Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN....What an infuriating article on the No Child Left Behind Act in the Washington Post tonight. The question is whether NCLB's requirement of 100% proficiency by 2014 is achievable, and the answer, as almost everyone in the article acknowledges, is no. 100% isn't achievable for anything. Everyone knows that. Nonetheless, here's a sampling of Republican bloviating on the subject:

"We need to stay the course," U.S. Deputy Education Secretary Raymond Simon said. "The mission is doable, and we don't need to back off that right now."

....Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. education secretary and supporter of the law, said Americans don't want politicians to lower standards.

"Are we going to rewrite the Declaration of Independence and say only 85 percent of men are created equal?" Alexander asked. "Most of our politics in America is about the disappointment of not meeting the high goals we set for ourselves."

....Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), ranking Republican on the House education committee, said the 2014 deadline forces educators to pay attention to each student. He said he is open to slight changes in the law to exempt certain students with disabilities from the proficiency requirement. But he said he won't back down from the law's core ideal, citing his own six children and 28 grandchildren. "Which one of them would I like to leave behind?" McKeon asked.

Question: Why would NCLB mandate an obviously unmeetable standard? And now that it's up for renewal, why would Republicans continue to insist on that obviously unmeetable standard?

Answer: Because the 100% goal isn't just rhetorical. It comes with penalties. If you don't meet the standard, you lose money, you're officially deemed a "failing school," and your students are eligible to transfer to other schools. And needless to say, by 2014 there won't be any satisfactory public schools to send them to because 99% of them won't have met the standard.

Followup bonus question: What incentive does anyone have to label 99% of America's public schools as failures? That's crazy, isn't it?

Answer: Anyone who wants the public to believe that public schools are failures. This would primarily consist of conservatives who want to break teachers unions and evangelicals who want to build political momentum for private school vouchers. The whole point of NCLB for these people is to make sure that as many public schools as possible are officially deemed failures.

I'm happy to entertain alternative answers. But I've asked this question before and I've never heard any good ones.

Kevin Drum 12:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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Read the latest Edutopia. It has an article by Tamim Ansary that shows how the whole "Nation as Risk" sky is falling approach was a false emergency first used by the Reagan Administration to try to eliminate the Dept. of Ed.

Posted by: David Triche on March 14, 2007 at 1:17 AM | PERMALINK

We Conservatives were fooled into voting for a miserable failure like George Bush. Twice! Millions of us rely on Rush Limbaugh, Fox and Drudge for our news. And believe every word! And when a multi-level marketing scammer wants to target a demographic they can fleece easily, they don't bother with liberals, they target Conservatives. And we fall for it over and over again!

If this doesn't prove that the public school system is too broken to fix, I don't know what would. Not that I know much of anything.

Posted by: American Hock on March 14, 2007 at 1:23 AM | PERMALINK

Why would NCLB mandate an obviously unmeetable standard? And now that it's up for renewal, why would Republicans continue to insist on that obviously unmeetable standard?

Because Republicans refuse to break their 100% failure rate.

Posted by: Disputo on March 14, 2007 at 1:24 AM | PERMALINK

NCLB has a fascinating history...it's worth bearing in mind that it has its roots in Democratic ideas, and that equity advocates support it (or did a couple of years ago when I was following this more closely). That said, most of its supporters (again, as of a couple years ago) were guided by the assumption that no one planned to keep the crazy standard in place until anywhere close to 2014. I still suspect that's the case, but from the beginning I heard a fair number of decently credible rumors that the whole plan was a trojan horse for school vouchers (via the "failing schools" claims). Still, to pull off that gambit they'd have to keep the Democrats down long past the point that the absurdity of the 100% benchmark becomes obvious to everybody. With the current political landscape I don't lose too much sleep over the survival of our public education system.

Posted by: Adam on March 14, 2007 at 1:32 AM | PERMALINK

Our trolls have gotten out of hand. They only want a fight, and contribute nothing substantial to the debate. Let's ignore them, so they don't feel welcome.

Oh, and about the actual topic. A professor of mine used to say, "Don't evaluate anything in the non-profit world that you're not planning on changing."

Posted by: Absent Observer on March 14, 2007 at 1:33 AM | PERMALINK

Maybe Democrats should preempt the debate by introducing a generous voucher bill requiring the NCLB standards be met by any private school that gets federal funds.

Posted by: Tom Ames on March 14, 2007 at 1:40 AM | PERMALINK

Adam: Agreed, and I'm not opposed to the basic idea behind NCLB. It's strictly the 100% rule that I think brands it as a Trojan horse.

The only real response I've heard on this score is the one you provided: everyone figured the standard would eventually be reduced. And I suppose that's probably right for a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, if Republicans had their way it wouldn't be changed. That's just a fact, and I can't think of any reason for that except for the one I proposed: they want to label lots of public schools as failures.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on March 14, 2007 at 1:45 AM | PERMALINK


You should ask Senator Ted Kennedy, since he and George W. Bush were the main forces behind NCLB.

Look, education rhetoric in American public life is totally based on magical pony thinking because everybody knows, deep down, that intelligence is distributed on a B*ll C*rv*, but you aren't allowed to mention those two words in polite society.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on March 14, 2007 at 1:49 AM | PERMALINK

Sorry, Al. I don't think so.

NCLB, I mean. It's window dressing, unfunded, and is being used as a Trojan horse to demolish the public school system.

Posted by: notthere on March 14, 2007 at 12:27 AM | PERMALINK

Because you can move shools within the system, Minneapolis North has already lost half its students and is fighting a rearguard action to survive. This is happening.

Posted by: notthere on March 14, 2007 at 1:57 AM | PERMALINK

B*ll C*rv*, but you aren't allowed to mention those two words

Only if you're using them as code words to refer to racist claims that blacks are inferior to whites.

If you're trying to use those words in the standard statistical sense to describe the distribution of IQ scores across a large population, then it's not a problem. Here's an example of "bell curve" being used in the non-racist sense: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IQ


Posted by: bob on March 14, 2007 at 1:57 AM | PERMALINK

There's a difference between intelligence, which is distributed unequally (this has been acknowledged by just about every thinking person since Hobbes, if not before) and basic educational achievement, which can be distributed nearly uniformly (hence the term "basic").

I think Kevin is basically correct that 100 percent is unreasonable. "No defects" is an impossible standard to meet in any system of mass production (whether you're trying to produce widgets or minimally-competent members of society). The idea in industry is to reduce the failure rate to as small as it can be, narrowing the statistical variation.

Perfection is a nice aspirational goal, and clearly one that we ought to support. Every child deserves a chance (odd though, how conservatives are suddenly demanding not only equality of opportunity but equality of outcome).

Kevin nailed this as a no-win scenario. The focus has got to be on process more than on outcome, on a continuous cycle of improvement (within reason of course, I am conscious of the chronic fad-ishness of modern educrats).

Of course, much (I will not say "all" since we're not living in a zero-sum world) of the energy and resources that will be expended to get almost-but-not-quite 100 percent minimal competence will come at the expense of educational excellence for many (and probably the majority) of students.

Whether or not this little ruse to brand the entire public education system as a failure succeeds or not, I guarantee you that, in the process, our kids who are capable of more than minimal competence are going to get the shaft. And we're going to fall further and further behind in terms of churning out good engineers and scientists.

Posted by: Jim D on March 14, 2007 at 2:07 AM | PERMALINK

who said conservaloonies are allowed to have 28 grandchildren? that way lies doom!

Posted by: craigie on March 14, 2007 at 2:15 AM | PERMALINK

Gee, if we place the same standards on private schools, there will NO schools receiving Federal aid. And guess what? There was a time when that was exactly how it was done. Schools were financed entirely by the locals. For the most part, it worked better than what we have today.

Now before I start hearing about the injustices of schools at the time, especially about racial inequality, it wasn't the Feds who tried to correct it, but the courts. Ever hear of "Brown vs. Board of Education"? That was the beginning of the equality movement in the schools.

Posted by: bob in fl on March 14, 2007 at 2:28 AM | PERMALINK

And we're going to fall further and further behind in terms of churning out good engineers and scientists.

It's much cheaper to outsource to engineers and scientists abroad.

Posted by: Disputo on March 14, 2007 at 2:28 AM | PERMALINK

Oh, so NOW we're suddenly allergic to timetables and benchmarks?

After all, all the education system needs is more money and more time.

As someone else pointed out, it is amazing how Ted Kennedy managed to completely file his name off this one. Kind of like he did with HMOs.

Posted by: monkeybone on March 14, 2007 at 2:28 AM | PERMALINK

It was always my impression they came up with the name 'No Child Left Behind' so they could suck up to the Left Behind market then looked for a policy to hang on it.

Posted by: cld on March 14, 2007 at 2:57 AM | PERMALINK

As the spouse of a middle school teacher, I also have evidence to believe that you, Kevin Drum, are 100% correct in your reasoning. Of course, we're dealing with reason here, which may in fact be the wrong tactic when it comes to the Department of Education. I mean, come on. Do they still have these things parked out at every entrance to the DOE building in D.C.?

They were the first thing I saw and promptly took a picture of during my first trip to D.C. last May. I look at those little red schoolhouses and get so completely and utterly pissed. off.

Posted by: san antone rose on March 14, 2007 at 3:09 AM | PERMALINK

"And guess what? There was a time when that was exactly how it was done. Schools were financed entirely by the locals. For the most part, it worked better than what we have today."

And we had locally grown food, and lived in, at or close to where we worked, etc... That's all well and fine, except people tended to starve to death periodically. We live in a much broader world today, Bob.
While I favor public education and think it's good for individuals and society as a whole to provide the opportunity for a good education, there is still a part of me that wonders "to what end?". What IS it we're trying to accomplish? If we COULD educate everyone well enough to write software or do genetic engineering, etc., would we in fact, want to?

Posted by: DK2 on March 14, 2007 at 3:39 AM | PERMALINK

DK2:Schools were financed entirely by the locals. For the most part, it worked better than what we have today."

No they didn't. If you lived in an affluent district, your property taxes would buy your kids a good school. And that's largely the way things still operate in most states.

The federal government has made this divide even worse, since NCLB is a largely unfunded federal mandate that guarantees schools will fail and forces them to take expensive measures that further deplete their insufficient resources.

The "failing" schools cannot pay adequate salaries, so good teachers leave. Computers and lab equipment are scarce, outdated and once broken, can't be replaced. Facilities cannot be maintained. These escalating problems result in ever worse performance.

Failing "government" schools becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and builds support for voucher programs, as Kevin noted.

Posted by: DevilDog on March 14, 2007 at 4:27 AM | PERMALINK

The worst aspect of NCLB is that it, in fact, leaves all sorts of children behind. The gabillions of dollars spent to enrich testing companies are dollars that are not being spent on teacher salaries, educational material, nor on the infrastructure of crumbling buildings. NCLB treats all children as though they are college material, when the reality is that they aren't. Not only do we then not fund higher education in a way to make it accessible to those who do have the ability to become engineers and doctors, but we have provided no real alternative for those who are not endowed with those innate intellectual abilities. There are no shop classes, no vocational training of any kind anymore, as 100% of all students should perform at a 12th grade level by the time he or she exits schoolaccording to the mandate.

And Kevin is absolutely correct about the dark underbelly of the entire act being a way to funnel money to charter schools and other private institutions that do not, by their very nature, have to take all comers as public schools do.

Posted by: monoglot on March 14, 2007 at 4:45 AM | PERMALINK

I think Kevin may be a bit simplistic here.

Bill Clinton always argued that US schools should be #1 in the world. I heard a speech once where he said he was meeting with his advisors deciding what his goal for education should be. Somebody asked if it was possible to argue that our goal should be #3 in the world. All the politicians in the room laughed and said that, since we are the United States of America, we have to be #1. Unfortunately, Clinton has been succeeded by a President who is less thoughtful.

Part of the reason for the focus of NCLB is that it takes focus away from common sense. Our federal government underfunds Title I (aid to educate students in poverty) by $10 billion each year and underfunds IDEA (aid to special education) by another $10 billion each year. The challenge of the President and Congress each year is to come up with a distraction so that people stop talking about their $20 billion shortfall. If people focus on that, they may have to fund programs that help students and schools, which Republicans hate to do.

Because of the federal lack of funding, local school districts are always short on cash, and thus spend as much time worrying about how to pay the bills as how to educate students.

Posted by: reino on March 14, 2007 at 6:43 AM | PERMALINK

Actually, its more like 99% of parents are failures. Teachers can't undo years of bad or absent parenting. Public schools are a reflection of their communities. Strong communities - strong schools and vice versa.

Ask a teacher what they think of NCLB - to a person they will tell you it is arbitrary, punitive only for schools which have predominantly poor student populations and focuses excessively on testing and not learning for comprehension. In short, it is the embodiment of more failed orthodoxy from the radical right-wing, which failed so miserably in Iraq under Paul Bremer. Why do conservatives want to keep failing again and again? Learning from your mistakes involves admitting you made some.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on March 14, 2007 at 7:06 AM | PERMALINK

Ok--the social science research is pretty good on some of this stuff.

1. Strongest predictor of student academic achievement as measured by standardized tests? Family income. There are all sorts of class biases packed into NCLB--Yes, there are a few high-poverty schools that are heoric in educating children. But they are outliers, by definition.

2. Want to improve the learning of students living in poverty? Improve their family income. There are studies from the 1960s-2000s on this point. The evidence is overwhelming. Of course, subsidizing poor famlies in meaningful ways is politically toxic to conservative pols (on both sides of the aisle.

3. The privatization provisions in NCLB is a big gimme to politically connected businesses. The research on private providers is they educational practices are more stilted, less innovative, and less successful (in terms of academic achievement), than similarly situated public schools.

I'm going to grab some popcorn and watch NCLB crash this year. It's up for re-authorization. And this is the year where all the testing in science kicks in....will love to see the religious conservatives pass several kidney stones over that (evolution, don't ya know!).

Posted by: Brat on March 14, 2007 at 7:07 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin: Thank you for putting this bizarre truth so clearly - I'll reference you in my next letter to my Representative's education aide.

I'm the Director of Special Education in a small city school district in upstate NY, and I live this nightmare. You may know that NCLB requires that school district separate out the scores of disabled students, and expects that average to equal the average of the general education population w/o disabled students. This is, of course, all moot in 2012, when we all have to be perfect, but the fact that it singles out my disabled kids - who are in the subgroup only because they don't learn as well, or in the same ways - also suggests a hidden agenda, a point to make.

(Note - sorry if I've repeated points made in comments so far - no time to read them - just wanted to thank Kevin for the comprehensive clarity of the post. Wish I could join in more fully - got to go to work)

Posted by: gkoutnik on March 14, 2007 at 7:21 AM | PERMALINK

I'm for a single-payer health system and school vouchers across the board. The US public education system has been totally wrecked by unions, and our health system by corporate [and small-business GPs] types.

Vouchers can make the public school system competitive. Huge paychecks for administrators will not do anything except pad the rosters of NEA and AFTA, two organizations making pervasive ignorance our national shame.

Posted by: daveinboca on March 14, 2007 at 7:24 AM | PERMALINK

What gkoutnik said. My severely disabled son will be forever two years old. For him to have to take the MCAS (MA high-stakes test) or for his school or teacher to be judged by his "academic" performance is beyond ludicrous. Heaven bless all sped teachers, because they sure don't get the rewards they deserve on this planet.

Posted by: Lucia on March 14, 2007 at 7:25 AM | PERMALINK

I've watched the voucher rhetoric in my state (FL) for the past decade or so. "Vouchers" got shot down by the courts. So an attack began on public education, with an emphasis on testing as the sole mechanism for determining whether or not public schools were 'failing.' This test emphasis, and the attack on public schools was then followed up with the idea of "opportunity scholarships" (aka "vouchers" -- George Orwell, are you able to listen?) so that parents could have the "choice" of sending their child to another public school (non-failing presumably, if there was room....) somewhere, or sending them to a private school.

So, I believe the reason for the 100% 'goal' is to gain national acceptance for (ahem) "opportunity scholarships".

The really nasty fly in this ointment is that in my state the legislature is banned from any types of restrictions, demands, standards, requirements, etc. on private schools. (Is there and a priori assumption that all private schools are superior to all public schools? Or just failing ones?) So comparing public to private education in my state is like comparing apples to orange crates. Oh, yes, and there's the obvious drawback that poor parents cannot afford to send their kids to private schools with the "opportunity scholarship" money anyway(less than $5,000 the last time I checked), so these kids will still be going to public schools that will be increasingly underfunded.

Posted by: Bobbi on March 14, 2007 at 8:22 AM | PERMALINK

Spot on, Kevin

Posted by: bakho on March 14, 2007 at 8:23 AM | PERMALINK

Damn, that is some great analysis, Kevin. Sounds spot-on to me.

Posted by: DanM on March 14, 2007 at 8:30 AM | PERMALINK

Dishonest conservatives -- but I repeat myself -- are fond of claiming that public schools are failing, but cite precious little data to back up this article of conservative faith (surprise, surprise!).

Isn't it interesting how NCLB needs to concoct such a bullshit standard in order to "prove" what conservatives claim is already true?

Posted by: Gregory on March 14, 2007 at 8:31 AM | PERMALINK

"Are we going to rewrite the Declaration of Independence and say only 85 percent of men are created equal?" (Lamar)Alexander asked."

Stephen Colbert is probably working a double shift to keep ahead of the competition. That, or he's going to sue.

Posted by: Steve paradis on March 14, 2007 at 9:02 AM | PERMALINK

The only purpose of NCLB is to wreck the public school system. Everything else is window dressing.

Posted by: CN on March 14, 2007 at 9:08 AM | PERMALINK

Matt Yglesias has his answer posted.

The opening, and more:

Education Policy for the Paranoid

A lot of people look at the No Child Left Behind Act's requirement of "100 proficiency" and smell a rat; an obviously impossible goal. I would read Richard Rothstein's "'Proficiency for All': An Oxymoron" for a detailed explication of this view. Then many, including Kevin Drum, move from this to a paranoid account of the motives behind the provision.

...The answer to the 100 percent proficiency riddle is that to get his results Rothstein assumes that NCLB proficiency should mean the same thing as proficiency on the NAEP. The law does not, however, actually say this. States have broad lattitude to define proficiency however they like and will, presumably, set proficiency standards that won't simply result in their schools all "failing" across the board.

I report, you deride.

Posted by: Tom Maguire on March 14, 2007 at 9:15 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin - you pretty much nail it. Working in a large urban school system in the tesing and evaluation department, I see this every day. "The beatings will continue until morale improves" is the basic management philosophy of NCLB. When the suburban districts start to feel the heat - the are starting to - then you'll see some movement.

Actually, one of the hidden points of NCLB is to leave whole groups of kids behind, including the gifted/high achieving; the very lowest; anybody who just passes the test. The list goes on . . .

Posted by: MaxGowan on March 14, 2007 at 9:44 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin is right.

We need to do a better job of calling out vouchher proponents: label them publically as selfish people who want to use their neighbor's tax dollars to subsidize their choices.

A point made upthread deserves to be emphasized: one of the lies embedded in No CHild is the lie that students are successful only if they prep for college. It is an arrogant, snobbish lie based on the assumption that the decision to learn a trade is a failure. My school district has an excellennt voc ed program that prepares students to be auto mechanics, carpenters, electricians, web designers, you name it. According to NoChild , all of those students have been left behind. Yeah, right, when the electrician's apprentice will start work at a higher salary than the student withh a BA in English Literature!


Posted by: wonkie on March 14, 2007 at 10:42 AM | PERMALINK

monoglot says:

The gabillions of dollars spent to enrich testing companies are dollars that are not being spent on teacher salaries, educational material, nor on the infrastructure of crumbling buildings.

I don't think that testing to see how well schools are doing is what's wrong with NCLB. How are we supposed to know how well we're doing if we don't measure it? I agree that getting even better people into teaching with higher salaries is desireable. But why not make sure the teachers we have are actually doing the best they can? (And I don't mean "trying hard;" teachers would do better if their districts supported them better with training, mentorship for new teachers, a focus on best practices, etc.)

Kevin's post was about the 100% pass standard, not the idea of testing.

Posted by: aro on March 14, 2007 at 10:50 AM | PERMALINK

"...and evangelicals who want to build political momentum for private school vouchers."

You got something against me keeping the wife and kids barefoot and stupid?

Posted by: Home schooler on March 14, 2007 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

Simple question...

The way I understood NCLB, is that state's were free to set their own standards. Thereby rigging the tests to meet whatever threshhold needed to keep federal dollars flowing.

This of course hurts more in states where standards were already high (blue states, BTW). In order to maintain federal funding, they have to lower standards, whereas in a shitheel state with poor schools they can just continue to lower the bar, get the money and continue to leave children behind.

Am I missing anything in there?

Posted by: Mr Furious on March 14, 2007 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

Any time a Republican says "stay the course," DON'T.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on March 14, 2007 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

Looks like Yglesias confirms what I thought.

I won't go all the way and agree that there isn't a Trojan horse aspect to this however. the truth may lie somewhere in between what MY and KD are saying. The perverse "floor standard" effect will accomplish some conservative goals. Schools will decide between federal funding and maintaining high standards. Eschewing federal dollars? Good for conservatives. Lowering of standards and therefore demonstrating inefeecive public education? Good for conservatives.

Posted by: Mr Furious on March 14, 2007 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

You're on the right track, Mr. Furious. But it's much worse and screws whole segments of kids. It pretends student performance and school performance are one in the same. This means high performing schools serving kids in poverty get punished, while mediocre upper-middle class schools get rewarded while coasting on their kids' parents' incomes.

Another example - since all that matters is number of kids in a school passing The Test: Say the passing score is 70. What does a school get for moving a child from a 1 to a 69, or anywhere in between? Nothing. What does a school get for moving a child from a 70 to a 99, or anywhere in between? Nothing. The only kids that matter at this point are the ones on the "bubble" - those in the low to high 60s scoring range. (Incidentaly, anyone who has taught will tell you that the most difficult job of them all is moving a low achieving student up a notch, like from the first percentile to the tenth, say.

It's about as bad on the other end - the high achievers and the gifted - the ones who will be paying my pension when I'm old and greyer. They get nothing under NCLB - and the Bush administration has slashed funding for gifted ed by like 67% or worse. These kids are our future leaders, and we're screwing 'em.

So, NCLB is as bad as pretty much everything else the Bushies have foised upon us.

Posted by: MaxGowan on March 14, 2007 at 11:08 AM | PERMALINK

The whole point of NCLB for these people is to make sure that as many public schools as possible are officially deemed failures.

Ka-ching, Kevin. That's been obvious to me from the beginning of NCLB when I was working at a state department of education. I pointed this out over and over to colleagues who usually said something to the effect "Piffle...they won't let it get to that point where they close schools and the like".

Posted by: steve on March 14, 2007 at 11:25 AM | PERMALINK

What a PR mastermind this guy is to say "stay the course" in support of NCLB. Someone might want to tell him that the phrase has lost its appeal in light of recent events.

Posted by: clb72 on March 14, 2007 at 11:45 AM | PERMALINK

Aren't the Republicans just gearing up to force the Democrats to reduce the standards when they are in power? At that point, the Reps will do the only thing they do best, use this reduction in standards as a cudgel to bludgeon the Dems on education.

Posted by: ckelly on March 14, 2007 at 11:51 AM | PERMALINK

***Simple question***

Can I get a voucher for all of my tax dollars that have been pissed away into the sands of Iraq? If conservatives think they can "opt out" of public education, why can't I opt out of foolhardy and reckless military misadventures? I sure as fuck didn't vote for this shit.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on March 14, 2007 at 11:52 AM | PERMALINK

Here's a possible alternative answer: We humans, even at very high levels, are often spectacularly stupid. In this case, I really think this answer should get strong consideration. This is the type of "conceptual" matter which confounds most contemporary elites.

Meanwhile, our philosophy professors sit in splendid isolation, wasting their time on various matters which won't affect one thing on earth. It never seems to occur to these people (including our "logicians") to step in with clarifications. I was first struck by these deep thinkers' absence during the endless, mid-90s semantic dispute over who was "cutting" Medicare. I came to feel like Ingmar Bergman of the late 50s waiting for God to speak.

In other areas of dispute, outside "experts" are often called in. Never with our lofty logicians--perhaps because they don't exist.

Posted by: bob somerby on March 14, 2007 at 12:03 PM | PERMALINK


You should be ashamed of yourself for comments like "teachers ruining chldren's lives". 99.9% of teachers are hard-working people who care deeply about children, many times more so than the kid's parents. They wouldn,t be teachers if they didn't. More business executives ruin childrens lives by dumping pollutants into the air and water that cause brain damage and cancers, etc. Can teachers give business executives feedback about how they should run their businesses? Then why should business people think they can tell teachers how to run schools??


Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on March 14, 2007 at 12:07 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, I'd love it if they ran schools like businesses - I'd be making about $1.2 million a year. We'd have eight layers of management instead of four, 50 assistant superintendents instead of three; we'd outsource special education to China, my district would be a billion dollars in debt instead of having to balance our books every year. "Russian spies just stole our top space secrets. Now they'll be two years behind." - Mort Sahl, 1958.

We do need to curb the excesses of teacher unions - believe me, I've seen it. Too many of them do define themselves by their ability to defend their worst member, and that's wrong. But looking at the states with no unions - they're the worst performing schools. This is a classic pox on both your houses scenario. And all tenure means is the right to due process - nothing more. My mentor got rid of 24 rotten teachers in 6 years when he was a principal. Can be done. A lot of this is the fault of administrators. But the overwhelming majority of teachers really care about their kids and work hard to make them succeed.

Posted by: MaxGowan on March 14, 2007 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

[recommenting in parts to get around spam filter]

monkeybone said: "Oh, so NOW we're suddenly allergic to timetables and benchmarks? After all, all the education system needs is more money and more time."

Not only is this marginally clever, it actually brings up a good point, so hold on, because we're about to take a trip to earth #267.

[screen gets all wobbly, then goes back into focus]
No, not #265! - that's the one where being gay is the norm and straight couples can't get married in most of the US - mostly accessed by campus consciousness-raising presentations. #267!

[screen gets all wobbly again, then goes back into focus]

Ok. Now, in thist world, Numb3rs (a real show, one where "The insights provided by Charlie's mathematics are always in some way crucial to solving the crime" - think Square One's Mathnet, but for adults) is the top-ranking crime drama, and March Madness refers to a tournament involving college debate teams. Left to their own devices, many kids will spend a lot of time sitting quietly and reading books about science, or arguing over whether Einstein or Hawking is cooler.

It's the army's job to take kids - from the age of 5 to 18 - and make them physically fit and full of character - in fact, more physically fit, across more of the population, than previous generations ever expected or could imagine, back in the day when only a small , elite percentage of the population could do sit-ups. (Indeed, nowadays one needs to have played college sports - even if just Division III - to get most kinds of decent, well-paying jobs. Participation in high school sports mostly gets you low-wage labor, and if you couldn't even make JV - good luck.)

The army, as a public institution dedicated to forging a strong democracy where everyone has a chance, takes all the kids, with the exception of those who attend private/parochial gymnasiums. It's not a volunteer army; participation is mandatory. Besides being more inclusive than any draft, there's another difference. In a wartime draft, there are various very strong incentives too succeed, from patriotism to self-preservation. Here, that doesn't apply, and many of the children - who have, after all, children's brains - simply don't grasp why they have to do all these boring chin-ups which they won't ever need in real life. (Imaginary link to Richard Cohen piece about how almost nobody really needs to know how to do sit-ups . . .)

There, the army can't kick kids out except for extremely serious behavioral problems - and even then, generally only to special army-run facilities. For anything less, they can make them peel potatoes, talk to the parents, maybe send them to the old Sarge, the guidance counselor.

Each DI has from one to several groups of perhaps 30 kids, for a total of several hours out of the day, including lunch and sometimes library time. The kids vary wildly in ability, development, experience, desire to get buff, and attitude (this last potentially including open disrespect). Yelling in their faces is discouraged and generally ineffective. There may be limited facilities to help kids with specific weaknesses. Kids who put little or no effort into exercising get bad grades; their parents are informed, which may make much or no difference; extensive lack of progress may mean they return for half-of-a-day for several weeks during the summer, when other kids are getting their R&R; continued lack of progress means they are kept back to repeat the same phase or training - or possibly just moved ahead regardless. I should note that being a drill instructor, though superficially an sentimentally-admired profession (with its very own Hollywood movie subgenre!) is both poorly-paid compared to equivalent occupations, and often loudly mocked as a refugee for lazy incompetents.
(continued below)

Posted by: Dan S. on March 14, 2007 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

I only wonder what the outcome would have been, had George W Bush been educated in the public system, instead of high-quality, exclusive, private schools. Because those high-quality, exclusive, private schools obviously failed him. And this nation.

Posted by: Extradite Rumsfeld on March 14, 2007 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

My comment is, or so it says, being held for approval by the blog owner. Come on, Mr. Drum, look at it, look at it, look at it! (jumping up and down like a hyperactive gibbon).

Anyway, mhr: " It is simply too easy to become a teacher"

How much do folks want to bet that mhr - like all others of this sort - has never tried to become a teacher, has never been on the other side of the desk - let alone in the impoverished troubled schools that nevertheless get rhetorically lumped together the affluent high-achieving ones, in a bit of legerdemain and misdirection that allows the underlying inequalities to remain unseen - has no experience in education management, research, or reform, and is completely talking out his little puckered sphincter? This is not to say there aren't real issues, but mhr is not the person to look to for insight about them.

Posted by: Dan S. on March 14, 2007 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin asks why NCLB should have standards that are too high to be achieved. Here are two reasons:

1. High standards force the educators to try harder. In particular, it will take extra effort to undo bad policies that are in place and which are supported by some faction. E.g., look at how hard it has been to undo bilingual education, although that program is a disaster for Hispanic students. Or, various bizarre new approaches to mathematics.

2. How could the standard be lower? E.g., would we support NCLB if it called some improvement, but said it was OK for 50% of black students to remain 4 years behind grad level? I don't think so.

Posted by: ex-liberal on March 14, 2007 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

"....Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former U.S. ***said Americans don't want politicians to lower standards."

So, when Sen. Alexander is planning to remind the Army of this?

Posted by: zak822 on March 14, 2007 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

There are lots of laws that set aspirational, unattainable standards. The Clean Air Act is a good example. Most of our urban areas violate the CAA's standards repeatedly and have for 30 years. But setting the standard high - even impossibly high - is a way of keeping the pressure on.

I'm not sure this explains NCLB, but you were asking for other explanations.

Posted by: Liberal Chris on March 14, 2007 at 1:04 PM | PERMALINK

Excellent post. My children attended a 'failing' school - or 'non-AYP' as we in the public school system call it. These schools are not failures. Our county has incredibly high standards for teachers and principals and have implemented a good standardized curriculum. Fortunately the teachers and administrators learned very well how to teach to the test and were finally able to overcome their 'failure'.

Posted by: Beth on March 14, 2007 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

Schools: 6 hours a day, times 180 days. 100% of the responsibility. Where is the rest of this village I keep hearing about?

Posted by: MaxGowan on March 14, 2007 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

I think that it is simply a fact that some public schools aren't succeeding, for reasons far more complicated than GWB or anyone else is willing to explore (social, economic, and medical poverty come to mind). But it is also true that if those schools are deemed as "failing" there really isn't anywhere else for those children to go, so I'm not inclined to accept some sort of doomsday scenario where America's kids all end up in crazy evangelical schools.

But, as a teacher in an independent school where we all have year-to-year contracts, and who fled from the world of teacher's unions, despite my very liberal pro-labor politics, I'm not going to cry if the unions, teacher credentialing, and the teacher tenure system in America gets sacked.

Posted by: Stacy on March 14, 2007 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

Is it just me, or has the quality of the WaPo really gone downhill the last few years since Katherine Graham died. More and more I'm hearing about and reading really poor quality articles in the WaPo that would never have made it into the paper under her stewardship.

Posted by: mfw13 on March 14, 2007 at 2:16 PM | PERMALINK

This is part of the Grover Norquist's plan:

Reduce government to a point where it's small enough to drown in a bathtub.

Public education it targeted to become one of the "drowning victims"

Posted by: USAFVet on March 14, 2007 at 2:35 PM | PERMALINK

Private schools would do just fine if NCLB applied to them. Simply kick out any student that isn't up to standards!

Posted by: idlemind on March 14, 2007 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

What idlemind said. Private schools get to pick and choose who gets in. They therefore can easily reach the level of 100% proficiency. They just throw out the kids who don't make it; everyone who's left has passed the test.

Part of why private schools can always "look better" than public schools. They only have to take the students they want.

(eyelessgame, whose kids are in school in a KICK-ASS district in affluent northern California, which has several years before NCLB lists it as 'failing' and they start having to lay off teachers).

Posted by: eyelessgame on March 14, 2007 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK
… intelligence is distributed on a B*ll C*rv*, but you aren't allowed to mention those two words … Steve Sailer at 1:49 AM
Still up to your old antics, I see. However, your statement is typically disingenuous: It's your claim that bell curve has a racial makeup that's erroneous.
Ted Kennedy managed to completely file his name off this one. …monkeybone at 2:28 AM
Yup, its' his fault: he trusted Bush.
Vouchers can make the public school system competitive…. daveinboca at 7:24 AM
No, vouchers are a way to funnel tax money to private religious schools. Posted by: Mike on March 14, 2007 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

(continued from Dan S. @ 12:35 above - read it first, or this will just be exceedingly bizarre.)

The rest of the day - not counting very popular high school extracurriculars like chess club or bio club, or even those reviled havens for low-status dweebs like football or cheerleading - the kids are more or less at home, an experience that also varies wildly. In some homes - on one end of a spectrum - physical fitness is highly valued and demonstrated on a daily basis. Parents carefully coach their kids through the assigned exercises, sign them up for little league, watch/take them to games, the gym, etc. Bedtime sit-ups and such has been a ritual (for younger kids) since before they could even sit up by themselves. Even dinnertime involves lots of lifting heavy plates, tossing breadrolls around, etc.

Moving along the spectrum, we find other households, where fitness is valued, but parents aren't entirely sure how to help - they might not know many of the exercises their kids are being taught, and what resources are available, they may have limited time and strength, given the demands of keeping things going. Nevertheless, they do their best; while some studies show they are less effective, this effort can make a difference.

At the other end of the spectrum, you can find households where physical fitness may be almost a foreign value, where its importance may be dimly but ineffectively recognized, or essentially ignored. There might be a frayed jump-rope or single barbell in the back of a closet somewhere. Most of the people the child knows are of the glasses-wearing pasty scrawny-paunchy type who spend their time eating junk and sitting around reading all day. In some cases the parents have little to offer in this area; in other cases, they might have moved towards the second group, but are simply too worn down and exhausted from working multiple shifts and dealing with the grinding stresses of poverty.

Which should remind us that these groups aren't distributed randomly. While the first kind of household is generally found in mixed to very affluent areas, the second and esp. third kind of households are often clustered in materially and mainstream-culturally deprived areas. They may have a history of racial/ethnic discrimination - in any case a tradition of limited opportunities. The local gym is run down and open a few hours each week due to budget cuts. There isn't a local little league team. Many of the opportunities enjoyed by the first group are simply too expensive or time-consuming, or simply so unfamiliar as to be effectively nonexistent. Often it isn't safe enough to send kids outside to play: they might be hit by a stray bullet. (And of course, this pervasive atmosphere of economic and physical insecurity also gets in the way of being fit). In some cases, children may be so tired (due to working, caring for siblings, parenting problems, or any of the countless other stressors) and poorly nourished that during the day they fall asleep during stretches, or stumble aimlessly through basketball practice. Some of the children have temporary or permanent damage that hurts their ability to grown strong. Sometimes this is the result of prenatal exposure to PBS, or parents who abused literature while they were pregnant, but even in these cases, it's often merely on top of long-term exposure to chemicals - in the local area's soil, water, air, even housepaint that damages their growing muscles, sometimes permanently.

But, you might ask, surely the army has its best institutions and finest instructors serving these populations, right? (After all, in our world, bases are funded at a national level). But that's not the case. Instead, due to a system of largely local funding poorly overlain with a laughably inadequate system of state and national contributions, the first, most advantaged group gets the best, while these areas are generally provided with the worst of everything. Old buildings, sometimes leaky. Worn-out, obsolete training manuals. Inadequate materials, rarely enough to go around, often paid for out of the DI's own (far from stellar) salary. They're largely staffed by newly minted DIs, many of whom quit after a few years, creating constant turn-over. The ones that remain include staff with little opportunity elsewhere, mixed with dedicated, sometimes heroic people who nevertheless may at any time burn out, leave for civilian life, or transfer to one of the bases serving that first group, where there's a shiny new gym with spiffy weight machines, gorgeous basketball courts, and a real football field - as opposed to some rusty free weights, a few hoops secured into the wall next to the parking lot, and a little muddy field.

[screen gets wobbly, firms up again]

Ok, everyone! We're back home! I hope you enjoyed your trip! Of course, that was just a whirlwind tour, and if we had looked in depth, we would see that matters are even more complicated, so feel free to come back again for our two and three day packages! But anyway, I'm sure you'd agree that this is a bizarre and ridiculous way to do things. We can all appreciate how lucky we are to be back in the good old normal US of A, with President Gore and . . . . wait - what's that? Oh. Er. Oh dear. You're from that world. Oh, I am so very sorry. There's been a mistake. Er . . . I really shouldn't even be talking to you, Here, just sit back down and I'll reprogram the coordinates to take you home . . . What? Well, you can apply for political asylum, here, take these forms, but well, the backlog, you know, there's a very long waiting list . . . I mean, we had an open-alternative-reality-border policy up to '03, but in the end we had to put in a quota system, I'm sure you understand, there simply just wasn't any way to absorb that many people so quickly, and after the '04 incident, when those operatives snuck through and tried to throw the election - well anyway, here you go, [all the while, nervously talking faster and faster], just sit tight, and you'll be back in no time, sorry, good luck, bye-by-
[screen wobbles once more, re-forms.]

Posted by: Dan S. on March 14, 2007 at 4:37 PM | PERMALINK

Ach, runaway italics. Sorry.

Stacy, what led you to leave public schooling and take a job at an independent school, if I may ask?

Posted by: Dan S. on March 14, 2007 at 4:45 PM | PERMALINK

Of course NCLB is all about making public schools look bad. Let's remember that Education Dept.-commissioned report that the administration buried last summer because it failed to show any difference in academic achievement between private and public schools. Not only that, it showed that conservative Christian schools did worst of all!

It must be the anti-Christian bias in the testing--any kid who answered "6,000 years" to the question "Approximately how old is Earth?" would be marked wrong.

Posted by: Rich Hudson on March 14, 2007 at 7:13 PM | PERMALINK

A friend of mine is a public school teacher in SC. She is also a hard-core Southern Baptist and has pictures of GW on the wall in her house. Even she knows the purpose of NCLB is to kill the public schools.

It's amazing what a combination of exposure and self-interest will do for your powers of concentration.

Posted by: bluewave on March 14, 2007 at 10:54 PM | PERMALINK

Guess what, public schools ARE a failure.

Pre-civil war, the literacy rate in this country, before compulsive public schooling strangled our children, was nearly 100%, all the time. It is has been far below that every since compulsory public schooling began. Isn't that an interesting fact? NCLB won't quote you statistics like that though.


Posted by: Tom on March 15, 2007 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

What they want is vouchers and school choice, and this is their way to get there. The Democrats may have developed NCLB, but remember, THEY were going to FUND it. Dumbya would rather fund the terrorists.

The schools don't want to service special needs kids as it is (I am a teacher and have an autistic child, I know from experience) and NCLB costs them so much, forcing them to teach all kids to the tests for fear of losing $$$$$. This is only going to make it worse.

NCLB *should* be good for them, in theory, but it backfires because they don't provide the funding to educate these kids with truly appropriate methods. Yet the percentage of kids exempted from testing is so low that their scores affect the schools....and if you think the gov't doesn't know that....

Low scores = more people wanting out of the public school system (because who wants to go to a lousy district?) and more wanting private school to be paid for them.

When they get rid of the worksheets developed to teach these kids the tests, kids will start to get better test scores because the teachers can then teach them how to THINK. Novel concept, huh?

Posted by: Moi ;) on March 15, 2007 at 10:09 PM | PERMALINK



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