Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

March 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

MORE NCLB....Matt Yglesias thinks I'm being paranoid when I say that some of NCLB's supporters view it as a clever Trojan horse designed to officially label public schools as failures:

Does Kevin really expect me to believe that this is what Ted Kennedy and George Miller, the law's leading Democratic supporters in the Senate and the House, are up to?

....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....It's just not true that the law is has put the country on a collision course to a world in which 99 percent of public schools are labeled failures.

Let me make several points in response. You can all decide whether they're fair ones:

  1. Details aside (about which see below), I support the basic idea of NCLB. I'm fine with testing and I'm fine with holding schools accountable.

  2. Different people had different reasons for supporting NCLB. I don't think Ted Kennedy supported the 100% goal because he wanted to label public schools as failures, but I think that a lot of movement conservatives and evangelicals did. These are not people who would ordinarily favor a multi-billion expansion of education funding and an enormous new intrusion of federal oversight into local schools, after all. Rather, they reluctantly supported NCLB because they were persuaded that it was a stealth measure that would eventually undermine support for public education.

    Go ahead, call me paranoid. All I can say is that in the past, when I've given George Bush and his enablers the benefit of the doubt on things like this, I've turned out to be wrong.

  3. Three years ago, when I asked about the 100% requirement, people told me that of course it would be relaxed. Just wait until NCLB comes up for renewal. 100% was nothing more than a nice-sounding goal that helped get the bill passed in the first place.

    Well, it's renewal time and Republicans are still loudly insisting that we keep the 100% requirement. "Which child do Democrats want to leave behind?" they ask unctiously. So what happened?

  4. The obvious solution to the 100% requirement, as Matt points out, is that school districts will simply reduce their standards to a point where even drooling idiots can pass. Not so. There are political limits to how absurdly low you can set standards, and in any case you're not likely to literally get a 100% pass rate even if all you have to do is randomly fill in bubbles. There's always going to be at least one kid in most schools who screws the thing up no matter how easy it is.

    Besides, does this make any more sense than the 100% pass rate requirement? Why would anyone support a bill that motivates public schools to set comically low standards? Answer: see #2 above.

So what should we do? Aside from setting a high but reasonable bar (wouldn't you be happy if 95% of America's schoolchildren genuinely showed proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic?), check out the proposal for smarter NCLB testing that Tom Toch made in "Measure for Measure," in our October 2005 issue. His ideas make a lot of sense.

POSTSCRIPT: I should add that it's a fair question to ask who got suckered here. Did Ted Kennedy get suckered, because it's going to turn out to be impossible to reduce the 100% requirement, thus harming public education in the long run? Or did the conservatives get suckered, agreeing to billions of dollars in federal education spending only to eventually see the 100% requirement loosened and public schools in stronger shape than ever?

Who knows? But either way, conservatives sure aren't acting as though reasonable, meetable standards are what they actually care about.

UPDATE: Kevin Carey responds here and here. He makes one or two good points, but doesn't even come close to addressing the primary question: Why does NCLB mandate a 100% passing requirement if everyone agrees that it's unreachable? Color me unconvinced, though wide open to further argument. As always, of course, click the links and judge for yourself.

Kevin Drum 12:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

Bookmark and Share

There is also the point that every elementary school teacher I know in ** nice safe suburban middle-middle class schools systems ** thinks that NCLB is a knife pointed right at their hearts. They are working hard, doing an excellent job of teaching kids and yet this massive unstoppable NCLB rock-crusher is bearing down on them and getting closer each year.


Posted by: Cranky Observer on March 14, 2007 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

Mr. Drum understands the tactics of the right and is justified in his skepticism and paranoia about the 100% policy. Perhaps he should use that skepticism to reconsider neoliberalism's goals.

Posted by: Brojo on March 14, 2007 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

Frankly, this just goes to show the differences between liberals and conservatives. A conservative believes every child can learn, and schools should be judged accordingly.

Correct AH. I think George W Bush put this the best.


"I was concerned about a system where people would walk in the classroom and say, these children are hard to educate, therefore, let's just move them through the system."
"And it was unacceptable, because guess who generally got shuffled through the system. The poor, the newly arrived, the minority student. And I knew that unless we confronted a system which gave up on children early, that my state would not be a hopeful place."

Posted by: Al on March 14, 2007 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

Ted Kennedy got suckered.

This has been another edition of simple answers to simple questions.

Posted by: Joe Buck on March 14, 2007 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

Another point: by setting the 100% standard, NCLB gives an incentive to states to LOWER their standards, so that they are not labeled as failures. States with high standards (or "aspirational" standards) are punished. It makes no sense.

Posted by: RM on March 14, 2007 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

I can assure you, Kevin, that you are not paranoid. I have talked to dozens of teachers and administrators about NCLB and to a one, they believe its goals are unachievable and in fact are designed to give conservatives ammo to destroy the public school system.

And do y'all know that one provision of NCLB requires high schools to send information on students to the military for recruitment (and perhaps draft-ability?). You can opt out of having your child's information sent, but its a cumbersome process.

Posted by: Debra on March 14, 2007 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK
Details aside (about which see below), I support the basic idea of NCLB. I'm fine with testing and I'm fine with holding schools accountable.

The whole idea of accountability in NCLB is utterly bizarre and inappropriate for public sector service delivery, and makes sense only if you are trying to destroy the system,

If you want to improve the system, you monitor what is done, test outcomes, analyze the results, determine what works, set standards based on what works, issue limited waivers for controlled experimentation on alternatives, test, monitor what is done, analyze the results...

The NCLB system is to, instead of doing the right thing, create a brutal punitive regime (ignoring the "details" of whether the standards are unreasonable) and simply (notionally) hope that at lower levels people will do the right things in response (monitor what is done, analyze results, set standards, etc.) in a grand duplication of effort in separate universes with no structured system for process improvement.

The broad outline of NCLB is as ill-conceived as the details.

Posted by: cmdicely on March 14, 2007 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin Drum >"...But either way, conservatives sure aren't acting as though reasonable, meetable standards are what they actually care about."

Nor have they ever acted so.

It is yet another scam being run by the usual con men.

No surprise.

"Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime." - Adlai E. Stevenson, Jr.

Posted by: daCascadian on March 14, 2007 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

Bill Bennett, to name one movement conservative, has explicitly stated that his goal was to replace the public school system entirely with private voucher based schools. I doubt if this was done in conjunction with NCLB, but he's on the record. Oh, and he used to be the Secretary of Education. Any more questions? I think Matt is more likely to be engaging in utopian fantasy than you are in paranoid fantasy.

Posted by: Barbara on March 14, 2007 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK


The entire premise is bad. Horrible. God-awful even. Testing is NOT good. While I'm all for representitive studies to see what works, and what doesn't work, one of those things that just don't work is high-stakes testing.

Why? It limits exploration and forces a full-blinded dedication to "teaching to the test". The goal is to score high on a test...not for the child to develop a love of learning and obtaining new information.

Posted by: Karmakin on March 14, 2007 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

. Did Ted Kennedy get suckered,

I believe he used close to those very words when NCLB was passed and then Bush refused to fund it properly.

Fool me once, screw the Decider.

Posted by: Martin on March 14, 2007 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

Look the whole concept should be abandoned. The metrics established to measure proficiency are absurd and too narrowly focused Do they measure knowledge of history, art, music, civics, science, &tc? I know that wingers don't care about these things but I do.

I trust the teachers to judge who is learning not standardized tests. It's worked for us in the past and I don't see why it won't work for us in the future. All of this is not to say that improvements can't and shouldn't be made, especially for students in poor districts. But NCLB is not the answer.

Ask yourselves are Texans any smarter or better prepared for real world than the rest of us? That's where NCLB started. I'm too lazy to check but I recall that when the dust settled that the Texas experiment was a failure even using its own metrics.

Posted by: Gregor Samsa on March 14, 2007 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

Just an idea...what we need is motivated students. It's not the teacher's. It's not the students. Abe did it on his own, by candlelight, because he was motivated. Offer a large array of prizes, of various magnitudes and types, for various levels of achievement. Give the kids the choice of putting their prizes into education or graduation accounts. The possibilities are endless. I bet most kids from comfortable backgrounds get substantial incentives for academic success. Once kids learn how to learn and that they can learn, they often come to like it and feel good about it. We cant just plant the seeds, sometimes irrigation is required.

The costs would probably less than any bureaucratic adjustments and the results would be infinitely better, imho.

Posted by: Michael7843853 G-O in 08! on March 14, 2007 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

Oh, wow, Kevin! I will finally get a passing grade?

Posted by: A Drooling Idiot on March 14, 2007 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

Don't go quoting George Bush on education. He's the moron who vetoed education legislation in Texas, then when his veto got overridden, he took the credit for the legislation in his "Vote for Me for President" ads the first time around.

Posted by: Angela on March 14, 2007 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

Al is correct,We are lucky enough to see for ourselves,A President with a lack of education.GW was just pushed along grabbed by his little silver spoon and sent to the next grade.Now we all suffer for just passing the (Dumb Child) along.We got stuck in Iraq.

Posted by: john john on March 14, 2007 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

One big achilles heel - the students who intentionally screw up the tests.

The students know that they have no skin in the game and the tests are a chance to perform vandalism on the system.

There is no way to stop the smart but smart-ass students from intentionally bombing the tests.

Posted by: Tripp on March 14, 2007 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

Going into the debate we know conservatives have spent the last three decades carefully examining popular programs they want to undermine. One of the mantras of the conservative revolution is to act with stealth and to take your time. Intelligent design is pitched as “teach the controversy”. Michael Ledeen’s program to install right-wing ideologists in the “liberal” university is predicated on de-politicizing the classroom and providing balance. The first step in defunding social security is to provide Americans with “choice”. NCLB is the first (or second) step in a long project to undermine secular education.

Posted by: bellumregio on March 14, 2007 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

The problem is that huge federal programs like NCLB really do not do all that much to improve the quality of education because they are too focused on measuring achievement.

If you want to improve the quality of public education, the first thing you need to do is to focus on improving the quality of teaching.

We need to improve teacher education programs, increase teacher salaries so as to attract higher quality candidates to the profession, and provide teachers with more support so that more stay in the profession once they've started.

Everything else is peripheral if you do not improve the quality of instruction.

Posted by: mfw13 on March 14, 2007 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

Wow. I didn't know there was anyone who DIDN'T know that NCLB was all about making public schools get labeled failures. It's a back-door method of creating support for charter schools et. al.----period.
By the way, I don't agree with Kevin about the need for national testing, at least not to the degree we're seeing. Teachers shouldn't be prepping kids for standardized tests; they should be teaching!
Also, I would hate to see arts, music, exercise (!) and other worthy programs get short shrift because of a misguided focus on literacy and numeracy testing.
When children are young, their minds may grow best through exposure to something outside of reading, writing and arithmetic. For example, chess or go instruction have proved to be very beneficial.
Music and arts instruction can help others, and mandated physical activity should be the norm for younger kids especially, rather than forcing them to sit for hours.

Posted by: Marky on March 14, 2007 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

In short:

Do you distrust Bush et al more than you trust Ted Kennedy?


Posted by: JD on March 14, 2007 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

It's good to see that Kevin ain't buying the Right's BS this time around. Too bad Matt is still being suckered.

Posted by: Disputo on March 14, 2007 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

Kennedy was suckered. He believed the admin when they said that they would fully fund NCLB.

Posted by: Disputo on March 14, 2007 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

You have to remember which problem NCLB was instituted to solve.

A number (not huge, but not trivial) of schools were graduating students from high school who were totally illiterate. -Students who could not even read- could make it through school. Even in places where this wasn't the case, a significant amount of the high-school dropout rate is attributable to students getting an extremely poor education in the lower grades, hitting high school with no more social promotions, and crashing and burning because they didn't have the basic skills necessary to succeed in school.

That's why there's such an emphasis on literacy and basic numeracy for these tests. It's not because some nasty Republican is sitting there thinking "that's all our worker drones will need to know, heh heh!" It's because a bunch of people are saying, "Criminy, can't they at least learn that much?" It's all well and good to talk about emphasis on basic skills crowding enrichment activities out of the curriculum (and I've experienced enough of it myself - personally, I sure as heck didn't need the extra review time!) But if you can't read, can't add and subtract and multiply and divide, what the heck CAN you get out of school? If you can't read your books?

It's fair to ask about the specific points of NCLB and kids that are genuinely on the margin of not being able to learn anything. It's also fair to say that a school shouldn't be punished if it's chock full of kids whose parents don't give a damn and won't make their kids attend class or behave. But then let's drop the pretense, hm? If THAT is the problem, then flunk those kids out. If that means your high school has fifty kids left, you can do some really-small-size-classroom experiments. Don't warehouse the kids because "you've got to keep them from running the streets" and then pretend that they should have been learning too...

Posted by: Avatar on March 14, 2007 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

The view of NCLB as a Trojan horse is the prevailing view among educators, even among conservative educators. NOBODY who both supports public education, and understands how NCLB works, wants to see it renewed.

Posted by: cmac on March 14, 2007 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

NCLB is not the disease, it is a symptom. The disease is federal funding of public schools. Barry Goldwater warned federal funding would lead to federal control, and it has. Now, whenever the people running the federal government have bad ideas, public schools in all fifty states are forced to comply with them. As a result, we have standardized testing across the nation, as well as a race to the bottom in which schools consistently lower standards so they can appear to not be failing and thus hold on to federal funds.

All this federal funding and federal power has done nothing to improve education, but don't expect either Party to actually question the status quo. Instead, look for them to "fix" NCLB and create more problems.

Posted by: brian on March 14, 2007 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK
There is no way to stop the smart but smart-ass students from intentionally bombing the tests.

Tripp, that one is easy. Hold the smart ass back a year.

The real problem is the students that can't ever pass the tests. With large enough student numbers, there will always be someone who fails.

Posted by: royalblue_tom on March 14, 2007 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

> But then let's drop the pretense, hm? If THAT is
> the problem, then flunk those kids out. If that
> means your high school has fifty kids left, you
> can do some really-small-size-classroom
> experiments. Don't warehouse the kids because
> "you've got to keep them from running the streets"
> and then pretend that they should have been
> learning too...

Other laws, changing social norms, and human decency prevent schools from doing that (which was done in my large urban district up through 1970 at least). Additionally, we no longer have large pools of steel mill, low-skill auto factory, and railroad jobs to absorb the kids who get kicked out of high school; if they can't read and do trig they ain't gettin any kind of decent job ever. So what do you suggest the community do then?


Posted by: Cranky Observer on March 14, 2007 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

My mother is an administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District. People there KNOW that Kevin's hypothesis is true -- that this and even school choice within public school districts are ways to undermine the public school system and make way for religious and private education. This is not paranoid at all.

Posted by: J on March 14, 2007 at 2:55 PM | PERMALINK

It's as idiotic as demanding a 100% employment rate.

Posted by: Don on March 14, 2007 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

With a child actually in school over the last 7 years, I'm coming to the conclusion that "standards" are bad for education. Standards are arbitrary, political, fool people into thinking that educational progress is somehow measurable, often require more at a grade level than there is time to teach at that grade level, are seldom developmentally appropriate and crowd out everything that's not tested. There's no time left for exploration in any subject, no chance for a student to find something that interests them and gives them the motivation for actually slogging through the other crap. It's all stick and no carrot, not the best recipe for achievement.

And that's from my experiences in both a Title I school with a significant fraction of ELL and a middle-class white bread suburban school, in two different states with different standards. Standards don't address an educational problem, they address a political problem, and yes, I think Kevin is right to be paranoid about the goals of NCLB.

Posted by: Sherri on March 14, 2007 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

I'll believe conservatives don't have a hidden agenda when they subject every parochial school, charter school, and home school to NCLB, just like the public schools.

The 100% requirement is ridiculous on its face. In this fractal universe, you can't really get anything to 100%, except perhaps the idiocy of GW Bush.

Posted by: Cal Gal on March 14, 2007 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

brian: Barry Goldwater warned federal funding would lead to federal control, and it has.

Barry was right about that one, just as he was right when he said that he saw no problem with homosexuals serving in the military.

Of course Barry was an honest, principled conservative, and not a neocon, crony capitalist, federalist-when-its-convenient type that call themselves "conservatives" these days. I'm afraid the poor fellow is rolling in his grave.

Posted by: alex on March 14, 2007 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

Standarized testing is a waste of everyone's time and energy. Teachers are forced to do nothing but teach to it, which means the not-as-smart kids are the target demo and the smart kids are bored. (Plus, my personal theory is that standardized testing is one of the reason behind the "rise" in ADD diagnosis -- teachers are forced to make kids sit still for hours on end doing rote work to be able to pass these tests. That is simply absurd, especially for elementary school age boys.) Teachers hate standardized testing. Administrators hate standardized testing. Students and parents hate standardized testing. Why? Because all of those groups know that it is ineffective as an educational tool. I say get rid of standardized testing and of the heinous NCLB.

Posted by: Debra on March 14, 2007 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

"Which child do Democrats want to leave behind?" is of course a noxious question. "Which children will inevitably be left behind?" is easy: Experience shows that, even with the best mean of education yet invented, most of 2% or so of children who would test with IQs below 70 will not keep up. That is, unless the educational process is going almost nowhere. The 100% goal is absurdly far from being reality-based.

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

But either way, conservatives sure aren't acting as though reasonable, meetable standards are what they actually care about.

Really? Maybe we think that rather than have Bush cave in on his one domestic success, it will be even more fun to watch President Obama announce that the US policy is being amended so that some children *will* be left behind.

Or, if we have to deal with President McCain, well, we can jump off that bridge when we get to it.

Posted by: Tom Maguire on March 14, 2007 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

It's like requiring that 100% of the students be able to run a marathon in under 3 hours. Some will be able to train themselves to do it. Others simply won't be able to do it no matter how hard they try.

Some physical feats are impossible for certain people; some mental feats are impossible for others. I didn't fully understand that until I became a teacher.

Posted by: Koneko on March 14, 2007 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

I don't believe that NCLB was a plot to destroy public education. But I do believe it was based on an erroneous premise. The idea was that holding schools accountable for achievement would create the incentives necessary to drive improvement. True, there are other provisions that were supposed to help schools. Requiring all teachers to be "highly qualified" was supposed to ensure that schools were stocked with capable teachers who could improve learning. But there are truck-sized loopholes in that requirement, and there is no real accountability for meeting it. Second, the money is supposed to help schools do what they need to do to improve, but there isn't a direct line between the funds and school improvement (I'm not one who beleieves that money doesn't make a difference, but I think that money has to be spent on the right things). Third, the remedies for schools that persistently fail--replacing the principal or the staff, converting to charter schools--might or might not help.

Accountability is a good thing, and it has been lacking in education. But accountability alone does not turn around all schools. My old colleague dick Elmore warned years ago that accountability would create wider gaps in schools, between those that were capable of improving and those that were not. I'm afraid he was prescient.

Posted by: Bob on March 14, 2007 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

I teach in a school with 4000 students. Our test scores are very high, but the idea that 100% of them will reach any standard is ridiculous. If one of the 4000 students skips a problem in the question book but not on the answer sheet and thus is one question off on the rest of the exam, will the school be labelled a failure?

What if a kid with suicidal tendencies decides to leave his answer sheet blank that day? What if one kid who hates the school fills in D for all the answers? What if a student who is close to somebody who just died starts sobbing in the middle of the test and can't finish?

How do you make any standards that are low enough for such students? You couldn't if you tried. And if you think that there is a group of 4000 adolescents somewhere that doesn't contain a single person in the above categories, welcome to reality.

Some provisions will be made for special ed, which of course is necessary because students with certain major disabilities cannot write their name or read a sentence.

The entire law is still ridiculous.

Posted by: reino on March 14, 2007 at 3:31 PM | PERMALINK

IMHO what we should do is to let the NCLB lapse and also do away with the Dept of Education. I lived through the advent of federal involvement in education, including various programs that were initiated after the Russians beat us into space with Sputnik. Although the federal approach was well-meant, it has been counter-productive. Education has gone downhill since those days.

Posted by: ex-liberal on March 14, 2007 at 3:33 PM | PERMALINK

Apologies for the vagueness, but on C-span recently I watched a minute or two of a panel discussion, mostly conservative commenters. Dick Armey was up there, I think. Also, a guy from Cato, who in a few moments of spewing crap, said something to the effect of "NCLB will allow us to go after public schools in the future."

I don't have time now, but I'll try to find a link or transcript later.

Or not.

Posted by: Lame Man on March 14, 2007 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

Where has everyone been? That was pretty obviously the thrust of this law from day one - that the entire public school system would be privatized, because the public schools have no chance in hell of meeting the mandate unless they figure out a way to put their underachievers on catapults and fire them into Canada or something. I work for an educational publisher and when we were first briefed on this law, that was the point of the general discussion that followed; that this was the biggest Trojan Horse in history and our company - shame - had been instrumental in pushing it.

Posted by: Susan Paxton on March 14, 2007 at 3:45 PM | PERMALINK

I buy into the Trojan Horse theory but Kevin and most commenters are missing another way NCLB is designed to drive a wedge between the middle class and the public schools: a narrow focus on minimal proficiency in math, reading and, soon, science. The result is that cash-strapped schools redirect limited resources from non-NCLB subjects [e.g., history, art, music] and higher achieving and already proficient kids to struggling students in the NCLB-tested subjects. This then causes a revolt among the parents of middle class kids who form a loud and well-organized constituency for these non-core subjects and higher achieving kids. I have seen this play out in our diverse suburban district: everyone fighting for as big a piece of a shrinking pie as possible. And, remember, these same districts are also getting nailed by federally mandated special ed costs. Eventually, the middle class parents, who don't want just phonics and math drills for their kids, are going to bolt for private schools. I have no doubt that is the conversatives' plan.

Posted by: mert7878 on March 14, 2007 at 4:06 PM | PERMALINK

Ted Kennedy may have well though that the bill was a good start that could be tweaked later by a Democratic congress. Has anybody asked him about the 100% requirement?

Interestingly, reading his remarks about NCLB, with an emphasis on providing greater federal resources to schools that are struggling and making restrictions less punitive, one could theorize that he wants schools to fail as well, to provide a reason to pump more federal dollars into public schools. I'm not sure I buy that theory (seems a little risky) but it's an interesting possibility.

Posted by: Royko on March 14, 2007 at 4:12 PM | PERMALINK

The federal government currently spends $10 billion each year on Title I and $10 billion each year on IDEA. This money is necessary for schools to survive. In fact, the money should be doubled. Schools in poor areas do not have enough money unless the federal government gives them some money.

(I am not including the increases to Title I during the Bush Presidency because the increases have gone to assessment rather than assistance.)

Posted by: reino on March 14, 2007 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

A report prepared for the Campaign for Educational Equity by Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen, and Tamara Wilder sums up the absurdity of NCLB in its title: "'Proficiency for All' – An Oxymoron." They point out:

"In its administration of NCLB, the U.S. Department of Education barely acknowledges this human variability. … Under NCLB, children with I.Q.s as low as 65 must achieve a standard of proficiency in math which is higher than that achieved by 60 percent of students in Taiwan, the highest scoring country in the world (in math), and a standard of proficiency in reading which is higher than that achieved by 65 percent of students in Sweden, the highest scoring country in the world (in reading)."

In modern America, all public rhetoric (from both parties) about education (and therefore most education policy) is based on magic pony thinking about every child being at least average in intelligence. In reality, we all know deep down that intelligence is distributed along a B*ll C*rv*e, but that would require us mentioning out loud the Two Forbidden Words. So, we lie to each other constantly, and therefore make up stupid policies like NCLB based on wishful thinking.

For more on "Why NCLB Is Nuts," see:


Posted by: Steve Sailer on March 14, 2007 at 4:31 PM | PERMALINK

To Debra: I doubt very much that standardized testing contributes to the rise in ADD diagnoses. ADD is characterized by an inability to concentrate on certain subjects, combined with hyperconcentration on others. ADHD, which is probably the disorder you meant, is characterized by the same difficulties in concentration combined with impulsive behavior. To the extent that there is an actual rise in occurrence of ADD, it is probably traceable to television, which disrupts attention spans and hooks young minds on rapidly changing vistas. The rise in identifications of ADD and ADHD beyond the actual rise in cases is likely due to a desire for a magic solution for problem children combined with a lack of scruples on the part of some doctors.

To Bob: the funding thing is a red herring. Even fully funded, NCLB punishes low-performing schools by removing resources. Once a school has been identified as a 'program improvement' school, it is pretty much impossible to climb back out of the hole. As to accountability - who says schools haven't been held accountable? They've been the favorite punching bags for generations of politicians, in spite of the fact that they have little control over the conditions of their students' lives which make the most difference in their ability to learn. Of course, the people who do (or should) exert that kind of control - parents - are voters and aren't likely to become anybody's punching bag anytime soon.

Posted by: cmac on March 14, 2007 at 4:37 PM | PERMALINK

Carey says that any money a failing school loses will go to students as either a) after school tutoring, or, b) a voucher to a better school.

What kid will want to stick around for after school detention tutoring? And, who will give the kids a ride home?

Now, if they wanted to turn the last 2 hours, or so, of the school day into classes taught by higher paid tutors, that sounds interesting.

But, we should strongly suspect "kill the egalitarian public schools, and kill their unions," IMHO.

Posted by: ferd on March 14, 2007 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

True local story - our schools get a fair amount of immigrant students from Somalia, some of whom do not speak English.

In an effort to eliminate all possible loopholes NCLB required the test be given to ALL students, even non-English speaking immigrants on their first day of school.

Yes, those students 'flunked' the test. Yes, our local schools got graded as 'failing' because of it.

The schools are not allowed to let any student opt out of the test, or, as someone suggested above, get shot to Canada on test day.

How stupid is that?

Posted by: Tripp on March 14, 2007 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I have read both your original post and this one, and fwiw, I agree with you completely. I think you are absolutely, dead-on right in your suspicion that conservatives (or anyone, but it's usually conservatives) who support 100% grade-level proficiency for every school in this country or the school will be labeled "failing" are motivated by a desire to see public schools fail. There's really no other reasonable conclusion you can draw from that.

Obviously, the 100% grade-level proficiency requirement is impossible on its face, but if supporters were motivated by a genuine desire to see schools and the students in them succeed, then if a school did not achieve 100% (which would be every school), these legislators would provide material, tangible support to help the schools get to 100%, instead of forcing them to close.

And to American Hawk: It's absolutely true that every child can LEARN. But that is not the same as saying that every (or even any) schools can achieve a goal of 100% of the students in that school scoring at grade level on a standardized test. Unless you lower the definition of grade level to a point where it's meaningless.

I have worked in the NYC school system, and am currently a substitute teacher in the Bronx, and I know for a fact that 100% is not possible. It's just flat-out not possible.

Perfection is the enemy of the good. Think about it.

Posted by: Kathy on March 14, 2007 at 4:48 PM | PERMALINK

Let's not forget when discussing the 100% requirement of NCLB that Special Education students are required to be tested at grade level under NCLB. Furthermore, Special Education students are considered a sub-group, so that the performance of Special Education students is considered separately under NCLB. Given that public schools are responsible for every child, regardless of their ability to learn, this requirement is patently absurd. My school district has students that need assistance swallowing, the 8th grade standard for mathematics, while laudable, is simply beyond what some of these unfortunate children will ever be able to manage.

The issue, despite what some trumpet so loudly, is not a retreat from accountability or high expectations, it's about developing a thoughtful, meaningful and workable accountability system. Despite whatever best intentions may - or may not - have been the initial motivation, the current accountability system is seriously flawed and, bluntly, often encourages behavior and instruction that is contrary to real student success.

Finally, it is very difficult to treat any accountability system seriously that measures and punishes failing schools, but then turns around and sends those same students to (private) schools with no accountability what-so-ever, nor with any requirement to accept at need or special education students. When we start talking about sensible accountability applied to all, then I'll start believing in the good intentions of NCLB's architects. But not until then.

Posted by: Gary on March 14, 2007 at 4:52 PM | PERMALINK

I am sorry to be off-topic, but here is a nice corporate web page for a company recently contracted by SoCal Edison and San Diego G&E to provide solar-generated electricity to the grid. As you'll guess from the name of the company, they manufacture Stirling engines in many sizes and in high quantities.


They also contract with numerous municipalities to run the Stirling engines off sewer gases.

Supposedly (I lost the link) you can now get a 2kw home installation for a few $grand, much cheaper than photovoltaic.

Posted by: MatthewRMarler on March 14, 2007 at 4:54 PM | PERMALINK

"A number (not huge, but not trivial) of schools were graduating students from high school who were totally illiterate. -"

Or at least functionally illiterate, or with otherwise drastically limited literacy, etc.. Sure - not all students in these schools, but unquestionably unacceptable (high) numbers.

But - and this is my discourse-related point, the one I always flog with the ardor of a PNAC member advocating the invasion of Ira* - do you notice something interesting in this passage? It is, as phrased, about generic "schools" and "high schools". Where are these high schools? What populations attend them, and - no, I'm not making (Steve) Sailor Racist's* point here - how well are they funded, what are the surrounding neighborhoods like?

* - y'know, like Sailor Moon, if she was all racist and shit.

Cranky: "Additionally, we no longer have large pools of steel mill, low-skill auto factory, and railroad jobs to absorb the kids who get kicked out of high school; if they can't read and do trig they ain't gettin any kind of decent job ever. So what do you suggest the community do then?"

Ira*. Remember, like Zell told us, we've aborted and birthcontrolled millions of cannon-fodder babies - we need to make 'em up somehow . . . [/disgusted snark]

Incidentally, the folks commenting about teacher attitudes towards NCLB are entirely right - I've never talked to a teacher who likes it - and these are folks who will drag themselves to work with serious medical conditions, against doctor's orders, and stay after for hours and hours - and quite a few think it's intended to destroy public school - including my wife, who's very levelheaded, and doesn't go in for the kind of screaming-at-the-newspaper/tv screen/blog post stuff that I favor . . .

Posted by: Dan S. on March 14, 2007 at 5:10 PM | PERMALINK

The 100% figure is unattainable and absurd. And this law penealizes the schools that could do the most to help out children, driving away some of the best teachers from sheer frustration at the mind-numbing testing regime. When Kennedy and others signed onto this bill, they obviously had not read it, or had misread it, maybe parsed it. True 670 pages is a lot to read, but then again what do we pay our reps for anyway?

The privatization elements are the killer though. And there is another killer too, section 9528, which opens up public schools to military recruiters and their high-pressure sales tactics. So, connect the dots-- Endless war...endless testing...an alienated student body looking for some escape and presto a nice shiny military recruiter offering the stuff of dreams.

Section 9528 needs to be eliminated. AYP needs to be reworked so it stops damaging the very children it seeks to help and driving great teachers out of the classroom. And let those testing companies go make their billions elsewhere.

Posted by: apple pie on March 14, 2007 at 5:23 PM | PERMALINK

If you're not paranoid, you're not paying attention.

Posted by: tom on March 14, 2007 at 6:30 PM | PERMALINK

We know that the capitalist right wing faction of the Repubs does not like:
2. especially property taxes
3. paying taxes so some lazy minority kid can go to school
4. having their children go to school with lower class/minority students
5. paying a ton of money for their kids to go to private school and also paying a bunch of taxes for the public schools which they don't use, but instead a bunch of freeloading minority students do.

Therefore they would prefer any or all of these choices:
1. school vouchers so they can use their tax money on their private schools (where tuition is not fully covered by the voucher so lower class and minority kids are excluded).
2. closing down public schools and if the kids are too poor to pay for a decent private school then there is always the military (need cannon fodder for the War on Terra).
3. money saved on education spending can be used to build more prisons (which will be necessary).
4. money saved not paying taxes can be spent on gated communities and security systems (which will be necessary).

Posted by: Orion on March 14, 2007 at 7:19 PM | PERMALINK
....Every child can learn, with parents who have vouchers to go to the school of their choice. American Dawk at 1:16 PM
Unfortunately, it's very difficult for some children. The difference is between setting reasonable goals that can be met with effort and setting impossible goals to further some other political agenda. Vouchers are a phony solution to the problem and their only value is to funnel taxpayer money to religious schools, bizarre privates schools, and religious institutions like Liberty University and Bob Jones University.

There was the Texas Education Miracle that astonished everyone until it was discovered that they cheated: drop outs weren't counted, failing student's test were discarded. That's succeeding the Bush way, but doesn't seem acceptable to the majority of people.

It is sad, but true, that in dealing with Republicans and their policies, the worst, the most cynical interpretations are usually the most accurate.

…what we need is motivated students…Michael7843853 G-O in 08! at 1:54 PM

Sure, motivated teachers, motivated parents, motivated voters, motivated citizens, motivated workers, motivated people, motivated businesses… oh, wait, money is the motivating force for business. As for the others? When people try to motivate themselves it generally happens for a while, then falls by the wayside. Some exceptional people persevere. That what makes them exceptional. When people ask their representatives in government to provide motivations, it's the 'nanny state.'
…All this federal funding and federal power has done nothing to improve education…brian at 2:44 PM

Yup, go back to local funding so that the poorest districts, the minority districts will be the worst. Not that the situation is that much better because NCLB is not fully funded and probably will never be so.

Posted by: Mike on March 14, 2007 at 7:28 PM | PERMALINK

As an owner of a 46 employee business who interviews countless applicants throughout the year, I can say that a high school diploma is a meaningless standard. A good third to one-half of my applicants holding a diploma cannot read or write at a 12th grade level. If the school's standards are so low, then why not give NCLB a shot at setting higher standards.


Posted by: michael on March 14, 2007 at 7:39 PM | PERMALINK

This was obvious (and discussed) before the was signed into law.

And don't forget the other pernicious piece of the legislation-- if a school does not test 95% of the members of an enormous number of different sub-groups, it is labeled failing dy definition.

Back in '03 89% of failing schools in San Antonio failed solely because they missed the 95% cutoff for one or more ethnic groups.

Posted by: Daryl Cobranchi on March 14, 2007 at 10:02 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think Democrats need be so wary of Republican arguments as they seem to be.

Folks in my hometown pretty much know the score.

And it will not be a defining issue in forthcoming elections. The 2008 national elections will be all about national security and the economy. Whether or not a 100 percent passing rate is required or a 95 percent rate will be of no consequence in the voting. Or whether or not the federally-mandated testing program even survives.

Posted by: johnson on March 14, 2007 at 11:17 PM | PERMALINK



Read Jonathan Rowe remembrance and articles
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

Advertise in WM

buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly