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NCLB and the Ways of Leaving a Sinking Ship

When the captain says she’s going down, it should not be surprising to see the ship’s officers checking the davits and taking the lifeboat covers off. So here we are, watching the crew react now that Captain Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, has said what the rest of the education world has known for a long time: NCLB is fatally holed and her decks are awash.

The NCLB crew is essentially made up of 50 states. And as part of the abandon ship action, we’re seeing the Council of Chief State School Officers trying to get everyone to line up in an orderly way and evacuate according to their plan (after all, the chiefs have a big stake in related initiatives: the Common Core and national testing). The chiefs’ plan has a number of features amazingly similar to what Duncan has, up to now, not got through Congress. His recent hint at granting state waivers for states adopting his favored notions as a way of circumventing NCLB law has drawn criticism across the board.

Kentucky’s Governor Steve Beshear, however, being the good sailor, is following the chiefs’ “Next Generation Accountability Strategy” by asking Duncan for just such a waiver. The Kentucky request is the first boat launched by the chiefs, and they say more states will follow. Unfortunately, the “Next Generation” is Super-NCLB. It promises to “maintain strong accountability,” be at a “higher level” than NCLB, and initiate “deeper reviews” of low performing schools. That is, it adds even more numbers to the over-testing with growth scores, graduation rates, achievement gap numbers and assessments in other areas. It vaguely promises “bold” action. Rather than relief from NCLB’s troubles, the plan’s reasoning seems to be, “If technocracy didn’t work for NCLB, we need to do more of it!” Somehow, gilding the bottom of a leaky ship and throwing a few more tons of cargo on the deck doesn’t seem to be the best way to keep it from sinking.

Texas, Idaho, and California are not hopping on that lifeboat – but for very different reasons.

Texas is having none of it. They don’t agree with the Chiefs’ philosophical directions, think the Common Core (effectively, a national curriculum) is a bad idea, and have decided not to pay CCSSO dues of $60,000 for a project they don’t want in the midst of a budget crisis. They turned in their Chief’s membership card. Seems they want to rewrite the textbooks in history and economics to put more of a religious and capitalistic emphasis on things.

While Texas’ attention was focused on CCSSO, Idaho has directed its wrath directly at the feds and NCLB. State superintendent Tom Luna, hardly a timid or understated fellow, has informed the feds he’s already gone over the side. He’s set his own test score markers for next year regardless of AYP requirements. Luna has gathered a lot of attention for his hard right approach such as his push to eliminate collective bargaining rights. Whether the captain throws him a life preserver, tries to haul him back on board, or just decides not to notice will be the biggest drama since Utah was reminded by the Bush administration of how nice it would be if they would go along with NCLB and they could keep their federal funds and military bases.

Neither Texas nor Idaho is taking a progressive stand but they nonetheless illustrate the general disgruntlement with federal over-reach and NCLB-style reforms.

Perhaps most noteworthy is California and Governor Jerry Brown, where we see principled stands as well as another example of stepping away from federal dictates. In the budget process, Governor Brown crossed-out the huge cost of a mandated data system, effectively stopping the development of a system that would be used for test-based evaluation of teachers. Perhaps most importantly, Brown speaks with clarity and conviction about the educational reasons for putting on the brakes – the corruption of teaching time by testing, a reform agenda that pushes out teacher creativity, and the wrong-headedness of a Washington driven, top-down standardization with a “pervasive technocratic bias.” Unless we deal with the social and economic conditions that our neediest children carry with them every day, Brown says, we cannot expect true educational reform. Instead of making international competitors, Brown says the goal of education is to make effective citizens and productive members of society.

So, we see different ways of leaving NCLB’s sinking ship. The California approach is the most commendable as its genesis is in sound educational principles rather than the overtly political approaches of Idaho and Texas. Another option is for states to continue to paddle through the muddled waters, shouting false soundings, and pretend to implement a law that everybody knows doesn’t work. The least attractive option is the CCSSO way, which proposes that states adopt a federally approved but underfunded Super-NCLB that magnifies rather than reduces rigid technocratic accountability. However, this is to refloat a roughly patched rust bucket, larded with heavy new machinery.

Bon voyage!

William J. Mathis

William J. Mathis is a Senior Policy Advisor to the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of school...