Federal Education Reform Policy:
World-Class Potential or Tragedy in the Making?
America is at the most significant educational crossroads it has faced since its system of public education took form in the 19th Century. Today's pace and depth of technological change, instantaneous global communication, and social, cultural, and climate change have brought our country to an impending educational crisis. How do we prepare our children for a future that will inevitably be profoundly different than our very familiar past?
That impending crisis is being starkly enacted on Capitol Hill as President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) act is being considered for reauthorization. Senator Edward Kennedy, one of NCLB's initial architects and champions, must be facing one of the toughest decisions of his long career as NCLB's advocates and critics line up to press their respective cases for its continuation, or its strengthening, or its major revision, or its outright abandonment.
The Illusion of a World Class Education
According to Kennedy's March 26 editorial in The Washington Post, NCLB's original fundamental purpose was ". . . to guarantee every child in America, regardless of race, economic background, language or disability, the opportunity to get a world-class education." The term "world-class education" implies that our young people will be fully prepared for the complex social and intellectual challenges of democratic citizenship and career contribution emerging in our ever-evolving global economy and complex multi-cultural world.
But that's not what NCLB delivers. When translated into NCLB-style "reality," this noble goal gets reduced to meaning: scores on two widely criticized paper-pencil basic skills tests per year - one in reading, and one in math - just enough to supposedly measure if students are "proficient" in those fundamental abilities, and just enough to qualify them for low-end, low-paying jobs. In other words, Americans are being asked to believe that basic skills test scores are the equivalent of a world-class education!
Never mind this profound inconsistency and insult to our collective intelligence, NCLB's key advocates are so enamored with its "accountability" provisions, that little else seems to matter. But it should. Ask any competent educator, and they will tell you that NCLB does nothing to promote a host of things that should comprise the basics of a world-class education: no creative and critical thinking; no future-focused curriculum, student inventiveness and entrepreneurship; no global understanding and cooperation; no personal health and well-being; no greater connection to the complex world of work; no learner-responsive opportunities and experiences; no incentives for attracting talented teachers into the system; no environmental and ecological awareness; and no strengthening leadership and community engagement at the local level.
NCLB's Accountability Juggernaut
No, the engine that drives NCLB, embodies its essence, and inspires its advocates is "Accountability" writ large and imposed from on high (i.e., the U.S. Department of Education). NCLB makes individual schools and educators pay a dear price if their students do not reach specific "high stakes" test-score benchmarks within specified amounts of time. Those stakes: lose your job, lose your school, and/or lose your federal funding - no excuses, and no questions asked - even if your students can't speak English at the beginning of the school year or have serious learning disabilities.
Certainly, many of America's lowest performing schools need drastic improvement, and some kind of enlightened accountability process to assist them. But NCLB's heavy-handed and mechanistic approach to accountability is actually making it more difficult than ever for our schools to be world-class by any reasonable measure of that term.
How do you become world-class when your federal "reform" strategy actually is: 1) driving experienced and talented educators out of the system; 2) creating enormous discontinuity in some schools' staffing and disconnection with their students and parents; 3) ignoring the inherent humanity, talents, and uniqueness of the individual learner; 4) reducing "the learning that matters" in the 21st Century to annual scores on highly limited and limiting paper-pencil tests; 5) ignoring mountains of research on brain functioning, learning processes, and child development; 6) forcing reductions in the richness and depth of curriculum and learning experiences students are receiving; 7) imposing a narrow, single-method approach to instruction on the diversity of learners and schools; 8 ) preventing those experts with a richer approach to learning and instruction from working in or assisting schools in their improvement efforts; 9) overriding community input regarding school goals, priorities, and operations; and 10) eliminating incentives for schools to innovate in ways that serve their particular clientele?
Despite the Administration's rhetoric to the contrary, these glaring shortcomings are so extensive, damaging, and future-threatening that America's parents, students, educators, and business leaders should all be clamoring for Senator Kennedy and Congressman George Miller to drastically overhaul both NCLB and the rigid, archaic thinking that underlies its current implementation. There are countless citizens, educators, and researchers in the country eager to make enlightened contributions to this policy dialogue and to the fulfillment of Senator Kennedy's dream for a world-class public system that guarantees 21st Century outcomes for all its students and schools. Their active engagement should be encouraged to help avoid the serious tragedy that NCLB has already become.
Dr. William Spady writes, lectures, and consults across the world on issues of educational change, leadership development, and personal empowerment. His 2001 book Beyond Counterfeit Reforms offers a concrete, transformational alternative to Industrial Age educational practices. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org