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Feature headline
Volume III, Number 12, December, 2005

Weighing
the Pig:
NCLB as
Simple-Minded
Con

There is an old saying that you can't fatten a pig by weighing it.

NCLB proponents have been busily weighing the pig in the name of school reform, promising that unproven change strategies such as annual testing will lead to improved student learning.

Recent NAEP results show this reform package is a con. While the weighing has been going on frantically for some three years now, the pig is no fatter. Reading and math scores are basically stagnant.

In addition, many of the states have employed easy tests that make their students look good until measured by the NAEP. Note the November 26, 2005 article by Sam Dillon in the New York Times, "Students Ace State Tests, but Earn D's From U.S." (Registration required.)

If we applied Truth in Advertising to NCLB, it would come with a warning label:

"Caution! This law is a hoax, a fraud and is likely to cause injury to schools and children."

The Original

"You can't fatten a pig
by weighing it."


NCLB Versions

You can't fatten a pig
by weighing it every year.

You can't fatten a pig
on a low carb diet.

You can't fatten a pig
by making it run laps.

Note: The animal above is not a pig. It is a statue of a wild boar. You cannot fatten a boar by weighing it either.

Would you like to buy the Brooklyn Bridge?
How about some Snake Oil?

Given the absurdity of the basic strategies underlying NCLB/Helter-Skelter, it is hard to understand how both parties in Congress voted for it in the first place. It is even harder to understand continued support as NCLB damage accumulates and a generation of children suffers a factory-style education that limits them severely, turning childhood for many into a tale from Dickens. Many children are being nickel and dimed1 educationally.

We now know that the so-called "Texas Miracle" that served as a model for the NCLB strategies was a fraud. The improved test scores were often engineered through a series of tactics that ranged from dishonest to unsound "teaching to the test." Texas students could not replicate success on a national test. Note "The Testing Gap" in the January 2005 issue of No Child Left.

The chart at the left shows the gap between claims of student proficiency on state tests and the actual proficiency levels as measured by NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.





1. Nickel and Dimed is Barbara Ehrenreich's book
about minimum wage life in America. Buy it at Amazon.com

What is the price of this bridge?


This is not the Brooklyn Bridge. It is the Harbour Bridge in Sydney
but like the Brooklyn Bridge, it is not for sale.

When someone offers us a bridge or a vial of snake oil, we should ask more than the price. Unfortunately, Congress has asked few of the questions it should have asked. Too much of the questioning has centered on whether funding is adequate. Not enough attention was devoted to basic premises.

Educators need to help Congress understand that NCLB cannot work even if fully funded. Unfortunately, the NCLB experiment has been imposed on schools and the states without much consultation of educators. We are witnessing what happens when folks without understanding, expertise or wisdom presume to reform an industry about which they are poorly informed.

Even before the Bush administration came to Washington, both political parties toyed with the mistaken notion that "weighing the pig" would force malingering teachers and principals to "fatten the pig." The first President Bush and Bill Clinton were fans of this strategy.

There is no evidence that weighing the pig works as a fattening strategy, but this lack of evidence has not deterred Congress and the Education Department from wading in with heavy boots and heavy scales. These are not the scales of justice. They are crude measures in many case forcing schools to narrow their focus and change their tactics in ways that are unhealthy for children.

Jennifer Booher-Jennings' article in the November 2005 issue of No Child Left "From Classroom to Emergency Room: Educational Triage in American Schools" shows the kind of damage done to children when schools are forced to focus so directly on test scores.

Dictating educational policies like annual testing is fundamentally unconstitutional as the founders clearly expected that the states would make laws governing education of children, not Congress.

Educational Porridge is Unhealthy

Oliver Twist suffered through meals that were unhealthy and lacking in nutrition. Children in many American schools would recognize the diet. Milk-and-cracker curricula combine with drill-and-kill learning to turn school into a dreary experience.

The room in which the boys were fed, was a large stone hall, with a copper at one end: out of which the master, dressed in an apron for the purpose, and assisted by one or two women, ladled the gruel at meal-times. Of this festive composition each boy had one porringer, and no more- except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides. The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; employing themselves, meanwhile, in sucking their fingers most assiduously, with the view of catching up any stray splashes of gruel that might have been cast thereon.

Boys have generally excellent appetites. Oliver Twist and his companions suffered the tortures of slow starvation for three months: at last they got so voracious and wild with hunger, that one boy, who was tall for his age, and hadn't been used to that sort of thing (for his father had kept a small cookshop), hinted darkly to his companions, that unless he had another basin of gruel (r)per diem,¯ he was afraid he might some night happen to eat the boy who slept next him, who happened to be a weakly youth of tender age. He had a wild, hungry eye; and they implicitly believed him. A council was held; lots were cast who should walk up to the master after supper that evening, and ask for more; and it fell to Oliver Twist.

Lurking behind the fine rhetoric and inflated promises of NCLB are beliefs and strategies that are as wrong-minded, simple-minded and as damaging as weighing the pig. They are listed in the table below and debunked one by one further on in the article.

20 Simple Minded Notions Lurking Behind NCLB

1. "Educating the Whole Child" is an outmoded luxury. Retort

2. Recess is a waste of time. Retort
3. What matters is basic literacy. Retort
4. Segregated schooling does not contribute to school failure. Retort
5. Poor kids don't need art, music and citizenship. Retort
6. If you test just two aspects of learning, the rest will still get lots of attention. Retort
7. Inexpensive tests are rich and accurate indicators of student performance. Retort
8. Inexpensive tests provide data to guide better instruction. Retort
9. Schools will get better results if they imitate McDonald's, Wal-Mart and Burger King. Retort
10. Shame, fear and humiliation are effective motivators for teachers and principals. Retort
11. Corporate style competition is a healthy and effective model for a learning organization. Retort
12. Annual testing turns children into better readers. Retort
13. Children learn best when limited to a narrow range of educational experiences taught in highly standardized ways. Retort
14. Elevated levels of threat and risk create healthy environments for learning and teaching. Retort
15. Skilled veteran teachers will keep teaching even when the work life of teachers has been radically shifted. Retort
16. Talented new teachers will rush to work in schools that are more like factories than institutions of learning. Retort
17. Educators don't know what they are doing. Retort
18. Parents and families are not responsible for student performance. Retort
19. Increased poverty and the growth of low wage jobs have nothing to do with student performance. Retort
20. Congress can push down on one aspect of a complex system without responsibility for other aspects of the system like funding Head Start or programs that generate well paying jobs. Retort

Simple-Minded Idea #1 - "Educating the Whole Child" is an outmoded luxury.

The quality of the community, the society and the work force depends upon a population with broadened sensibilities and what are called "democratic predispositions." The ability to manage complex issues and differences with tolerance and respect requires a well educated public not prone to mass movements and the manipulation of demagogues and their ilk. Without such dispositions, democratic behaviors and attitudes have difficulty surviving.

We educate the whole child because we enrich the quality of life for all by elevating the awareness and aspirations of all. Instead of creating a two class society of haves and have nots, we create a nation with equal opportunity for all. Whether it be citizenship or customer service, the benefits of educating the whole child extend well beyond test scores to nation building in the fullest sense.

NCLB/Helter-Skelter has radically narrowed the curriculum for disadvantaged children in particular. Already suffering from the various penalties connected with segregated schooling, these children now must also suffer through the thin gruel of minimalist learning.

For an excellent article exploring the importance of educating the whole child, read Nel Noddings in Educational Leadership, September 2005 | Volume 63 Number 1 Pages 8-13
"What Does It Mean to Educate the Whole Child?"

Simple-Minded Idea #2 - Recess is a waste of time.

Many school districts have taken away recess from young children so they can devote more time to drill and kill learning. This decision flies in the face of all we know about physiology and learning psychology. It is the equivalent of "A New American Sweatshop." Note article, "No More Recess: The New American Sweatshop."




Simple-Minded Idea #3 - What matters is basic literacy.

"Educate the people generally, and tyranny and injustice will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day." Thomas Jefferson

If we limit education to math and reading skills, we end up with a cohort of workers unable to do more than the simplest of low paying jobs and unable to make the complicated judgments now required of voters and citizens. We turn back centuries of Jeffersonian democracy devoted to the elevation of citizens across all levels of the society and put in place a rigid two class society with thinkers and non-thinkers, haves and have-nots.

Nearly every important study of skills required for life in this century has called for an educated citizenry - one that is capable of more than adding, subtracting, basic reading and following orders. Note "Learning for the 21st Century" available from http://www.21stcenturyskills.org/ and "enGauge® 21st Century Skills: Literacy in the Digital Age" available from http://www.ncrel.org/engauge/skills/skills.htm. These recent reports echo goals stated for several decades now in documents such as A Nation at Risk, The Fourth R: Workforce Readiness (1987) and Workplace Basics: The Skills Employers Want (1988).

The very idea of a vast under educated underclass is so noxious and antidemocratic that it must be sugar-coated with pleasantries like the title of this education law which is actually doing the very opposite of its name, No Child Left Behind. As educational triage becomes the survival strategy of the day, millions of children are being cast down and aside where they will be forced to work at minimum wage jobs that barely pay the bills for life in these United States.

Simple-Minded Idea #4 - Segregated schooling does not contribute to school failure.

In Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the Supreme Court ruled that separate was not equal.

Segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal.

Jonathan Kozol's book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, Random House, 2005 shows that segregated schooling has returned to levels unknown since the 1950s and he demonstrates the damage being done to the prospects of minority children who suffer a particularly poisonous type of education brewed for them because of NCLB.

Quoting from the book jacket:

First, a state of nearly absolute apartheid now prevails in thousands of our schools. The segregation of black children has reverted to a level that the nation has not seen since 1968. Few of the students in these schools know white children any longer. Second, a proto-military form of discipline has now emerged, modeled on stick-and-carrot methods of behavioral control traditionally used in prisons but targeted exclusively at black and Hispanic children. And third, as high-stakes testing takes on pathological and punitive dimensions, liberal education in our inner-city schools has been increasingly replaced by culturally barren and robotic methods of instruction that would be rejected out of hand by schools that serve the mainstream of society.

Read a review of Kozol's book in the October issue of No Child Left.

The inventors of NCLB have paid too little attention to the social causes of poor school performance and have no intention of addressing the kinds of severe deprivation that were uncovered by recent Gulf Coast hurricanes and the images of that "Other America." Congress and the courts look away as the country slides further and further from the American Dream of equal educational opportunity and justice for all. The Pledge of Allegiance has a hollow ring to it these days. Decades of progress for poor and middle income Americans have been reversed under the Bush administration as poverty increases, middle income jobs disappear and tax cuts switch more wealth to the already wealthy.

Simple-Minded Idea #5 - Poor kids don't need art, music and citizenship.

When combined with threats and punishment, the narrow focus of NCLB related testing results in a narrowed curriculum with all but the tested areas jettisoned so that schools can focus on survival. When reading and math scores are the basis for passing or failing AYP, they become the main educational diet. Meat and potatoes. Porridge. Drill and kill.

NCLB puts immediate priority on math and reading skills and eventually gets around to science, but the humanities and the arts are given short shrift. This focus on the straight and narrow has remarkable political implications.

A democratic society requires a well educated citizenry - one that possesses a balanced combination of skills and attitudes. The arts and the humanities are meant to give young people a rich introduction to the choices that help to distinguish between a compassionate, fully evolved democracy and a harsh, regime clinging to authoritarian values and practices.

Simple-Minded Idea #6 - If you test just two aspects of learning, the rest will still get lots of attention.

The testing tail, all too often, wags the program dog.

When survival depends upon good scores in just one or two measures, many schools will devote themselves to those two measures. It takes an unusually courageous school leader to maintain commitment to a broad range of goals if survival and recognition depends upon good performance on two simple measures.

This aspect of NCLB receives very little attention from the press and from Congress, but the impact on schools can be enormous. In the early stages of AYP, schools with advantaged and high scoring populations can ignore these pressures, but as AYP steps up its demands even on these schools, the temptation to narrow the curriculum and focus energy on just a few domains is quite strong.

Sadly, it might take a decade before parents and leaders figure out that this narrowing of the curriculum is a form of robbery. If we judged golfers by their putting alone or tennis players by their backhand, we'd have a different world ranking for both sports.

Simple-Minded Idea #7 - Inexpensive tests are rich and accurate indicators of student performance.

Many of the tests employed by states to measure student performance are bargain basement tests that do little to help teachers improve instruction. Good tests would track well with the NAEP tests mentioned earlier but they would also offer a detailed portrait of the skills each student needs to reach or exceed proficiency levels. Because both NCLB and most state test budgets are underfunded, there is a trend toward cheap tests that have not been properly standardized and cannot provide the data that would actually help teachers know how to improve instruction.

These cheap tests are mainly about labels. They tell who is failing and who is proficient. They point to teachers whose students are faring poorly. But they do little to help schools improve what they are doing for the children.

What test enthusiasts fail to recognize is the difference between testing and capacity building. While they suggest that annual testing will increase the ability of teachers to diagnose student needs and provide the instruction each student requires, the types of testing programs implemented rarely provide much diagnostic data in a way that might shift performance in a sustained fashion. To make such a shift, one would have to implement what Stiggins calls "assessment for learning" in his 6 June 2002 Kappan article, "Assessment Crisis: The Absence Of Assessment FOR Learning."

In this article, Stiggins contrasts the use of cheap tests with assessment for learning, listing eight key elements required to improve student performance, three of which we will list here:

  • translating classroom assessment results into frequent descriptive feedback (versus judgmental feedback) for students, providing them with specific insights as to how to improve;
  • continuously adjusting instruction based on the results of classroom assessments;
  • engaging students in regular self-assessment, with standards held constant so that students can watch themselves grow over time and thus feel in charge of their own success;

Stiggins' approach would require a substantial investment in professional development and a more expensive approach to data collection than is now emerging with the NCLB mandates, but it would promote capacity building rather than emphasizing fear, sanctions, judgment and blame.

Unlike the annual testing scheme, Stiggins points out that assessment for learning has been documented as successful:

Black and William uncovered and then synthesized more than 250 articles that addressed these issues. Of these, several dozen directly addressed the question of the impact on student learning with sufficient scientific rigor and experimental control to permit firm conclusions. Upon pooling the information on the estimated effects of improved formative assessment on summative test scores, they reported unprecedented positive effects on student achievement. They reported effect sizes of one-half to a full standard deviation.
Paul Black and Dylan William, "Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment," Phi Delta Kappan, October 1998, p. 141. Their work is reported in more detail in "Assessment and Classroom Learning," Assessment in Education, March 1998, pp. 7-74

Simple-Minded Idea #8 - Inexpensive tests provide data to guide better instruction.

You get what you pay for.

Trite and time worn, the saying accurately fits this current cheap testing fad.

Obsessed with testing but too cheap to do it well and properly, many of the states have cut corners, creating tests that are either too easy or too hard and basically lacking in proper standardization. The testing becomes a pretense, a facade, a veneer. In some cases the states create the false impression of reform and progress that slides away under close examination as pointed out in Sam Dillon's November 26, 2005 New York Times article, Students Ace State Tests, but Earn D's From U.S. and Michael Winerip's October 5, 2005 New York Times article, "One Secret to Better Test Scores: Make State Reading Tests Easier."

These cheap tests are inaccurate when trying to give a picture of student performance on a state level, but they also provide little information to guide instruction, yet the Feds have urged states like Connecticut to cheapen their testing programs in order to test more often. See article, "Faux Reform: The Empress Has No Dress," in June 2005 No Child Left.

A teacher needs detailed information about which skills a student has mastered and which ones need attention. Cheap tests skip over this function and jump to quick, gross judgments.

If the so-called reformers knew what they were doing or were seriously committed to real change instead of fake reform, they would invest in tests that might enhance the instructional capacity of teachers.

Sadly, the main agenda of many of these fake reformers is teacher accountability. They use tests like hammers, hoping to scare or bribe teachers into submission.

Simple-Minded Idea #9 - Schools will get better results if they imitate McDonald's, Wal-Mart and Burger King.

Schools are not fast food restaurants and children are not hamburgers but some fake reformers think that standardization and factory style learning will convert non-readers into readers and failing schools into successful schools.

This model treats children like hamburger patties, french fries, buns and chicken breasts passing along a conveyor belt. It treats teachers like unskilled minimum wage earners who are expected to follow instructions and do as they're told without questioning authority, without wandering off the prescribed course and without showing imagination, acting upon intuition or inventing customized interventions to reverse patterns of failure. Note September 2003 No Child Left article "Children are Not Hamburgers."

Simple-Minded Idea #10 - Shame, fear and humiliation are effective motivators for teachers and principals.

It is hard to believe that such harsh, discredited management strategies are being aimed at schools during this century.

Sadly, there are leaders at the top levels of government who have little respect for basic American values. While cloaking themselves in religious sanctimony, they have endorsed an array of policies that betray those values, eroding civil liberties, endorsing torture and leaning hard on any and all who challenge their rule.

Unfortunately, shame, fear and humiliation can shape human behaviors in ways that are not always beneficial to children. When survival in the educational "game" begins to look like an episode from Donald Trump's Apprentice, some teachers and school leaders will do whatever is needed to stay in play. The result is schooling that hurts children rather than helps them, as is documented in Jennifer Booher-Jennings's November 2005 No Child Left article "From Classroom to Emergency Room: Educational Triage in American Schools."

Survival shifts practice from care-taking to game-playing. Children become pawns in the game. Schools may cut losses, hope that weak students will transfer and focus on the "bubble children" rather than all the children.

Simple-Minded Idea #11 - Corporate style competition is a healthy and effective model for a learning organization.

Merit pay and various schemes to reward teachers for exceptional behavior and performance have an undistinguished track record, but fake reformers are skilled at ignoring history and research. True believers cling to failed strategies in the face of facts because their faith trumps reality.

The failure of these bribery schemes lies in the word "exceptional." When trying to create system-wide improvement, it pays to bring along the whole group. Reward all the teachers in a school or a grade but beware of special treatment for a small group. That kind of narrow-minded celebration of the few will invariably create resentment and undermine the school-wide reform.

States like Texas have rewarded school administrators and teachers for unusual performance with cash rewards that have led to some distressing behaviors ranging from falsifying school transfer records to cheating on tests. The healthiest change strategies in schools focus on team building and collaboration rather than competition. In fact, many corporations have embraced the value of work teams.

Good school teams invent together and share strategies to shift student performance.

Unhealthy competition rewards teachers for keeping effective strategies secret.

Simple-Minded Idea #12 - Annual testing turns children into better readers.

Annual testing has become a mantra.

In May, the Secretary of Education wrote to the Commissioner of Education in Connecticut and made the following (preposterous) statement unsubstantiated by research evidence:

"Like you, I am committed to ensuring that the core principles of the law are preserved - ensuring that all students regardless of their skin color, spoken accent or street address receive a quality education - which can only be achieved if we measure student progress annually and disaggregate the data."
Source: May 3 Letter from Secretary Spelling to Commissioner Sternberg. To download as a PDF file the full text of the original document and Connecticut's response, click here.

There is no evidence to back this policy, no research proving the benefits of frequent testing. In fact, some of the states that have tried this have really weak track records when it comes to student learning.

Simple-Minded Idea #13 - Children learn best when limited to a narrow range of educational experiences taught in highly standardized ways.

Read the biographies of great thinkers and artists who emerged from impoverished childhoods and one theme repeats itself over and over. In many cases, their curiosity and thirst to read and learn was awakened by a great teacher or parent who inspired them with a rich exposure to culture rather than a narrow range.

The current reform strategies are worthy of Ebeneezer Scrooge and his famous phrase, "Are there no work houses?"

Simple-Minded Idea #14 - Elevated levels of threat and risk create healthy environments for learning and teaching.

Those who study organizational development and culture have long understood that peak performance is more likely to emerge when workers feel safe and supported rather than threatened.

In his book, A Third Way to a Good Society, Professor Amitai Etzioni argues that a good society requires much more than a survival mode:

The evidence shows that profound contentment is found in nourishing ends-based relationships, in bonding with others, in community building and public service, and in cultural and spiritual pursuits.... The most profound problems that plague modern societies will be fully addressed only when those whose basic needs have been met shift their priorities up Maslow's scale of human needs. That is, only after they accord a higher priority to gaining and giving affection, cultivating culture, becoming involved in community service an seeking spiritual fulfillment." Page 33

Simple-Minded Idea #15 - Skilled veteran teachers will keep teaching even when the work life of teachers has been radically shifted.

Many teachers are feeling angry, distressed and anxious, but few people have seemed to notice. From time to time a reporter may do a story on a veteran highly successful teacher who has been disillusioned and disheartened by the impact of NCLB on schooling, but these stories are rare and the issue of terrible morale and early retirements has been pretty much ignored.

"The Changes Unwelcome, a Model Teacher Moves On," May 28, 2003 by MICHAEL WINERIP in the New York Times:

"A single high-stakes test score is now measuring Florida's children, leaving little time to devote to their character or potential or talents or depth of knowledge," she wrote.
"Kindergarten teachers throughout the state have replaced valued learning centers (home center, art center, blocks, dramatic play) with paper and pencil tasks, dittos, coloring sheets, scripted lessons, workbook pages."

We are seeing the equivalent of an invasion of schools by the barbarians, yet teachers are somehow expected to grin and bear it. In this decade we will lose the best, the brightest and the most caring teachers as NCLB turns schools into factories and teachers into factory workers. Note February 2005 No Child Left article "Driving Away the Brightest and the Best."

Ironic that a law demanding that classrooms be filled with "quality teachers" is driving them away.

Simple-Minded Idea #16 - Talented new teachers will rush to work in schools that are more like factories than institutions of learning.

Why would anyone want to work as a teacher under these conditions?

NCLB is a simple-minded assault upon the teaching profession suggesting that the main variable influencing student success in school is the effort of the teacher. While a good teacher certainly makes a difference in the lives of children, school performance is also influenced by many factors politicians are unlikely and unwilling to address.

The sad fact is that many elected officials would rather focus on the sins of teachers than the obligations and sins of the parents. We are seeing an unconscionable level of pandering to parents combined with a purposeful blindness to the social and economic causes of poor performance. Congress routinely now ignores the plight of poor people like those stranded in New Orleans. There is no "War on Poverty." There is no safety net. Head Start has never been fully funded.

NCLB puts the entire burden of school reform and educational progress on the educators while ignoring many of the other factors crying out for attention.

The working life of teachers has been changed in many ways that undermine morale and lead to discouragement. The focus on testing and pre-testing had reduced the time available for instruction. The narrow focus of the testing has forced a compression of curriculum that has eliminated much of the enriching and motivating content. The pressurization of the school experience, the elimination of recess, the constant threats and intimidation add up to serious disincentives.

We are facing the grim prospect of veteran teachers retiring early in disgust while potential new talent looks elsewhere for gainful employment. Despite the professed goal of filling every classroom with a qualified teacher, NCLB is likely to do the opposite.

Simple-Minded Idea #17 - Educators don't know what they are doing.

Reversing patterns of poor performance takes great skill and the customization of instruction so that each individual child receives a program tailored to special needs.

The best way to change a non-reader into a reader is to provide intense instruction with a well trained teacher who knows how to diagnose individual patterns and help the child replace ineffective strategies with sound ones.

This kind of skilled instruction is the opposite of the reading programs imposed on schools by NCLB's "Reading First" - an initiative that prefers heavily scripted, standardized programs. Sadly, in many places like San Diego, decades of teacher experience and craft knowledge was discarded as the city picked one approach to literacy instruction that was imposed top down on all teachers and classrooms. "Forget what you know and do it our way!"

It is noteworthy that San Diego fared poorly in the recently released NAEP test results for urban schools.

NCLB has at its core a lack of respect for educators and their knowledge. The lawmakers who passed it have little understanding of the challenges facing teachers and little patience or willingness to learn.

Many of the failures of our schools are deeply rooted in the unbalanced nature of American society, the huge gulf between the living conditions of the haves and the have-nots as well as the separation of races and the isolation of social classes from mainstream American life and resources. The low wage, subsistence fate of many American families undermines the chances of many children to perform well in schools. Despite the lofty goals and promises of the first Bush President, not all children enter kindergarten prepared for school.

We have never funded the poor schools of this nation at a level that would sustain the kind of skilled instruction and attract the kinds of teachers that are needed to make real progress in the effort to reach all children. This effort is much more about capacity building than testing.

Educators have decades of research that NCLB and the politicians tend to ignore. We know what works and how growth can be promoted. We also know that many of these capacity building strategies depend upon the availability of resources that are commonly provided to children in the wealthy suburbs but are usually scarce in the cities and poor rural areas of this nation.

Simple-Minded Idea #18 - Parents and families are not responsible for student performance.

There is a major contribution to school success that we might call home-work. By this term much more is meant than the written assignments sent home by teachers.

Home-work entails nurturing preschoolers emotionally and nutritionally. Home-work involves feeding young ones on good stories, ripe experiences and lots of kisses and warm words of praise and encouragement.

Bus lined up in LA to take workers to suburbs.

Home-work?

Some parents are hard pressed just to survive in this land. They rise early every morning to ride a bus from inner city tenements to wash dishes, sweep floors or clean houses out in the suburbs.

For this they are paid a pittance. They scrape by. They manage just barely, arriving home late and exhausted.

Employment that pays well is hard to find. Those on the margins struggle to pay rent and put some food on the table. Many struggle valiantly and show plenty of courage. Some manage to do the homework mentioned above. Others do not.

A child's success in school will be influenced by whether or not parents do their home-work, make books important, support the growth of healthy children and provide the conditions that help learners to do well.

If families cannot manage their home-work, we might fault the society (and Congress) for failing to provide an economy that sustains well paying jobs and allows companies to export many of the good jobs. We might fault society for abandoning millions to homelessness or substandard housing like many of the homes swept away by recent hurricanes. We might fault the society for allowing high levels of poverty and hunger. We might fault Congress for ignoring these conditions and allowing the social, economic and racial gulfs to widen during the past decade.

Parents and Congress have homework to do if we hope to see all our children move into and through school with success.

Student success depends upon a host of factors joined in a complicated web. NCLB ignores many of those factors and inputs, promising major improvement by focusing attention on just one or two factors: testing and accountability. NCLB is silent when it comes to other factors, and it is quiet on the very important role parents can play in raising children who read well and perform well in school.

Instead of mobilizing parents to do more for their children, NCLB and Congress pander to them, offering school choice and criticism as panaceas.

NCLB and Congress have placed the blame for student difficulties squarely on the shoulders of teachers even when teachers may have been acting heroically and skillfully.

If a child comes from a family that is homeless and hungry, sick and unable to afford health care, NCLB and Congress blame the teacher for low reading scores.

If a child comes from a family that cannot afford child care while both parents work at minimum wage jobs and the children must fend for themselves night after night, NCLB and Congress blame the teacher for low reading scores.

If a child comes from a wealthy family which is emotionally distressed by drug and alcohol related problems, NCLB and Congress blame the teacher for low reading scores.

If a child arrives as an illegal immigrant without speaking English from a third world nation, NCLB and Congress give the school just three years to bring her or him up to speed.

If a child is handicapped, NCLB and Congress ignore the handicap and blame performance problems on the schools and teachers.

It is simple minded and wrong to lay the entire burden on teachers without addressing the social and economic causes of poor school performance.


Parents and Congress have home-work to do.

Simple-Minded Idea #19 - Increased poverty and the growth of low wage jobs have nothing to do with student performance.

Compassionate conservatism is a fraud. There is nothing compassionate about allowing millions to slide further and further into abject poverty. There is nothing compassionate about setting up the economy to benefit employers, weaken unions and undermine decades of progress toward a decent standard of living for all Americans.

While the nation has been preoccupied with terrorism and a costly war in Iraq, social justice and a commitment to social mobility have both been skillfully cast aside into the rubbish bin of history by conservatives who point piously to their church attendance while ignoring the words of the prophets.

Matthew 6:19, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth."

Matthew 19:21, where Jesus advises a rich man: "Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor. . . . It will be hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

We are seeing a redistribution of income from the middle class and underclass to the richest Americans as middle income jobs are exported or eliminated and tax cuts and military expenditures divert funds from government programs that might address our social ills.

We are seeing job growth at the bottom and job loss in the middle.

The social conditions and resources that would support school performance are eroding:

  • Employment
  • Health care
  • Nutrition
  • Transportation
  • Housing
  • Schooling*
*Note: Despite increases in previously small amounts of federal support for schools, these increases have often been diverted to fund annual testing and investment in capacity building has often suffered. Meanwhile, local and state funding of schooling is often plagued by inequities as property rich districts often spend more on children than poor districts. These financial trends often follow racial and social class lines as documented in Jonathan Kozol's latest book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, Random House, 2005.

Congress is currently dominated by those who believe in survival of the fittest. Scrooge would have little trouble winning election in many parts of this nation as the affluent turn their backs on the poor.

The disgrace and shame of this policy is normally well hidden from the evening news, but Katrina put our poorest citizens and their grim living conditions on public display night after night in ways that broke the magic spell of selective news broadcasting and perception management. It should come as no surprise that New Orleans has long been a national leader in depressing statistics, whether it be the homicide rate or school failure. It takes a fool to deny the connection between poverty, segregation and school performance.

New Orleans has dozens of city cousins, urban centers with vast stretches of neglected, desperate blocks that are heavily segregated and economically depressed. If one drives through parts of the District of Columbia, Philadelphia, Detroit, LA and the South Bronx, ones sees slums in an impoverished third world nation. But it is not. It is the USA.

We hide the poor. We ignore them. We turn our cameras elsewhere. We make laws and social policy for the well-to-do. Now that the floods have passed, the cameras have swung their attention back to kidnappings, a scandalous Congressman from near San Diego and the danger of bird flu. We are back to business and media coverage as usual.

Out of sight is out of mind, evidently. Many of the those who were flooded out of New Orleans are yet to find good new homes. Many have settled into crowded, difficult settings no better than the ones they left. FEMA continues to drag along slowly mismanaging the recovery while thousands suffer, mostly off camera.

Fortunately, some members of the press corps were deeply moved by the experience of covering the floods and the disgraceful performance of all three levels of government. Several networks aired shows at the end of November showing how little has been done three months after the storm (ABC - "New Orleans Three Months After Katrina"). Others have followed suit, but these are exceptions to the nightly parade of news stories. Even though the failure to care for the survivors is a scandal and a shame, that story evidently does not have the entertainment value of a kidnapping or a Congressman caught stealing.

The Broken Promise . . .


Send us your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses so they can sleep on air vents, dine in soup kitchens and wander the streets without decent employment.

“The New Colossus,” is a poem that appears on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The original words . . .

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Trying to find some warmth in Washington, D.C.
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Simple-Minded Idea #20 - Congress can push down on one aspect of a complex system without responsibility for other aspects of the system like funding Head Start or programs that generate well paying jobs.


Congress has been negligent.

It has ignored its care-taking responsibilities.

It has allowed the American Dream to fade.

It has invested in crazy, untested schemes like annual testing and AYP.

It has fallen for simple-minded solutions to complex challenges.

It has interfered with matters about which it understands little.

It has imposed regulations worthy of a soviet managed economy.

It has reversed decades of progress.

It has saddled public education with enormous burdens that have diverted teachers from their real work.

It has done untold (as yet) damage to a generation of children.

It has weakened our nation.

It has undermined the basis for a sound and vibrant economy.

It has fostered terrible divisions.

It has weakened the foundations of democracy at home while claiming to export democracy elsewhere.

It has exceeded its constitutional authority.

That said, it is time for Congress to repeal NCLB and restore schools and schooling to a healthy place where Washington supports states in their efforts but stops giving orders, dictating policy and interfering where it does not belong.

It is time for Congress to stop weighing the pig!

© 2005, No Child Left
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.