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Was 'No Child Left Behind' Based on Faulty Data?


Q. The Democrats are having a field day criticizing the Republicans for the federal education legislation, "No Child Left Behind." But is it really the fault of the GOP? Or is this a nonpartisan, equal-opportunity boondoggle, like so many others?


Both parties bear equal blame for the intrusion of the federal government into public education, and yes, that intrusion does appear to be based on data that, if not actually faulty, was subjected to politicized "spin."


Twenty-five years ago, the federal government issued a controversial report, "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform." It launched the school reform movement and billions of dollars of new federal education spending, amid some pretty strong, accusative language that American schools were failing and falling behind those of other countries.


The report, published by an 18-member panel under former U.S. Education Secretary Terrel Bell, linked so-so or poor schools to a future American economy which would also, by definition, be so-so or poor.


The report warned of "a rising tide of mediocrity" in education that threatened to swamp all boats.


The solutions sounded good on the surface: put in place tough, new academic standards, and improve teacher quality. While the goals of many people weren't met by those changes, the report did result in some pretty major reforms and new systems in K-12 education.


What did people want to change as a result of the report, but didn't change? A lot of people wanted to do away with the U.S. Department of Education as unconstitutional, over-meddling and the cause of a lot of the inefficiencies and overspending in education. Without a federal regulatory agency, all decision-making would be driven down to the level of state educational governance and local school boards, which was almost universally seen as a benefit.


However, that didn't happen, and indeed, today, we are spending even more money on the U.S. Department of Education and other federal education interventions than before, by a long shot.


Some conservatives also were disappointed because the report and its many consequences didn't bring about more competition in U.S. education, or innovations in the way schools are funded that would presumably lead to classroom innovations that would pay off for kids.


Liberals said the report was a back-door way to get schools privatized and hurt the national teachers' unions. Still others of both political stripes said many of the report's conclusions and recommendations were based on inaccurate data and hazy reasoning.


However, in 1989, then-President George Bush, aided by future President Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, gathered all the nation's governors in Charlottesville, Va., for the first National Education Summit. Out of that meeting came the standardization of education movement that culminated in Goals 2000.


By "standardization" is meant that across the country, all fifth-graders would essentially be taught the same standard material for core subjects such as English, math and science. The standards were gradually boilerplated by state education departments across the country, resulting in today's de facto nationalized curriculum, with similar or identical learning standards by grade level coast to coast.


But before that happened, in 1994, President Clinton signed Goals 2000: Educate America Act. Most everyone agrees that it was the vehicle through which the standardization and nationalization of schooling occurred.


By the following year, though, respected educational professors, researchers and authors David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle published a book critical of Goals 2000, called The Manufactured Crisis, in which they contended that the data in the "A Nation at Risk" report exaggerated what was wrong with the nation's schools, and minimized what was right with them.


Berliner and Biddle contended that test scores were not falling as much as the report stated. They said the reason illiteracy seemed to be on the rise is that so many immigrants had come into public schools with lagging academic skills, and their test scores were counted among native-born kids'. They sought to show that poverty was the main cause of underachievement, and that additional funding for schools to combat the consequences of poverty would do a lot more to help kids than standards and regulations. However, they acknowledged that when the economy is stagnant, support for more spending for schools dries up quickly, since taxpayers already feel overburdened.


So, even though they contended that "A Nation At Risk" was based on false pretenses and "spin," and the nation might not have been so much at risk as the public was led to believe, still, for many reasons, they agreed that public schools were in a financial no-win situation at the turn of the century into which it was easy to institute federalized school reforms, unwanted or not.


Despite the debate that still rages today, in 2001, President George W. Bush signed the federal education legislation, No Child Left Behind. It was basically the Republican administration's continuation of the Democratic administration's Goals 2000, with the major addition of "high-stakes" assessment - if too many children "failed" the assessments the government ordered, then their schools could be closed.



Homework: Even though it is outdated now, the 1995 book, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle is still readily available from used book sources, and is well worth the read.


By Susan Darst Williams Controversies 06 2008

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