The Edu-Capture of NCLB

Recently, school officials in the District of Columbia public school system announced a significant change in expectations for academic performance of children of different ethnic groups.  Unlike No Child Left Behind, which had the goal of all students being proficient by 2014 (less than 14 months away), D.C. officials are implementing new, lower standards of academic performance for African American, Latino, and poor children compared to their more affluent White and Asian counterparts.

The Educrats claim this is fair and equitable; children from at-risk populations are often far behind their more affluent peers, and expecting all children to meet the same high standards is unfair, even mean-spirited.  And D.C. school officials are not alone in this effort.  Educrats all over the country have begun to persuade federal education officials to grant waivers from NCLB, adopting the position that it is unfair to label schools as failing when the performance gaps between ethnic groups are so wide and when minority children lag so far behind their White, more affluent peers.  According to a recent article in the Washington Post, twenty-seven of thirty-three states that won waivers from NCLB have established different performance targets for different groups of students.  A recent Education Week analysis of waiver requests from thirty-four states found that only eight states—Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Oregon –set the same target for all students.

Further, the Educrats assert that the new policy of lower standards actually raises performance expectations for minority children because they will have to progress at a faster rate over the same span of time.  For example, over the next five years in Maryland, African American students need to increase their proficiency in reading from 76 to 88 percent (a 12 percent increase over 5 years), while White students need only increase from 92 to 96 percent (a 4 percent increase) over that same period.  Furthermore, the waivers permit schools within the same district to establish different student performance targets, again on the logic that school-to-school differences exist even within the same subgroup of students.

Do you think former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee would have permitted the schools to lower their standards and expectations for children of color?  Certainly not.  Whatever anyone may think of her tenure as D.C. school’s chief, and she had many detractors, she would most certainly have never allowed standards to vary by ethnicity.  Some minority parents agree, asserting that lower standards for their children is a form of prejudice, the “soft bigotry of low expectations” as former President George W. Bush called it.  In a recent article in the Washington Post, Alicia Rucker, a single mother of six, called the new policy “disgraceful.  It’s ridiculous to even believe that if you expect less from someone, you’re going to get more.”  She continued, “We need to have as high expectations for any child in Ward 2 as Ward 7, for any child in Ward 3 as Ward 8.  There should be no difference.”  She is right on at least two points.

First, lowering standards equates to lowering expectations.  There is no industry, profession, or athletic sport in which lowering standards does not lead to lower expectations. While standards and expectations may mean different things in theory, in practice, the two are often used synonymously. Decades of research on effective schools conclusively demonstrates that setting high standards and expectations for all children, but especially those most at-risk of academic failure, creates a more positive, inclusive school culture and raises their level of achievement.  The best teachers and school leaders recognize this and make this part of their daily practice.  Unfortunately, this is often the exception rather than the rule.

Second, let’s not pretend that lowering performance expectations is in the best interests of children.  Although they sometimes don’t demonstrate it on standardized tests, kids are smart, specifically, as it pertains to understanding adults.  Kids know which educators truly care about them and which do not.  And they will pick up in an instant the lowered performance targets and expectations the adults in the system have for them.  In reaction to criticism of the policy, Cate Swinburn, head of data and accountability in the D.C. school system, stated, “In no way does DCPS hold our students to different expectations based on their skin color or language ability or special learning needs”.

Perhaps she is right – the new policy isn’t about the kids.  This new system of different performance targets is all about the adults in the schools, not the children.  For proof, one need only ask, “Who stands most to gain from these new performance targets?”  Teachers will benefit, because by lowering the bar of student achievement, they will rate better on performance evaluations.  School leaders will similarly benefit.  It will certainly improve the morale of teachers and school leaders; after all, who would want to work in a system where the majority of children do not perform at a minimum level of proficiency?  This new policy will help the adults feel better about themselves and their performance.  And having significantly lower numbers of failing schools means that state officials, including some mayors and governors, will not be embarrassed with large numbers of failing schools.  After all, it is difficult to win reelection as the education governor (or state superintendent or mayor) if many of your schools fail to effectively educate all children.

So, if children enter school behind, the new policy essentially recognizes that they will leave school at different levels as well.  If teachers and school leaders cannot eliminate the achievement gap within a decade (as NCLB originally intended, since that was woefully unrealistic), perhaps these relaxed, lower standards will enable those working in schools to bring everyone up to proficiency gradually, over time—perhaps in a generation or two.  I can see how such a policy would be attractive to adults working in the system.

Who are the losers in this new system?  The largest group is those children who will look to their teachers and principals and recognize that they have lower expectations for them than they do for other children.  And, because far fewer schools will be labeled as failing, fewer children and their families will be given at least the opportunity to transfer to a higher performing public school in the district.  This is a win-win situation for school leaders who really don’t want those kids transferring into their schools anyway.  So, this new policy makes it easier for adults working in the system.  Adults win; poor, minority students lose.  Again.

NCLB did set unrealistic goals for student achievement; most everyone knew it at the time.  But that wasn’t important.  What was important is that for the first time, policymakers pushed school leaders to focus explicitly on the achievement gap.  The “no excuses” mindset is what was important; the question of whether it was realistically feasible to do so in a decade was less so.  Words and symbolism matter—a lot.  In the movie Second Hand Lions, Hub, played by Robert Duvall, makes an impassioned plea to his nephew: “Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most…Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”  Setting high standards and expectations for all students, and expecting everyone in the schools—students, teachers, counselors, principals, and parents—to work hard with a laser-like focus to achieve those expectations, are important words and symbolism.  They convey a clear message about the core values and beliefs of the school system.

More importantly, it establishes a school culture of high standards and expectations today, not at some future point generations distant.  Establishing different standards of success (and of evaluating the adults who educate them) based on the color of children’s skin or on the wealth of their parents is the wrong message to send. Supporters of the new policy can play all the semantic games they want (and they are apparently playing them quite successfully and persuasively with federal education officials), the new standards will slow progress towards closing the achievement gap.  Seriously, does anyone expect the new standards to speed that progress up?  Sandy Kress, a former education aide to President Bush who helped craft NCLB, asked a very commonsense question that the Educrats have not answered: “Why, after 12-plus years, can’t we expect virtually all of our children to achieve at a basic level?” And these most basic standards of proficiency, as Mr. Kress pointed out, are not all that high.  Unfortunately, this belief about setting high standards and expectations for poor children and children of color, upon which decades of research is based, is being systematically discarded by Educrats throughout the country to make the system more fair to the adults working in schools.

Ms. Rucker observed that lowering expectations (making them more realistic) may help mask what are often profound needs in schools in the district.  Her trenchant observation gets at the heart of one major failure of federal and state education policy: the unwillingness or inability of public officials to invest more resources (fiscal, political, and entrepreneurial) into failing schools.  Talk is important but cheap and must be backed up with specific, concrete action plans for improvement.  All too often, state and federal education officials have been unwilling to make such investments, particularly in tight economic times, partly because they often adopt a myopic view of education’s (and educational programs’) return on investment.  Absent targeted reforms backed with human and fiscal capital, even the best efforts to push all students to proficiency and beyond will meet with uneven success.

NCLB shined a light on an all-too-often ignored problem that seemed insurmountable and thus wasn’t discussed in public.  That light is dimmer now, and at-risk children throughout the country will find it even more difficult to find their way in an increasingly competitive, international world.  I suspect Alicia Rucker, that single mother of six who sent her oldest child to (and through) Georgetown, knows more about improving the education of minority children than all the Educrats in D.C. combined.

– Lance Fusarelli

Lance D. Fusarelli is Professor in the Department of Leadership, Policy and Adult & Higher Education at North Carolina State University.

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