Federal law designed to fail say educators
Bedford (MA) Standard-Times
July 1, 2004
byt Steve Urbon
No Child Left Behind Act is a clever long-range political ploy
to discredit public education by branding good schools as "failures" and
to drive American education toward vouchers, charter schools -- and even
That's the bitter conclusion reached by the leaders of groups
representing Massachusetts' school committees, teachers unions,
superintendents and administrators
In February, they formed a rare coalition to lobby to rework the
federal law to make it reflect what they see as honest goals and
reasonable sanctions for failing to meet them. But in an editorial board
meeting with The Standard-Times, they said emphatically that the current
system is designed to fail nearly every public school in America, no
matter how good it is.
"I don't think this was an accident," said Phillip F. Flaherty,
assistant director of the Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators
Association. "This (No Child Left Behind Act) was written by very, very
gifted, very bright people."
Glenn S. Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of
School Committees, blamed partisan politics, saying, "The political
right has the patience and the diligence to plot a long-term strategy
and stay focused on it. It's like a corporate mission."
"If the goal is to starve the beast and the beast is the bill for public
education, then you have to create as much of the appearance of
underperformance as you can. And what better vehicles to resegregate
than vouchers (public funding for private education) and charter
schools," Mr. Koocher said.
He and others at the meeting described what it is that is causing the
"angst, which becomes anger, which becomes rage" among educators: the
setting of impossible-to-reach, wish-list outcomes posing as goals, and
the establishment of too-quick triggers to punish "underperforming"
schools before they can correct problems.
Ralph T. Devlin, head of the Massachusetts Teachers Association's Center
for Educational Quality and Professional Development, said the root of
the problem lies in the fine print of the attractively named federal law
(which was a rewrite of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act).
It declared that for the first time, schools were to employ tests to
measure progress and make required annual improvements or be punished.
But to Mr. Devlin, the devil is in the details.
Each state, he said, was left to define what is "proficient." And since
Massachusetts had already put in place the MCAS tests, with their own
definition of "proficient" (about a B-plus or A-Minus), that's where
Massachusetts set the bar. "We got caught up in the rhetoric. Since we
already had 'proficient,' people were unwilling to label anything less
than proficient as 'proficient,'" he said.
So, under the federal law, Massachusetts schools, by their own
strictest-in-America measures, must now show improvement every year, for
every group and subgroup of students, leading to 100 percent proficiency
by 2014, or be labeled "underperforming." That leads to loss of federal
funds as punishment.
Other states were free to -- and did -- set the bar much lower, not only
for student performance, but for teacher certification. For them,
showing annual progress will be much easier, Mr. Devlin said. They
include, he said, "Ohio. And Texas, oddly enough. How about that?"
While Massachusetts demands master's degrees and subject specialization
to keep teachers certified, with penalties for not improving each year,
other states are miles behind. Mr. Devlin said that officials in some
states react to Massachusetts' teaching requirements by exclaiming,
"They have to have college degrees?!"
Designed to fail
Members of the coalition, called MassPartners for Public Schools, say
they support the goals of breaking out data for ethnic and minority
subgroups, to end the practice of hiding discrimination by blending
low-performing students in with the whole population.
But some of the requirements are self-defeating, they say.
For example, students with limited English proficiency are scored as
their own group, required to make "adequate yearly progress." But, Mr.
Devlin pointed out, once they achieve proficiency and score well, they
are no longer counted as members of that group.
Those in that group "can never be proficient, by definition," he said.
Yet they must be, or the whole school is labeled "underperforming" and
"What does this accomplish? Who would design a system like this?" Mr.
Devlin asked. "We're on a failure track."
That is despite the fact that Massachusetts students have been ranked at
the top of the 50 states, the group says in its literature. "The
Massachusetts proficiency standard will make schools and students across
the state look like failures, even though they are among the best in the
country," it wrote.
Mr. Devlin and others said they believe the lower-achieving states, with
weaker definitions of "proficiency," are playing a waiting game,
expecting the uproar from high-achieving states labeled as failures to
result in a rollback of the law or a voucher/charter school push.
Then how did the likes of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy so famously join
President George W. Bush in the law's signing ceremony? By believing
promises of adequate funding that were immediately broken, and by
falling for the trick of removing vouchers from the law and later
slipping them in elsewhere later on, the group contends.
"They snuck vouchers into a bill that came along later," Mr. Koocher said.
Mr. Flaherty identified another facet of the No Child Left Behind Act
that sounds good but rarely works in practice: the ability of a student
in a "failing" school to transfer to one that isn't failing.
The fact is, he and Mr. Devlin said, that most Massachusetts school
systems don't fit that model, with only one to three elementary schools,
a middle school and a high school. There's nowhere to transfer to, and
no room in any case.
Where transfer is possible, it can result in more trouble, he said.
"New York City has had some of the best schools destroyed by
overcrowding by students from bad schools transferring into the good
ones," he said. Meanwhile, "failing" schools become worse as the best
students leave and funding is cut.
Dr. Steve Russell, superintendent of the Dartmouth schools, held back
from some of the harshest political criticism, but emphasized a pattern
he finds disturbing: the relentless criticism of public schools. "I'd
like to see the whole issue of public schools get re-energized," he
said. "But it doesn't seem appropriate to say anything good about public
"There is a degree of reasonableness that we need to bring to the
discussion," he said, adding later, "But there's no evidence of dialogue."
The state Board of Education and Gov. Mitt Romney came under harsh
criticism from Mr. Koocher, who ridiculed the board and said the
governor is "pathologically ambitious," with eyes on the 2008
presidential race, doing nothing to upset the Bush White House.
Mr. Devlin said that should Sen. John F. Kerry be elected president,
change might come soon. ""If Kerry is inaugurated president, there will
probably be a substantial administrative order that will begin to try to
make more reasonable the regulations regarding the implementation of the
law," Mr. Devlin said.
Should Mr. Bush and the GOP prevail, he and the others said, change is
less certain. "This is among the things that drove (Vermont Senator
James) Jeffords out of the party," Mr. Koocher said.
Some states such as Maine, Mr. Flaherty said, have decided to simply opt
out of federal funding rather than allow the federal government to make
impossible rules while supplying just 6 percent or 7 percent of their
The No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Koocher said, "is being brutalized by
a vicious gang of facts."