet we still take the money and we still comply.

Now, playing off their earlier success in using federal money to bribe the states to comply with a sub-standard federal mandate, they have come up with NCLB. Once again, the states have lined up like sheep to take the money. They promise federal money; set a "one size fits all standard" at the federal level; create political pressure to comply; do not allow deviation from the standard, even to a point higher than the standard; and then fail to fully fund the cost of compliance.

This time, however, the boondoggle is not as simple as an attempt to do good that fell short. This time the underlying motives include an attack on the concept of public education itself.

Minnesotans, like most Americans, pride themselves on the value of public education; and with good cause. Public schools have been every bit as important to our success as a nation of immigrants as was the Bill of Rights. The "melting pot" culture we all celebrate so often is a direct result of public education. For generations, public schools have been the place where the "melting" actually occurred.

Now, compliance with NCLB, in a high standards state like Minnesota, really means either accepting lower standards or writing off public education altogether. Oh sure, it is quite possible that life for kids in low standards states will be improved thanks to NCLB. Minnesota, however, will see the opposite.

If our elected policy makers cannot be dissuaded from the dead end street that is NCLB, we will have managed to diminish our competitive position in a global economic environment just at the exact time when our long-held high academic standards are starting to have even greater value.

An even greater concern regarding the future of our culture, if public education is discredited, is that the melting pot is gone. In its place, the education landscape will be covered with private schools, subsidized by public dollars, going after the market segment of their choice. There will be academies for the well-to-do. There will be schools for the few remnants of the middle class, and there will be discount learning centers for the working poor. The homeless and unemployed, of course, will just be out of luck.

Some ask me, "When NCLB is re-authorized, what changes should be made?"

I say you can't fix it.

My own experience, both as an elected official and as an educator, tells me the federal government, even on its lucid days, is simply unable to make a one-size-fits-all policy that will help K-12 education here in Minnesota. Furthermore, accountability is not something for which Minnesota has ever needed federal supervision. Standards and testing, properly done, are necessary and desirable. I welcome them. I just want Minnesota standards for our kids, not those of the federal government.

I believe Minnesota should "just say no" to the federal money. We have chosen to set our own pace in other important areas: energy, climate change, and health care, to name a few. Why would we possibly do otherwise on a policy matter as critical to our future as the education of our children?

As far as I can see, the feds have no shortage of bad ideas but, at least in the case of NCLB and public schools, compliance is optional. States need only be willing to turn down the federal check, which is too small in the first place, and they are free to do as they see fit.

The truth is, if Minnesota does not go its own way, if we ride along on this federally subsidized railroad for too long, we will not be able to blame them when the train wreck happens. The responsibility will lie with us.


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