At one point during the third presidential debate, John Kerry pointed out that George W. Bush failed to answer a question about job losses. After quickly advising laid off workers to go back to school, the president simply bragged at length about his public school education initiative, the so-called No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Bush never did explain how improving the education of young children helps their parents find jobs.
Kerry might have used his nuanced analytical abilities to make two needed comments. First, education is not the all-purpose cure that mainstream public figures claim it is. The individual pursuit of yet one more degree can’t compensate for structural economic inequality even if it enables one laid-off worker to beat another laid-off worker for one of the few remaining jobs. And second, instead of raising public school education to a higher level, No Child Left Behind is really designed to achieve the opposite. But Kerry made neither point.
Directly challenging the notion that more education is always a sufficient policy response would have run counter to America’s individualist ideology. And exposing No Child Left Behind as the elitist, corporate-initiated sham that it is would have been indelicate, given that Kerry himself voted for it. So the Massachusetts senator just repeated his routinely weak criticism: the problem with NCLB is that Bush never funded it as promised. Instead of pledging to end NCLB’s attack on public education, Kerry merely said he would make sure the law is fully funded.
Education is a wonderful thing, but different kinds of education lead to different results. Many parents want their children not only to learn the basics — to read and do math and obtain other skills they’ll need for college and jobs — but to learn how to think more effectively about complex issues. Indeed, advocates of public education have long argued that just such an outcome is crucial in a diverse democratic society.
Wrestling with complexity is a skill that schools can teach. It means letting students study topics in depth rather than skirt disconnected topics superficially. It means drawing connections between different areas of study rather than studying each in isolation. And it means acknowledging that some questions — particularly value questions — have no unambiguously right answers, only opposing positions with very different societal consequences.
Many parents and legislators support the federal No Child Left Behind plan and the many similar state plans that preceded it because they mistakenly believe drastic action is necessary to fix our schools. We’ve all grumbled at cashiers who can’t make change when the cash register breaks. Yet American public schools that receive adequate funding do well when compared with those in other countries. Our schools’ problems have more to do with drastic income gaps between rich and poor districts than they do with anything else.
The forces behind state and federal “education reform” know this very well. Indeed, they want to make sure public schools focus on basics so that more high school graduates can manage that cash register and read their job assignments when they show up for their shift at Walmart. But teaching public school kids to think critically about the world around them? That’s not on the corporate agenda. After all, that’s what private school does, for those who can afford it.
No Child Left Behind requires public schools (but not private schools) to test all students every year from third grade on. Every school must make “adequate yearly progress” toward 100 percent student proficiency by the year 2014. If even one subcategory fails (limited English-speaking, disabled, poor, racial and ethnic categories) or has fewer than 95 percent of its students take the test, the entire school fails. A second failure in a row — even by a different subgroup the second year — invokes sanctions ranging from letting students transfer to other schools (most of which will also soon “fail”) to firing teachers to replacing local school officials with state bureaucrats. According to education researchers, NCLB ensures that every state will eventually conclude its schools are so bad they must either be taken over or privatized. We’ll end up with back-to-basics public schools for the poor and middle class and a few elite public schools — and lots of private ones — preparing wealthier children to aim well above Walmart.
Kerry might have pointed this out.
Dennis Fox is on leave from the University of Illinois at Springfield, where he is Associate Professor of Legal Studies and Psychology. His nonacademic work, available through his website and blog, has been published in dozens of online and print outlets, including Salon, the Boston Globe, Education Week, Tikkun, Progressive Populist, ZNet, CounterPunch, AlterNet, and Common Dreams. He has written previously on issues related to high-stakes testing.