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Volume I, Number 9, September, 2003

Trampling the Heroes

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

In recent months we have seen that the Bush Administration is remarkably bad at anticipating what might go wrong when occupying a distant country or when forcing ill-considered reform strategies upon the unsuspecting schools of our own land.

Those who predicted that the liberation and democratization of Iraq would be swift and inexpensive indulged in wishful thinking. They were blind to the much more complicated truths of an alien culture.

On September 7, the President announced he would need another $ 89 billion for this Iraqi occupation. Oops! Plenty of money for tax breaks for the rich, but . . . poor planning and a budget deficit that makes California’s trouble (and mismanagement) look amateurish.

And in much the same way, this administration is blind to the damage being done to thousands of heroic school leaders and teachers by their devastating NCLB attack on the public schools and children of this land. As the feds trust failure and punishment as the primary strategy to make change in schools, they are damaging many of the people we need the most to take care of our children and turn non-readers into readers.

In the long run, this ill-considered law is likely to worsen a leadership crisis in American schools, making it almost impossible to find principals willing to face the punishment that has descended upon schools like a perfect educational storm.

Over the decades, many talented teachers and administrators have drifted or steered their way into affluent school settings offering many advantages ranging from small class sizes and ample budgets to children and families who are well fed, well educated and fully employed.

Other talented educators have chosen a usually more difficult path. They have turned their attention to the least advantaged schools and children of our nation, even though this career path may bring them frustration and little in the way of rest.

Working with scant budgets against tough conditions, some of these teachers and leaders have been able to turn around seemingly impossible situations so that the hopeless become hopeful and school failure becomes school success.

There are probably too few talented heroes teaching and leading in our most trying schools. We need more of them - folks who know how to warm a class of children to learning even when their minds are filled with worries, who know how to create a powerful lesson out of a single photograph from the morning paper, and who value the power of pedagogy and the art of teaching. We need thousands of good souls who understand the artistry required to help a single child unravel the mystery of poor performance. Our future depends upon our ability to replenish the profession with like-minded, passionate educators who have the spirit to confront difficult challenges.

Michael Winerip, a reporter for the New York Times, has shared the stories of two such heroes, one in Florida and one in North Carolina, each struggling to give good care to young children in the face of an NCLB onslaught of punishment, blame and sanctions.

A Star! A Failure! Unmeshed Yardsticks, September 3, 2003 by Michael Winerip in the New York Times.
The Changes Unwelcome, a Model Teacher Moves On, May 28, 2003 by Michael Winerip in the New York Times.

While the Feds keep pushing their mechanistic change agenda on our schools, thousands of good educators find themselves caught up in a Game of Survival for which they never auditioned or volunteered. There is no million dollar prize or glory in the offing.

After winning impressive gains in student progress within their schools, some principals are suddenly finding themselves labeled as failures while their affluent neighbors may escape scrutiny and harsh labels during the early stages of NCLB. Called heroes by their state departments of education for making great progress on state goals, they are branded failures by a rigid federal code that is blind to real schools, real leaders, real teachers and the conditions that produce real change.

Stampede as Social Policy?

Once a school fails to meet NCLB's arbitrary AYP (adequate yearly progress) goals for two years in a row for any one of nine sub groups, the floodgates open and families may elect to swarm elsewhere, as if movement were a sure cure to deep and prolonged patterns of failure. It is so easy to blame a school, a principal or a teacher for a child's struggles but far more difficult to spark sustained improvement.

NCLB addresses nine sub-groups:       
       1. White students
       2. Black students
       3. Native Americans students
       4. Asian/Pacific Islander students
       5. Hispanic students
       6. Multiracial students
       7.  Limited English Proficient students
       8. Students with Disabilities
       9. Economically Disadvantaged students

The fallacy at the base of this stampede theory of educational improvement is the notion that schools with high scores and high scoring students are actually skilled at turning around the performance of weak students. Many of these students entered school not ready for learning in the terms defined by the earlier President Bush in his Goals 2000 promises. Their poor performance may be rooted to some extent in poverty and social conditions the current administration pretty much ignores.

Moving students from school to school may create turbulence, frustration, overcrowding and a host of challenges for which the so-called "good schools" are unprepared. Sadly, the influx of new students may set in motion an avalanche of disabling complications that will end with the advantaged school being painted with the failure label in just two years.

Even more sadly, some school leaders will create a climate that encourages students to drop out early and an accounting system that conceals these failures from public view.

Leaders Needed as Principal Supply Declines

Leadership of schools is poorly addressed by this administration with its slash and burn tactics. The supply of good leaders is declining as conditions worsen. (See "Is There a Shortage of Qualified Candidates for Openings in the Principalship?" from NAESP.) This trend has been evident for more than a decade, but the adverse conditions imposed by NCLB will scare off many of the best young, upcoming leaders.

A favorite strategy of this conservative school of reformers is to lower the standards for school leadership so that prior teaching experience is waived and any manager of a Burger King, an unemployed accountant from Anderson or the director of a chicken packing plant may apply to run a school and guide reading improvement efforts.

These masters of top-down change hold to an unswerving and naive belief in the ability of business methods to turn around schools, even though many school leaders watch with dismay as those same business methods failed to save Enron, WorldCom and dozens of other companies whose failures stole millions from the pensions of teachers and other workers.

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.
What can you do to change this law before it does great damage to the schools and children in your state and town?
  1. Subscribe to "No Child Left" to stay informed about efforts to repeal NCLB. Click here.
  2. Speak with the school board members, administrators and teachers in your community to learn how NCLB will change schools and learning in your town.
  3. Start communicating with your Senators and Representatives to let them know you want this law changed to put more emphasis on capacity building and support rather than testing and punishment.
  4. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your concerns. Illustrate the dangers of this law with specific and compelling examples.
  5. Emphasize concrete alternatives that would do more to improve the futures of disadvantaged children.

A List of ESEA (NCLB) Amendments

1. Fund social programs that impact school readiness so that all children actually enter school ready to learn as the first President Bush promised long ago.

2. Fund capacity building (enhanced teaching and learning) in districts and districts for several years before engaging in punishing labels and reckless choice provisions. Capacity building might mean providing hundreds of hours of training in effective reading strategies, for example. But it does not mean training everybody in a single highly scripted program endorsed by the administration for pseudo-scientific reasons.

3. Devote public money to truly public schools. Be careful not to divert funds to reckless experiments or diploma mills.

4. Fund enough construction of new schools within public systems so parental choice is real.

5. Support informed school choice within public systems.

6. Emphasize rewards and incentives rather than sanctions.

7. Hold all publicly funded schools to standards for performance and quality, whether actually private, charter or truly public. Be careful about simplistic notions of high stakes testing.

8. Fund recruitment and preparation of effective teachers and aides from all racial and economic groups to close the gap between current staffing levels and what is desirable.

9. End the insulting, broad brush assaults on teachers and administrators struggling against difficult challenges.

10. Capitalize on the good research conducted to discover what works best in schools and avoid simplistic panaceas and platitudes imported from the world of business and medicine.

11. Enrich the options available to all children. Forswear tightly scripted, robotic programs and the fast food approaches to school improvement.

12. Build school improvement on a richly defined foundation of alternatives and strategies.

13. Eliminate Trojan horses, hidden agendas and shameful politics from ESEA.

14. Stop using Madison Avenue techniques to hide the harsh realities of so-called compassionate conservatism.