Exit Strategies

Finding the way out of Iraq and NCLB

By Stan Karp

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Illustration: Michael Duffy

Assuming the planet survives the remaining months of the George W. Bush era, 2008 will bring a presidential campaign and renewed debate over federal education policy. The last time this happened, Bush dropped bombs on Iraq and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on the public schools, reminders that it’s never too early to be on the lookout for “weapons of mass destruction.”

Early campaigning has been dominated by fundraising, media hype, and what Bush Sr. once called “the vision thing.” None of the candidates has issued major policy statements on education or made it a centerpiece of their domestic proposals (as, for example, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton have done with health care.) But the candidates’ positioning on the campaign’s central issue — Iraq — may offer some indications of what to expect when it comes to revisiting federal education policies that have been radically altered by NCLB.

The war is forcing all candidates to position themselves somewhere between Bush’s disastrous imperial venture and growing antiwar sentiment. Majority popular opinion is now firmly on the side of withdrawing U.S. troops, the sooner, the better, and fewer people than ever seem to share Hillary Clinton’s reluctance to admit that the war was a mistake that should have never been authorized. On the Republican side, the candidate most closely identified with Bush’s policies, John McCain, appears to be sinking from the weight.

But Congressional Democrats are also finding out how difficult it is to clearly define an alternative strategy when you share many of the essential premises of the administration’s foreign policy and its so-called “war on terror.” This hollow rhetorical framework has replaced “the war on communism” as the all-purpose rationale for pursuing elite military and corporate interests, up to and including preemptive war, regime change, and unilateral violation of international law and human rights. None of the major party presidential candidates (with the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich) has explicitly rejected the premises of the “war on terror.” The two Democratic front-runners, Clinton and Barack Obama, regularly pledge to continue it more effectively. (See, for example, Obama’s March 7 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Even Edwards, who speaks compellingly about the need to reduce global poverty as “a matter of U.S. national security,” has threatened military action against Iran and defended the status quo in the Middle East.

All the candidates want to redeploy American troops from Iraq to Afghanistan or elsewhere in the region to protect U.S. oil interests and shore up client regimes. All have endorsed giving “benchmarks” to the Iraqi government as a condition of ongoing U.S. aid. This use of the jargon of educational assessment to cobble together an “Exit Strategy” from Iraq has particular irony for teachers. The U.S. launched unprovoked military aggression against a repressive regime it had helped prop up for years. It followed its invasion with a brutal and corrupt occupation that has precipitated suicidal sectarian strife and inevitable armed resistance at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and casualties. And now the architects of this disaster want to impose “benchmarks” — standards and tests — on the occupied victims. Another “high stakes exit exam” imposed from afar by the powers that be.

What does any of this have to do with education policy? Consider NCLB. Like the original authorization for the Iraq war, NCLB was endorsed in Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. Bush built the NCLB coalition by merging the mainstream consensus around standards and tests with the conservative agenda of privatization and market reform, much as he was able to line up Democrats anxious to prove their national security credentials behind the neocon crusade to remake the world after 9/11.

“Leave no child behind” was a rhetorical counterpart to “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Though both policies have led to disasters of different dimensions and generated widespread popular opposition, Bush demands that we “stay the course” on both fronts. Unfortunately his would-be successors are failing to break with the premises of these policies in too many ways and limiting their ability to offer real alternatives.

For instance, speaking to an audience of teachers in New Hampshire last March, Clinton passionately bashed NCLB. “While the children are getting good at filling in all those little bubbles, what exactly are they really learning?” she asked. “How much creativity are we losing? How much of our children’s passion is being killed?” She also denounced NCLB’s supplemental tutoring sanctions which funnel federal funds to largely unregulated private providers, declaring, “This is Halliburton all over again …We have these contracts going to these cronies who are chosen largely on a political basis, and we have nothing to show for it.”

Tough words. But Clinton voted for the law in 2001. In fact she helped lay the groundwork for it by supporting two decades of summits and business roundtables that enshrined top-down standards and tests as the keys to school improvement. Clinton has blamed all NCLB’s failures on mismanagement and underfunding from the Bush Administration, but when not on the stump, she admits she’ll vote for reauthorizing it with vague allusion to unspecified “improvements.” Maybe Clinton still thinks it “takes a village to raise a child,” but so far she’s mainly voted for giving them tests.

Similarly, Obama tells his audiences, “No Child Left Behind left the money behind.” But he also talks about “the things that were good about No Child Left Behind,” like high standards “because U.S. children will have to compete for jobs with students from countries with more rigorous schools.” Obama has flirted with vouchers (“I am not close-minded on this issue.”) and merit pay, declaring teachers have “got to get more pay, but there’s also going to be more accountability…the accountability can’t just be based on standardized test performance only, but that has to be part of the mix…”

Illustration: Michael Duffy

This is not to minimize the very real differences that are certain to emerge among parties and candidates over education issues including college aid, vouchers, federal funding levels, and other matters. But the overwhelming federal education issue is NCLB and the test-and-punish regime it’s imposing from Washington on every school and district in the country. The heart of any “peace proposal” to end this “war on the public schools” must be an end to the federal mandate to test every student every year in every grade from 3 to 8 and once in high school. But so far the presidential candidates don’t seem to get it.

NCLB’s “escalation” of testing has forced schools to give some 65 million mandated tests on top of the millions they were already giving. When the law was passed in 2002, 19 states gave annual reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8. Today, under federal mandate, all 50 do. Thanks to NCLB, a large, diverse K-8 school now has 240 ways to fail every year. (The number will rise if a proposal to count the new science tests passes.1)

The tests themselves have become a major obstacle to improving struggling schools. They are not providing useful data for better instruction; they are providing junk data for bad policy or telling us what we already know: that public schools are swamped by the same inequality that exists all around them. Testing every kid every year and measuring the results against benchmarks that no real schools have ever met is not an “accountability” system. It’s an enabling instrument for imposing privatizing sanctions and pushing more democratic and promising school improvement strategies to the sidelines. One activist compared NCLB’s out-of-control testing plague to the difference between giving a patient a blood test and draining the patient’s blood.

If the real goal was tracking the limited range of achievement progress that standardized tests can capture and spotlighting gaps among student groups, states could develop variations of the sampling techniques the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has used for years. (In fact Maryland did this until NCLB’s testing requirements killed it.) Often called the “nation’s report card,” NAEP provides comparative data about schools and groups across states and grade levels without testing every student every year. And while there are limits and problems with NAEP, as there are with all standardized tests, the use of sampling and restrictions on using the data to impose high stakes penalties on individual students and schools suggest ways to avoid the suffocating nightmare that NCLB’s adequate yearly progress system has become. (In contrast, there are those who would like to make NAEP a universal national test tied to national curriculum standards, part of what education reporter John Merrow calls a “surge strategy for NCLB” recommended by Republican candidate and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson among others.)

Rolling back NCLB’s testing mandates and ending the link between test scores and punitive sanctions are the minimum but mandatory exit strategies for getting out of the NCLB mess. Yet Clinton and Obama have had little specific to say about these crucial details, even though they’re both on the Senate Education Committee that’s handling NCLB’s reauthorization. (So far neither has responded publicly to a February letter sent by ten Democratic Senators to Education Committee Chairman Ted Kennedy declaring that, “We have concluded that the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind in their current form are unsustainable and must be overhauled significantly during the reauthorization process beginning this year.” (Obama signed a similar letter in 2006.)

To be sure, other strategies will be needed to tackle the very real problems of struggling schools that NCLB has ignored or made worse. (For some specifics, see the recommendations from the Forum On Educational Accountability www.fairtest.org/FEA_Home.html). But as with Iraq, the first step toward a saner policy on NCLB is for would-be leaders to listen to the growing grassroots chorus calling on them to reverse the failing policies that helped create the mess we’re in.

1NCLB sets passing and participation rates for up to 10 student groups in every grade for each test. In addition to annual math and language arts tests in grades 3–8, schools are now required to give a science test at least once in grades K–5, 6–9, and 10–12, though the science scores are not yet used to calculate “adequate yearly progress.”

Stan Karp (stan.karp@gmail.com) is an editor of Rethinking Schools.