Voice in the Wilderness: Save NCLB!

My blog silence these past few months has been due to my work on an education reform guide and a story for Education Next on middle schools (which, my editors hope, will be done soon), but I have been paying attention to the sturm und drang concerning Diane Ravitch’s new book and her “turnaround” or “u-turn” on certain core issues – e.g. charter schools, teacher assessment, and testing.  (For a full and well-balanced review of the book, I recommend E.D. Hirsch’s essay in the current issue of the New York Review of Books.)

But my concern here is just one part of the Ravitch book and it’s not just Ravitch:  it’s what to my provincial eyes looks like a proverbial cut ‘n run on the part of our reform leaders over No Child Left Behind.

Despite the bashing the ten-year-old federal law has been taking–much of it deserved–on the ground, in the provinces NCLB has succeeded in beginning a much-needed change in the culture of public education: from a system focused on adults to one looking behind all the curtains to see how kids are doing. It hasn’t been a pretty launch, of course, but the ship is only barely out of port.

I think there are statistics that give some credence to my beliefs, but my conclusions here come from close observation of my small piece of the public education world — a tiny district with 30% African-American enrollment, 55% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, and a 59% graduation rate.  A district on whose board of education I now serve (and have written about).

Here, the NCLB rollout has gone like this: the first three to four years were spent with teachers (99% white), backed by their distant but powerful union leaders, kicking and screaming about how bad and nasty NCLB was. Nothing much got done in those years, but I knew there was hope when I listened to an envoy from the Education Trust (whom a bunch of us invited in) give a reading from the actual law to a group of mostly minority parents. They cheered – must be a first for any piece of federal legislation! – and sang their “Amen” chorus to the sections requiring transparency and full reporting from schools and schools districts.  They got it, this being the first time they felt they had a right to actually question THE MAN or get real information about why their kids never seemed to make it to graduation.  And much to the surprise of the local establishment, these folks could actually read a chart showing 80 percent failure rates for African American kids in 3rd and 8th grade math and English. These first years for our community were a long and very uncomfortable “shock of the new.”

During the next three to four years, thanks to the continued NCLB bite, teachers actually spent time looking at the law (which they began to notice nowhere told anyone to “teach to the test”) and began to think that maybe they should (COULD! There is in NCLB the much needed faith that schools and teachers CAN make a difference) be doing something to improve the kids’ academic performance. Having been labeled a “district in need of improvement,” they felt some shame and rose to the occasion; they began analyzing the curriculum (actually, they began to realize they really didn’t have one, a revelation that came only because of NCLB pressure) and their teaching methods. Parents and other community members – thanks to some local gadflies who began to get the message out – also began paying attention and, for the first time in memory, voted down a school budget in large part because of academic failures. The state education department was getting on board and actually issued a “core curriculum” to offer some guidance. This period was also difficult, but it was one of positive tension and argument and a barely discernable consensus beginning to emerge that academics counted.

So now, here we are, barely ten years into this huge reform, with our little platoon of teachers and administrators and parents fighting feverishly on the front, beginning to make some progress on test scores and feel some confidence about improving our kids’ academic opportunities – and I look up from my trench and, instead of seeing the school house door thrown open with garlands of WELCOME signs, I see teachers back to cheering from the windows as the reform generals scurry away, white flags in hand.

As I have urged Professor Ravitch, a historian, I hope our policymakers take the long view on this one. They need don their best Margaret Mead outfits and visit the places where the culture of failure and low expectations spans generations (the culture that Ravitch so wonderfully described in “Left Back.”) No, no. It is far too early to declare NCLB a failure, much less abandon the many parents and students who have already benefited immensely from it.

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