Congress is banging away at replacement legislation for the No Child Left Behind Act this summer while most teachers are taking a much needed vacation to retool their lesson plans, organize their ideas for the new school year, read up on new strategies, and take a few moments to see their families and detox from caffeine overload. The nation’s interloping federal legislation, which uses an Orwellian Doublespeak title to hide its forceful blackmailing and strong arming of states with millions upon millions of dollars in funding hasn’t really been touched since it was first passed during George W. Bush’s first term in office. Interestingly enough, you would think that Congressional Democrats would be all over the idea of repealing and replacing this legislation as part of an agenda to roll back damage done (perceived, accused, or actual) by a controversial Republican President such as W, however that isn’t the case. Since NCLB has empowered the Obama Administration to feed the Charter School campaign funding beast and allowed steamrolling publishing giants like Pearson to pave the way for a new kind of un-educational education, the Republicans have actually taken the task of eliminating their own failed legislation (the way a thoughtful democratic body might).
Of course, the new bill has two versions–a Senate version and a House version that will have to be reconciled to make the final bill (and who knows what kind of pork and hidden agendas might be inside)–but an early indication that the bill holds promise for the nation’s imperiled Public Education Systems is the fact that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is speaking strongly against it. What Duncan, whom is reviled like a Sith Lord by many teachers, parents, and activists, seems most worried about is what he calls a “lack of accountability”. Reading between the lines, one could easily see the meaning as “lack of accountability [to him]”. Reports state that the particulars of the bill require a list of revisions that seem to come from the unlikely realm of common sense and good research of the issue.
The indication that the UFT, the AFT, and other advocates for public education have been working behind the scenes with the Republicans helming the bill is a sign of strange bedfellows in a time when the traditional, tried and true alliances and character traits have been scattered to the winds of Citizen’s United era lobby and donation back-scratching. On this issue Republicans are, by and large on the right side of the issue in terms of returning to local control, limiting testing, and veering away from nationalized standards (though they tend to be in the wrong on the issue of so-called school choice). In New York we have a Democrat Governor who has self proclaimed himself as the “Civil Rights Champion of Students” while simultaneously assisting and propping up those who would sooner see poor neighborhood schools privatized and turned into tuition-only establishments. While claiming to have the best interests in mind for the education of youngsters in our state, Mr. Cuomo has failed to lead sufficiently on the matter of teacher evaluation (or any education related), instead relying on a system called APPR that works on assumptions, extremely fuzzy math (like value added statistics that rocket scientists can’t explain), and misappropraites and bastardizes every bit of theory and research it aims to claim as an asset (from Danielson to Testing Validity to the Common Core State Standards themselves).
In fact, the New York State approach to managing educators and education is so faulty that in New York City there have been 3 different evaluation systems in the past 3 years with a Damocles sword of funding over the head of every district to come up with a new 4th one by mid-school year 2015-16 (to be implemented immediately and without training, piloting, or research). Mr. Cuomo is less the “Champion of Students” than the “Champion of Faulty Roughshod Doomed-to-Failure Systems”.
This system is so faulty that it is about to be tested in court by a teacher, Sheri Lederman, who was given an “Ineffective” rating in her value added growth score because her well-to-students who were rated 4/4 in the previous year did not impossibly get 5/4. While Mr. Cuomo hides behind the skirt of the NCLB legislation that Mr. Duncan claims has a high level of accountability, the parents of the students in districts like Great Neck (where this teacher works) are incredibly vocal about opting out the federally mandated high stakes testings. Mind you, education has traditionally been a locally controlled issue where parents had substantial weight to throw around on how their children are educated. This type of weight is something a thoughtful observer might call accountability, and Mr. Duncan is likely acutely aware of the way a return to local control would remove his teeth and disempower his department. In fact, one might even go so far as to say that what Mr. Duncan is truly wary of is popular sovereignty taking away from his oligarchic, bureaucratically bestowed power. He’s afraid of democracy in his highly profitably fiefdom.
The coming legislation is likely to be far from perfect, and certainly won’t return the status quo to the “Little Red School House”. I don’t think anybody thinks it will, or should. However if it allows states to return to standards of their choice, dethroning the politically toxic Common Core Standards, and if it allows localities to decide which criteria to use to rate its own teachers it would create a truly more accountable system of education. Politicians like Mr. Cuomo would not be able to hide behind “Federal Law” excuses for retaliating against the Teacher’s Unions and giving a leg up to his private Charter backers like Eva Moskowitz and her Success Charter Network. Nor will they have the leverage to say that their creation of a hostile, non-educational environment and culture based around stressful, poorly written, dehumanizing testing and testing conditions is compulsory for proper federal funding (or a best practice at all). Furthermore, if it allows parents and educators to truly approach creating community empowered and lead schools that address the needs of their charges on a locally, thoughtful, and transformative scale–even slightly–it will be far better than the autocratic and nigh dystopian path we’ve been on for a decade and a half.
However, this legislation won’t fix all the ills of education and it will be a long road to piecemealing the system into efficacy–possibly an endless one. We have to keep our eyes alert to many issues–including the legal battle over tenure in New York and the right of Unions to collect dues as they have for over a century to the benefit of every working person in the country. Until then, we can enjoy our brief respite and hope that the legislation that Mr. Duncan is calling a “step backward” is also a step in the right direction…because in this backward system that he’s leading, backwards is the direction of progress.